What Nations Can Destroy The International Space Station?

What nations could currently destroy the ISS? Currently meaning right now in March, 2014. The reasons why are irrelevant. Assume the nation’s government is backing the attack and has complete access to all national resources, rather than a rogue general acting on his own.

Here are the qualifiers:

  1. The attack must happen within 48 hours of the decision to do so.

  2. The method of attack doesn’t matter: ground based laser systems, missiles from ship, shore, aircraft, or spaced based weapons to include steering a satellite on a collision course.

  3. The ISS is either outright destroyed or the crew is killed and the ISS is sufficiently damaged that it realistically could not be repaired or salvaged.

What nations have this immediate capability and what methods or systems would they use?

Probably just the U.S. and China on that short of time frame.


I would assume the Russians can too - I’d assume they could smash a Soyuz into it (though that might not count under the 48 hour rule), but they also have ICBMs - can’t they just lob one up pretty close and then detonate it nearby?

In the next 48 hours? None. No nation has that kind of ASAT capability ready to deploy at short notice.

Given a few weeks or more to prepare? The US, Japan, China, Russia, the ESA, the Ukraine, perhaps India or Iran, and of course SpaceX and Orbital Sciences (if we’re considering independent actors, though both would currently launch from faculties controlled by the United States through either NASA or the USAF). It doesn’t require a kinetic interceptor or nuclear weapon to effectively destroy the ISS. All you’d have to do is intercept it with enough momentum to break the relatively delicate connections between the modules or impart more angular momentum than the ACS system can correct for, and it will come apart like a cheap gold watch, soon to disintegrate as it is dragged and decelerated in the thermosphere.

The ISS is more vulnerable than a Bradley Fighting Vehicle in a free fire zone.


With this option, I’d say that any country with their own members on board right now might feasibly be able to kill off the other members if they do it carefully.
According to wiki, as of right now, there’s one Japanese Member, one American Member and one Russian. It seems that all it would take it for one of them to kill the other two and then go to town destroying the innards to meet option #3.
I’m sure it would take a while, but I’ll bet one person could make it unusable in a matter of hours*, or at least before another ship could get up there and dock.

IMO he’d be wise to first start by turning whatever key com links they have that’ll keep ground control guessing for a few hours or days and then destroy the places where other ships dock so even if they do come up (which I’m sure would take quite a while) they couldn’t actually do anything. After that, he would have to utterly destroy the interior. Doing millions or billions of dollars of damage. Probably as much as he can until he runs out of food or water and dying. This would, or course, be a suicide mission.

Unless he went up with this in mind, I’d wager a guess that eventually people would decide that some how he was poisoned by something in the environment and wasn’t thinking clearly.
I know this isn’t what you were thinking, but it worked for me.

*ETA, rethinking it, he may be able to make it ‘unusable’ in a matter of hours. But it would probably take considerably longer for one person to do enough damage for them to decide to just scrap it.

What would stop you from launching an ICBM? You don’t have to match orbits, you merely have to get the altitude of the projectile high enough for an interception. (that is, the ICBM warhead bus would pass within a few kilometers of the much faster moving station)

I suppose fusing might be a problem : you’d have to jury rig a detonator that would accept a radio signal from the ground and start a timer.

Although ICBMs will exceed the altitude of the ISS at apogee, for the most part they don’t have anything like the same inclination, which means they aren’t many opportunties which are close to the programmed trajectories. ICBMs and SLBMs are highly optimized for their particular missions and, frankly, are designed using 1970s era guidance systems (1980s for the D-5 UGM-133A ‘Trident II’) so ‘reprogramming’ a Minuteman or Trident guidence system for an ISS intercept is a non-trivial exercise which would require far more than 48 hours to perform. (Orbital space launch vehicles based upon using former ICBM motors or stages such as the Minotaur IV or Titan-23G throw away the existing missile guidanc system and replace it with a more modern guidance control assembly.) And passing ‘a few kilometers’ away from the station is as useless as swinging at a baseball and ‘barely missing’; weapon arming systems rely on passing a set of inhibit latches which include accelerometers which indicate reentry conditions specifically so the weapon doesn’t go off on ascent. These are built into the weapon system itself and cannot be readily disabled. Another issue is that a nuclear detonation in space is an unimpressive event; without the atmosphere to absorb and thermalize the radiation, the weapon effects are highly limited and will do little or no damage to the station at a distance of a few kilometers. A physical intercept, or some other form of converting and directing energy would be necessary to make a near-pass cause significant damage to the station.

On the other hand, a payload of ball bearings, placed into an intercept orbit with the ISS and dispersed with a relatively small explosive charge, could shread the station past any useability without requiring hit-to-kill accuracy. But ICBMs are not designed to carry big bags of ball bearings, and you’d have to build some kind of payload bus designed to perform this task.


I don’t know, I assumed it would be pretty hard to get within that few km that you need with a target traveling 8 km/s relative to you.

I mean, it’s clearly possible, as dedicated anti-satellite systems show, but I would have guessed that an ICBM designed to hit targets on the ground couldn’t cut it. A modern ICBM will get you within 100 m of your target on the ground, but your target on the ground isn’t moving at orbital speeds. Plus, as you said, the warhead isn’t really designed to be detonated in space.

The scariest part of doing this would be that fusing system. With only 48 hours, you’d basically be using breadboards and off the shelf components all hastily soldered together. Also, you’d have to bypass most of the warheads safety mechanisms, on purpose. Then your kludged together assembly rides a rocket and you hope that it doesn’t short and lets you improperly arm and detonate a nuclear warhead…

Still, if the stakes were high enough, it would be worth it.

Assuming he could kill or incapacitate the other two easily enough, the crewmember could probably just start a fire and bug out in the escape capsule. Not sure how easy it is to start a fire on the ISS, but it can’t be that hard. Hell, I set a microwave on fire trying to make lunch one time, and I didn’t even have intent there.

Just wanted to say I love this bit of lateral thinking.

Of course, this also leaves open the possibility of blackmail by any number of outside agencies with the ability to threaten astronauts’ love ones, as well.

Interesting, could you discuss further? I would have thought the major superpowers would have war game scenarios where an obvious objective is to knock out the opposition’s satellites within the first hour of operations. Everyone has ICBMs manned 24/7, are there not similar banks of anti-satellite missiles on call? Or would the on-call nature be unnecessary on countries with nukes and overkill on countries without them?

In a more innovative solution, I’m guessing the private market with folks like Richard Branson could have it down in a day if given a $10B check. Hell, they’re already supplying the ISS a fractions of the cost that NASA could.

Although the capability to destroy satellites exists by any power which can loft spacecraft to orbit and perform precision intercept maneuvers or just spread a metric shitton of debris across the well-defined orbital paths of existing satellites, no nation is openly fielding ASAT capability. Current intelligence and informed speculation suggests that several nations are developing specific capabilities e.g. the Chinese 2007 ASAT demonstration and various technologies developed as part of Project 863, the American shoot down of the NROL-21 payload using a highly modified SM-3 (different avionics, additional upper stage, modified MKV seeker), Bold Orion and AGM-135 air-launched interceptors, various Soviet-era directed energy blinding systems, but as of right now there does not appear to be any operational ASAT systems that are ready for deployment and use on short notice.

Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic operates the SpaceShipTwo vehicle, which is an air-launched suborbital “spaceplane” powered by a low performing hybrid propellant rocket engine. The vehicle, which is being designed by The Spaceship Company (formerly a joint venture with Rutan’s Scaled Composites but now a wholly owned subsidiary of Galactic) is carried to altitude by the WhiteKnightTwo and then fires the engine to loft itself just a bit above the Karman line, which is 100 km above mean sea level (AMSL). The ISS orbits at an average altitude of around 400 km AMSL, so you can see that there is quite a difference in height and energy, notwithstanding the requirement for a precision intercept or to carry a large payload of shrapnel. Privately operated vehicles such as the Orbital Sciences Antares or SpaceX Falcon 9v1.1 could, of course, intercept the ISS and in fact are designed specifically to do so (albeit in a sufficiently controlled fashion so as to facilitate the transfer of cargo), and could also be used as carrier vehicles for an ASAT weapon. However, these vehicles take weeks to integrate and prepare for launch even after all of the components are delivered to the launch integration facility, and so would not meet the o.p.'s criteria of a 48 hour deployment maximum time unless they were already sitting on-pad and ready for launch.


Interesting replies. I set the op qualifiers to filter nations that have immediate ASAT capabilities and wrongly assumed that the USA and Russia had such resources.

Stranger, what about ground based directed energy systems that either exist right now, or could be rigged quickly for a one time kill? Are there any high power research lab systems that could be lensed and aimed?

Despite decades of research and Tom Clancy novels, there are no “ground based directed energy systems” (i.e. high powered lasers) which have sufficient power to significantly damage the ISS beyond blinding optical sensors.


Instead of hauling debris up, how about raining it down on the ISS? Satellites revolving high above the ISS’ orbit just need to throw garbage bags with precise accuracy. The ISS moves fast but its trajectory is precisely predictable; with a little computer-assisted calculation, a spacecraft far above in space can discharge debris to intercept the ISS.

A really desperate nation’s geo satellites can begin detaching modules, wires, science instruments, transponders, and finally the computers in a steady rain of deadly crap. They might even opt to blow up their own satellite to create a debris stream in the path of the ISS - space age kamikaze. :cool:

First of all, debris does not fall ‘down’ in orbit. Unless a significant impulse is imparted to it, it will remain in the same orbit indefinitely, or at least until drag from the thermosphere slows it into a lower orbit.

Second, satellites are not designed to detach modules or shed components in the manner you describe. Except in very limited cases satellites are designed to remain intact and whole under the loads during launch, and then deploy and stabilize devices such as solar panels, antennae, optics, et cetera. In fact, the last thing you would ever want is a satellite shedding debris which would pose a hazard to itself and others.

Third, many spacecraft, and especially those in upper LEO, MEO, and GEO do have on-board propulsion systems for stationkeeping (holding a specific set of orbital parameters) orbital adjustment, and eventual retirement into a ‘graveyard orbit’ where it clears space in desirable orbits for new spacecraft. However, the spacecraft is not equipped with optics for precise interception, and in general the GN&C systems are not designed with sufficient capability to assuredly intercept another target, as they’re really designed for gross maneuvering. (In general a spacecraft can be several kilometers out of nominal position and still function completely to mission requirements.) The attitude control and stationkeeping thrusters do not have enough impulse to transfer from an MEO orbit to the lower LEO orbit of the ISS, much less from GEO or GSO.


What makes you think that unmanned satellites even have the capacity to detach parts on command? They don’t. They certainly don’t have ‘garbage bags’ to drop, either.

Furthermore, if a satellite in a higher orbit did somehow start jettisoning parts, those parts aren’t going to magically fall downward right away. They’re going to stay right in orbit with the satellite they fell off of. Orbital decay will eventually pull them down, but that’s a slow and unpredictable process.

What about launching the ICBM to the right altitude and setting off the warhead to generate an EMP?

Apparently, the Starfish prime test was set for a detonation at ~250 miles altitude. You’d launch an ICBM, timing it so that the detonation is as close to the current position of the ISS as possible. The EMP would hopefully fry enough electronics to meet the OPs conditions for success. Every critical system on that station depends on countless small circuit boards, from the cooling pump controls to the solar panel positioning to the radios to the robotics and so on and so forth. There must be more than a thousand embedded electronics systems in the station.

The E1 component of high altitude electromagnetic pulse (HEMP) is a result of the reaction of highly energetic x-rays with the rarified upper atmosphere which creates a pulse of coherent radio-frequency (mostly microwave) radiation as if the magnetosphere were a giant free electron maser. This may damage or destory sensitive electronics on the ground and in low orbit, but at ~420 km the effect is likely to be fairly attenuated. This, combined with the fact that the electronics on the ISS are designed for tolerance to long term space radiation exposure means that a device intended to create a disruptive EMP effect against ground targets may not be even marginally effective against the ISS. You could, of course, design a non-nuclear EMP device that would create a focused field directed at the ISS, but again this would be a specialized weapon which would have to be developed for this specific use. As far as I am aware, all practical attempts at ASAT weapons have been kinetic interceptors or directed energy blinding weapons.