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Joint Air & Space Power Conference 2018

The Fog of Day Zero – Joint Air & Space in the Vanguard

Conference Read Ahead

Potential Counter-Space Scenarios on Day Zero

By Lieutenant Colonel Tim Vasen, DEU A

Lieutenant Colonel Tim Vasen (DEU Army) is a Subject Matter Space Expert at the Joint Air Power Competence Centre. He has a broad background in several ISR and Intel positions. In his previous positions he was responsible for Space Intel at the German Space Situational Awareness Centre (GSSAC).



Today, all nations rely on modern technology, and Space systems in particular, for support that is fundamental to all our activities (consider the importance of satellite communications, the Internet etc …). We must recall the critical support Space-based systems provide for military operations, such as communication (SATCOM), position, navigation and timing (PNT), intelligence (ISR) and early warning (OPIR) 1. Without these Space supported tools it would be almost impossible to safely and effectively conduct any military operation.

This article aims to stimulate thought about the importance of the ‘resilience‘’ of Space-based services, especially when considering NATO does not own any Space assets but relies on Space services provided by NATO member Nations.

This article is based on the experiences of US strategic simulations of threats against Space systems and the consequences on warfighting and civil life with reduced capabilities. It will analyze a possible scenario in three steps, starting from all possible actions accomplished by a Near Peer opponent in preparation of ‘Day Zero’, through the ‘Fog of Day Zero‘ and, in the last part, analyzing the scenario of an armed conflict where the Space domain and services are highly affected by the opponent.

Although the scenario uses realistic and established capabilities, only those published in unclassified publications were used. The actions that ultimately bring about war in the Space domain could be seen as a blueprint for actions around Day Zero of a technically highly developed opponent, determined to reduce NATO’s technical advantages in warfighting. Another source, included experience from the NATO Trident series exercises of the years 2016 to 2018 and, again, the information was from unclassified publications. Finally, the findings from the same sources are referenced with respect to the dependence on and vulnerability regarding Space-related services.

Step 1: In Preparation of Day Zero

When a Near Peer Opponent comes to the point where to enter into conflict with a NATO country is imminent, it will most likely start by using pre-deployed Space-based ISR systems to prepare the battlefield, collecting data to gather information about infrastructure and armed forces as well as for mapping purposes. These actions, if they do not include orbital manoeuvres and rely mostly on passive sensors, are not detectable by NATO member states.

The Near Peer Opponent is capable of using several Counter Space actions against NATO Space-based and Space related infrastructure. Knowing that NATO member states also have the option of Counter Space actions, it will increase the training and education in standby systems and actions to get an advantage on the battlefield when no Space support is available.

It could be observed that a higher launch rate restores or replaces older Space systems or capabilities. It is possible that in larger constellations, like PNT systems, spare satellites are launched. All these actions will be supported by media and political statements that the new systems are only for national purposes or go in line with planned commercialization. It is unlikely at this time, prior to Day Zero, that orbits especially designed for the upcoming battlefield would be used.

If the Near Peer Opponent has launch on-demand systems, equipped with mostly ISR payloads, the production rate will be raised to have several systems available to either restore damaged or destroyed capabilities in a short timeline or to intensify capabilities over the battlefield using specially designed orbits for that purpose.

Particular forces, regular (Special Operation Forces (SOF)) as well as irregular (unmarked and known as ‘little green men’ or partisans), are trained and equipped with special jamming and spoofing capabilities to be used inside the attacked NATO country.

Step 2: The Fog of Day Zero

SOF teams infiltrate the targeted country. Some of them are equipped with PNT spoofing systems to target critical lines of communication and try to cause accidents and casualties by altering navigation positions. Commercial shipping or civil air travel could be the initial target.

In parallel, irregular forces locate positions where the use of PNT or SATCOM jammers could cause the greatest possible disturbance to civil life. There could be attack plans prepared against Space related ground infrastructure to be executed on order.

If the Near Peer Opponent has, for its own defence, the option to establish strong Anti-Access/Area Denial (A2/AD) bastions, highly capable PNT jammers will be included, to prevent the use of precision-guided ammunition and to hinder NATO operations.

Some military satellites of the Near Peer Opponent in GEO2 and LEO3 release small satellites that are declared as inspector satellites to observe possible damage to foreign systems that have been detected by the Near Peer Opponents’ Space surveillance network. They execute orbit changing manoeuvres and bring themselves in co-orbital positions to threaten potential NATO and commercial satellites.

Cyber-attacks against Space related infrastructure are initiated.

Step 3: Day Zero and After

With the start of the border crossing operation by the Near Peer Opponent, massive jamming and dazzling campaigns are launched across the full spectrum. In the area of operation, GPS PNT signals are jammed in all frequencies, suppressing the whole service. NATO forces that have to use the GPS service, by doctrine, can no longer operate effectively. Meanwhile, the Near Peer Opponent can rely on its own PNT system because it uses different frequencies. The same goes for the SATCOM services; Jamming is intended to disable these communication systems while cutting the C2 of the NATO Armed Forces. If there are no redundant radio or cable-based systems available, the impact is significant. To deny the use of ISR satellites, Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) sensors are jammed and Electro-Optical (EO) sensors get dazzled by low power, directed energy weapons. The Cyber-attacks against Space related infrastructure and services are increased.

Meanwhile, the forward-deployed spoofing systems as well as the PNT jammers operated by SOF and irregular forces, are used inside the attacked country. In particular, the small PNT jammers, used by irregular forces in or near cities, airports or military-related logistical facilities, have a major impact on civil life. These impact financial transfers, use of ATM machines, credit cards as well as traffic control, because these services are controlled and coordinated by the GPS PNT system. To enhance the disruption, a massive media campaign as well as political campaigns are initiated to slow down the political processes.

According to the reaction from NATO in the Space domain, all Counter Space actions remain reversible at that time. Reversible in this case means that all the used counter-Space actions do not cause permanent damage to Space systems, the impacts are only temporary and timely as well as regional discriminated.

The absence of Space-based ISR data causes a capability gap. Intel information acquired through Space systems is not available to the decision makers. At a critical moment, the reduced Space services have a significant negative impact on the decision-making process as well as on the planning and executing of military operations. Additionally, the time to prepare decisions increases. Commercial imagery services have to be consulted but could be affected by Counter-Space means as well. The situation is the same for the communication services. Proven procedures for national, military and security data transfer are no longer available. Civilian life is also impacted as communication system services are reduced. The standing backup procedure is to use commercial assets or capacities for national purpose but this is challenging because the commercial market tries to fill its gaps first. The massive effects on civil life and inevitable economic impacts from the degraded Space services result in a ‘battle’ for the remaining capabilities. Attacks are also carried out against the GPS PNT system, which is degraded in several areas and not usable for precise military actions. The lack of accuracy of the GPS system could also cause the first casualties by friendly fire due to unsafe use of precision-guided ammunition as a result of spoofing. While NATO weapon systems rely, doctrinally, on the GPS navigation system, the proven standards will not work. The advantage is gained by the Near Peer Opponent for a short to medium time period, but this could very likely lead to a successful military operation and gaining a strong position for the upcoming political and military actions.

To leave nuclear deterrence as the last resort, there will be no attacks nor even jamming/blinding or other attempts on the OPIR architecture of NATO by the Near Peer Opponent, as long as their own OPIR infrastructure is not targeted. From the perspective of deterrence, and in accordance with doctrine, the attack on OPIR infrastructure could be interpreted as comparable to a ‘nuclear’ attack.

When NATO also uses Counter-Space actions against the Near Peer Opponent’s Space infrastructure, with the exception of OPIR, to reduce the advantage, the near Peer Opponent will likely conduct irreversible Counter-Space actions. That means the already deployed co-orbital satellites attack the threatened NATO satellites, likely disable them. There will be also directed energy weapons and missile based interceptors used against NATO and commercial satellites, supporting NATO, aiming to damage and destroy them. All these actions will additionally create a large amount of Space debris that threatens all satellites because of a higher risk of collision. Pre-planned attacks against ground infrastructure, by irregular forces, SOF or even precision-guided ammunition (as long as PNT services are available) could be expected. Cyber-attacks and media campaigns are ongoing. To fill the gap to acquire relevant, intelligence products for decision-making, the Near Peer Opponent uses its launch on-demand services to get back the initiative against NATO for a short or special timeframe.

Meanwhile, the Space war engulfs the whole world when the interruption of PNT services causes a lot of major disruptions of all worldwide traffic- and traffic management systems. The general public recognizes the situation by their degraded TV and mobile phone services and non-functioning ATM machines. There will also likely be major impacts on stock markets as well as on global trade.


From the NATO perspective, Space Support to NATO operations is essential, which means that the loss of capabilities or services could have a major effect on NATO operations. NATO as an organization does not own any satellites, it has to rely on services, provided by national assets of member states. All Space assets will remain under national control by doctrine. However, the assets are also used for national purposes and normally respond to national requirements first. The ‘guaranty’ of Space related services for NATO operations, when required, is not fixed by negotiations or memorandums in general. Currently, the Spacefaring NATO member states have agreed to provide Space services, but it has to be negotiated for every new operation. Furthermore, concepts such as ‘coordination’ and ‘redundancy’ need to be carefully considered, negotiated and potentially applied by NATO and NATO Nations. NATOs role in order to build ‘resiliency’ throughout all Space-based services is to find a way to establish a guaranty of service.

This article describes a worst case scenario and should serve as a ‘heads up’ to what is possible and what could be expected. Although Space Support to operations plays a significant role, backup services have to be developed and exercised. According to the role of NATO, it should encourage its member states in improving the technical and organizational resiliency of its Space systems.

Finally, consideration should be given to any possible action taken by an entity in order to limit/disable NATO member states Space assets. Once identified that an action has been taken by an entity, it should be determined whether it is a hostile act against a NATO Nation, significant enough to invoke the Article 5 of NATO Treaty. Should NATO reconsider Article 5 as it pertains to Space assets in particular?


  • W. Scott, M. Coumatos, and W. Birnes, ’Space Wars: The first six hours of World War III’, Forge Books, Apr. 2007.
  • W. Scott, M. Coumatos, and W. Birnes, ‘Counter Space: The next hours of World War III’, Forge Books, Oct. 2009.
  • J. Patrick and F. Giudice, ‘The key role of Space Support to NATO Operations’, in Three Swords Journal, Joint Warfare Center (JWC), Jul. 2017.
  • Author’s personal experiences during execution of Trident Javelin 17 exercise, as well as supporting Trident Juncture 16 and preparation of Trident Juncture 18.
1. OPIR: Overhead Persistence Infrared
2. GEO: Geo-stationary Earth Orbit
3. LEO: Low Earth Orbit