anti-satellite missile launch
Whether military or civil operations, the US has been following the satellite-based strategy since the dawn of the space age - Representational image Reuters

With increasing geopolitical differences, the possibility of an international war between US and Russia or China can be deterred but not ignored. The biggest superpowers on the planet have developed their defences in every way possible, but in the era of military controlled space programs, US could be facing some serious damage owing to its heavy dependence on satellite-based systems.

Whether military or civil operations, the United States has been following the satellite-based strategy since the dawn of the space age. The country is technically equipped to deal with all kinds of threats, provided their space assets remain untouched.

It is highly plausible that either China or Russia, which are known for taking advantage of not only their own strengths but also the weaknesses of their potential adversaries, can use anti-satellite missiles to achieve their ultimate goal of deterring US military intervention without firing a single shot. These missiles will not do any damage on the ground but could easily cripple US military's communication, coordination, navigation, and surveillance systems by incapacitating or destroying their satellites in geostationary Earth orbit.

"If you were an adversary attacking the US, you'd start by attacking satellites," said Peter Singer, a senior fellow at nonpartisan think tank New America. "The first shots in a war between the US and China or Russia, no one would likely hear".

Counter space programs

On 11 January 2007, China successfully destroyed its defunct weather satellite, FY-1C, at an altitude of 537 miles using SC-19 ASAT missile with a kinetic kill war head. The test drew world condemnation due to a large amount of debris generated, but for the People's Republic of China, it was a part of its coherent counter space strategy, which went far beyond the goal of developing better and new ASATs. Over next few years, they pacified the outcry over debris generation and switched to non-destructive and little debris-generating tests for direct-ascent ASAT developments in 2010, 2013, and 2014.

According to a 2015 report from the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission, "Since 2008, China has tested increasingly complex space proximity capabilities," and its "recent space activities indicate it is developing co-orbital anti-satellite systems to target U.S. space assets".

Just like China, Russia has also been conducting a bunch of anti-satellite missile tests. Though not as successful historically, the country has proven its revamped outer space might with at least five anti-satellite missile tests in last few years. Most recently, it launched PL-19 Nudol missile from the Plesetsk Cosmodrome test launch facility.

The amount of investment in ASAT capabilities is a clear threat to US agencies and companies, which have at least 500 satellites (100 for military purposes) in space.

US leading, but ineffectively

The US, which successfully shot down a failing satellite using a ship-mounted SM-3 Standard Missile in 2008, is still way ahead in its ASAT program. But, despite being ahead in the territory, the country would not want to go to war with space-capable powers. According to a report from Business Insider, Chinese and Russians are still using analogue systems in their older military assets and could retaliate even if their satellite systems are crippled.

As of now, America's strength is its liability, but with dated analogue technology moving towards an exit in coming years, it could soon be a level playing field for all space-capable superpowers. Militaries and much of the world's economy are likely to be more dependent on the information and communication systems supported by satellites in the orbit. And, protecting these assets will become the highest priority for all nations.