Russia Threatens to Target Commercial Satellites

On October 27, a senior Russian foreign ministry official warned that commercial satellites “may become a legitimate target for retaliation.” Commercial space systems like SpaceX’s Starlink communications satellites and Maxar’s fleet of imaging satellites are playing a highly visible and compelling role in Ukraine’s resistance to the Russian invasion. From tracking Russian military movements to connecting Ukrainian troops across the battlefield, to identifying humanitarian corridors and collecting evidence to support the prosecution of war crimes, some observers have portrayed it as the first “commercial space war.” With the increasing contribution of commercial space to battlefield outcomes, it is unsurprising that Moscow would seek to interfere with or deny use of this capability.

Q1: What has Russia employed in Ukraine and what else is in its space weapons arsenal?

A1: Russia is believed to have used systems to counter space capabilities (i.e., counterspace weapons) before its forces even set foot in Ukraine. In November 2021, it was suspected of widespread GPS jamming affecting drones that were monitoring the buildup of Russian forces near the Ukrainian border. At the outset of the conflict, Russian forces hacked Viasat, a U.S. company whose ground terminals were purchased by the Ukrainian military to provide secure space-based communications for its forces. Moscow also employed jamming tactics to deny Ukrainians access to Starlink ground terminals. Through these instances, and with likely additional localized GPS jamming, Moscow has attempted to create a more difficult battlespace for the Ukrainian military to operate in.

Such counterspace attacks are unsurprising. Spanning five years of open-source research and analysis, the CSIS Space Threat Assessment series showcases Russia’s increase in development, testing, and use of such weapons. While Moscow’s recent counterspace attacks have been limited to electronic and cyber means to deny space services in Ukraine, it possesses a wide range of capabilities, including systems that can physically destroy satellites on orbit like direct-ascent anti-satellite (ASAT) missiles and high-powered lasers. In 2018 alone, of the 25 global counterspace weapons activities recorded by CSIS, Russia was responsible for nearly half of them.

Q2: Is this indicative of a larger trend in counterspace weapons development?

A2: The use of counterspace weapons, particularly non-kinetic or electronic weapons, in conflict are becoming increasingly commonplace. Jamming and spoofing of communications or positioning, navigation, and timing (PNT) signals like GPS are proliferating among state and non-state actors. With 2020 as an exception, likely due to the Covid-19 pandemic, CSIS has observed a relative increase in the development, testing, and deployment of counterspace weapons over the past 15 years. These weapons can target satellites on orbit, satellite ground components, or the links between them. China and Russia are by far the most active and advanced.

Q3: How can satellites be protected against such attacks?

A3: Civil, commercial, and military satellites all have various defenses against counterspace attacks. These defenses can be passive or active. Passive defenses minimize the effectiveness of attacks by making space systems harder to target or better able to withstand attacks. To increase its defenses, the U.S. government is emphasizing resilient and proliferated architectures—shifting from a few large satellites to many smaller ones. SpaceX’s Starlink constellation achieves resiliency through the thousands of satellites it operates and through agile operations, as it demonstrated in Ukraine, where it quickly overcame jamming with software updates. Passive defenses can include technical measures like filters on satellites that shut out certain lasers or encrypting data on networks, and operational measures like maneuvering out of the way or rapidly launching replacement satellites.

Active defenses seek to neutralize the threat before it strikes. An example of an active defense is the French minister of defense’s proposal to have bodyguard satellites, potentially with shoot-back or jamming systems onboard, accompany high-value assets on orbit. Effective protection against a range of threats will require a combination of these approaches; there is no silver bullet. Decisionmakers will consider performance, cost, and risk—which may be different for commercial and military satellite operators—as well as policy and operational issues like how to minimize the creation of orbital debris.

Q4: What are the legal ramifications of attacks on commercial satellites?

A4: Fundamentally, the legal ramifications of attacking commercial satellites in an armed conflict as defined under international humanitarian law are evaluated based on the surrounding circumstances. Despite the ambiguity, the cornerstone of space law remains the Outer Space Treaty of 1967, which promotes the use of space for “peaceful purposes” and embodies an agreement among the signatories to not place nuclear weapons and weapons of mass destruction in outer space. During armed conflict, however, a whole host of international treaties, legal regimes, regulatory frameworks govern the conduct of hostilities—even those extending into space.

To that point, the U.S. Department of Defense Law of War Manual states, “Law of war treaties and the customary law of war are understood to regulate the conduct of hostilities, regardless of where they are conducted, which would include the conduct of hostilities in outer space.” With Russia and Ukraine engaged in an international armed conflict, international humanitarian law applies. This legal regime includes the principle of distinction to separate “military objectives” from “civilian objects,” the principle of constant care to “spare the civilian population, civilians and civilian objects,” and the principle of proportionality, which prohibits “excessive” harm to civilians and civilian objects when weighed in relation to the concrete and direct military advantage anticipated from the attack.

Accordingly, commercial space assets—as part of civilian infrastructure and whose services are widely used by civilian populations—could be spared, consistent with the laws of war. However, as shown in Ukraine, commercial “dual-use” satellites are being used for both civilian and military purposes. During armed conflict, military force can be lawfully applied against “military objectives,” but there is no bright-line rule in how military uses of commercial satellites can be lawfully targeted while also minimizing harm to civilian users—who may depend on the same commercial satellite services.

Q5: Why should policymakers care?

A5: The war in Ukraine is demonstrating the valuable contribution of commercial space capabilities in modern warfare: bringing transparency to aggressive actions, augmenting national systems, and enabling greater sharing of information with allies and partners. At the same time, the proliferation of counterspace threats, their use in ongoing conflicts, and the certainty of use in future conflicts puts pressure on policymakers, military planners, and the national security community to consider how these weapons will change the future of warfare. While direct-ascent ASAT weapons, or missiles that kinetically intercept satellites on orbit, are flashy, other more subtle counterspace threats more often deny and degrade access, communications, and awareness of the battlespace.

The actions Russia has and will continue to take in Ukraine illuminate where counterspace weapons fit into its operations and plans and give indications of how counterspace weapons may be used, and when they may be used, to increase the fog of war and lend a tactical edge in future conflicts. However, it also highlights questions for policymakers on the role government should play in protecting commercial space assets, and broader issues of how to deter use of these weapons and how to mitigate the effects on missions of such attacks. It also raises important questions on how the government should respond, keeping in mind such principles as proportionality, and how to manage escalation risks—both in space and on the ground.

Notably, the Russian threat elicited a White House rebuke that “any attack on U.S. infrastructure will be met with a response . . . in a time and manner of our choosing.” Such statement is a reminder that policymakers should think about the use of and challenges to space in the broader context of modern warfare and national power.

Kari A. Bingen is the director of the Aerospace Security Project and a senior fellow in the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Kaitlyn Johnson is deputy director and fellow of the CSIS Aerospace Security Project. Zhanna L. Malekos Smith is a senior associate with the CSIS Strategic Technologies Program and the Aerospace Security Project, and an assistant professor in the Department of Systems Engineering at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, where she also serves as a fellow with the Army Cyber Institute and affiliate faculty with the Modern War Institute. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author and not those of CSIS, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.

Critical Questions is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

© 2022 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.

Kari Bingen
Director, Aerospace Security Project and Senior Fellow, International Security Program
Kaitlyn Johnson

Kaitlyn Johnson

Former Deputy Director and Fellow, Aerospace Security Project

Zhanna Malekos Smith

Former Senior Associate (Non-resident), Strategic Technologies Program and Aerospace Security Project