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War in space: could Russia target 'unfriendly' commercial satellites? – interview


Satellite infrastructure has played a significant role in Russia's war against Ukraine. Far beyond the expected leverage militaries get from spy satellites or positioning services.

Take events in Bucha, a town next to Kyiv, which Russian forces occupied for over a month. Once images of horrible atrocities came to the world's attention, the Kremlin tried to whitewash the tragedy with wild forgery claims. Moscow's claims were quickly dispelled with satellite images from Maxar Technologies, a private space tech company.

Other examples include Elon Musk's Starlink satellites used by Ukrainian forces in the besieged city of Mariupol and other Ukrainian cities like Chernihiv. The involvement of commercial satellites in the recent conflict begs the question of whether the Russian military could target commercial satellites.

A recent study by the Secure World Foundation (SFW), a think-tank advocating peaceful use of space, claims that Russia and several other nations can and do use counter-space measures against satellites. According to Victoria Samson, the Washington Office Director for SWF, while Russia employs electronic warfare and cyber capabilities against infrastructure in orbit, it's unlikely Moscow would aim to render the Low Earth Orbit (LEO) unusable.

Victoria-Samson-SWF
Victoria Samson.

"We've been trying to warn the commercial sector that even though they're commercial actors, carrying information that is being used by the military could possibly make them be considered a legitimate target," Samson told Cybernews.

We discussed what the war in Ukraine had taught the space security community, what Russians are good at, and why space mustn't become just another theater of war, where no means are too harsh.

Did the war in Ukraine teach us anything new in terms of the weaponization of space? I mean, did you see any unexpected developments?

The new thing was Viasat's willingness to talk about the cyberattack. While cyber security is an issue, companies don't like acknowledging it. They don't want to talk about it, and they don't share information about that. But given who the most likely responsible actor is, I think they felt like they could acknowledge it's the Russians.

Having said that, Russia's invasion of Ukraine underlines what we've been seeing in terms of tabletop exercises and wargaming scenarios around counterspace capabilities. We put out our global counterspace set assessment, looking at five different kinds.

We look at something called 'direct ascent,' which is basically a missile launched from the ground into a satellite. There're also co-orbital capabilities where an interceptor is launched into space, attacking a satellite from there. There's electronic warfare, basically radio frequency, interference jamming, there are directed energy lasers, microwaves, that sort of thing. And then there's, of course, cyber.

Capabilities like direct ascent anti-satellite (ASAT) weapon or co-orbital are the types of irreversible attacks. The destruction is there. There's no plausible deniability since everyone can see a missile being launched. But things like jamming or cyberattacks are much more usable because their effects are generally reversible.

"The war is not over. And there could be some sort of a worst-case scenario for Russia, where Putin would decide to use a nuclear weapon or target satellites in orbit."

-Victoria Samson, the Washington Office Director for SWF

We have already seen the use of cyber capabilities with the Viasat attack. It's particularly interesting because people often think that the biggest counter-space threats are to the object in orbit. And those are key components, but the information that we get in orbit is only good if we can get it to the ground.

If you don't have the terminal to accept that information, you might as well not have it. And that's what we saw happen with the ViaSat. It was not an attack on the satellites themselves but on-the-ground terminals, rendering the information basically unusable. It's being fixed now, so the attack was reversible, but it does underline what we've seen to date.

Those things could change. The war is not over. And there could be some sort of a worst-case scenario for Russia, where Putin would decide to use a nuclear weapon or target satellites in orbit.

Private space companies have also played a significant role in the conflict, providing imaging and communications capabilities. Do you think they could become a target for Russia's counter-space capabilities?

That's one of the things that we have also been interested in. The commercial sector has played a role in information sharing in this conflict. Companies like Maxar and Planet have been around for years, but it feels like their information is very actively being used to determine what's happening on the ground.

We've been trying to warn the commercial sector that even though they're commercial actors, carrying information that is being used by the military could possibly make them be considered legitimate targets. It's a whole discussion for national humanitarian law to be able to distinguish between combatants and non-combatants.

Starlink-Spacex-Ukraine
Starlink equipment unloaded in Ukraine.

For example, a commercial satellite that is maybe carrying a transponder for the military but also carrying things for a civil section, is that considered a legitimate target? It is possible. Now we haven't seen it as of yet. But for example, Planet's imagery of the Bucha massacre has been very eye-opening in terms of what happened there.

It's hard to say what Russia would do. It is plausible that there might be some interference with the commercial satellite operators at some point. So far, we haven't seen active interference, not just what we're seeing with Viasat. And the commercial satellite operators do not like talking about it, but it's something that I think they can't avoid anymore.

Your recent report claims that Russia has 'significant Electronic Warfare capabilities in counterspace area.' Could you tell me what that means in real terms? What are those 'significant' capabilities?

It has to do with intercepting signals. They've been using GPS jamming during military exercises, and they used GPS jamming in 2014. They've used it in Syria, and they're using it now. Now having said that, everyone is using this capability. This is absolutely part of how a military functions these days.

The jamming that Russia does is for very specific areas. They're jamming the reception, the downlink, the information coming down from a satellite because it's not a super-powerful beam that the satellite is using.

As far as I know, they have not interfered with the satellites themselves, so it's being used in a very tactical sense. It's not surgical, but we're hearing stories about pilots accidentally getting their GPS receivers jammed as they're flying near the airspace.

And that is probably not being done deliberately to mess with the airline industry. It is just a ripple effect from the jamming being done elsewhere. These electronic waves do not follow state borders.

"So far, there's no indication they would do something like an ASAT weapon. After all, they have a space program together with satellites and people in orbit."

-Victoria Samson, the Washington Office Director for SWF

Do you think Russia could use direct-ascent anti-satellite weapons as a 'nuclear option' in counter space measures?

I'm cautious about using the term 'nuclear' in this context. People of our age tend to talk about nuclear-like it's just this kind of a big response. A nuclear weapon devastates everything, ruins everything, and makes it all like unusable for years. It is an agent of destruction, of death.

Let's take the anti-satellite test the Russians carried out against their own satellite last November. Yes, it created debris in orbit, and that's threatening, but we're still able to use the orbit. We're still able to use space. It wasn't like it was the death note for that particular orbit.

So far, there's no indication they would do something like an ASAT weapon. After all, they have a space program together with satellites and people in orbit.

But to effectively deny certain space capabilities to other actors, they'd have to do multiple anti-satellite tests to make sure they get these orbits dangerous enough that no one else can use them. At that point, they'd endanger their research efforts and investment. I'm not sure that they're going to go that route.

But ASAT weapons are something they could use if they decided to pull out of the Lower Earth Orbit, not do the International Space Station (ISS) anymore and destroy hundreds of their own satellites. In theory, they still want to be able to do off-planet research exploration.

And for that to happen, you need to be able to get through the orbits to get off our planet. I get that theoretically, it's possible, but I don't see it being perceived as a realistically usable tool they would find helpful.

Land, sea, and air are all tried and tested theaters of war. Secure World Foundation advocates against the militarization of space. Why is space any different from other places war is conducted in?

Well, we're not putting weapons up in orbit. Some in the security establishment would like a more aggressive posture for the US Space Force, but generally speaking, space is a national security enabler. That's one way in which it's different. You don't actively have weapons up there.

Another thing is that nations can control incursions on their territory. There's airspace sovereignty. We also have hundreds, if not thousands of years of precedent in terms of maritime sovereignty. But there's nothing like that for space.

I call space a public good. Because, in the grand scheme of things, space is universal. It's a resource that everyone should have access to and benefit from. That's different from countries with their own territory, where they can do whatever they want.

The final thing is just the physics of the space environment. It's different. It's not the best analogy in the world, but in terms of space debris, imagine if the bullets from the Second World War were still whizzing around a battlefield. That would be very challenging, right? In the grand scheme of things, one actor's actions in space can affect everyone else's ability to use that orbit and possibly others.


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