Ukraine’s successful military use of Starlink in its defense against Russia has become a poster child for the increased military reliance on commercial space systems among nations. Yet, military use of commercial space services could create as many problems as it solves. Recent media coverage of Ukraine’s reliance on Starlink since Russia invaded has raised a disturbing question: Might private space barons and state-controlled commercial space firms — e.g., Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos, OneWeb and Guo Wang/StarNet — switch off critical systems, jeopardizing the security of major and lesser states?
This question is but one of many. Could an attack against a commercial space system constitute an act of war? Could it escalate to all-out nuclear war? What of space being a truly separate warfighting domain? Some argue that space isn’t a separate warfighting domain but merely an arena for conducting support operations for ground, air, and sea warfare. Supporters of this view insist that whatever military actions are taken in space stay in space. Are they right? Or is space a domain in which on-orbit hostile engagement can further catalyze ground, sea, or air engagements, as well as spark further in-space hostilities?
Should governments assume responsibility for defending commercial space systems? When, why, and how should they do so? Should governments remunerate commercial space system companies if an adversary damages their system? Or should wartime damage of space-based systems simply be considered a part of doing business, handled as other risks are — with light national regulations and private insurance? How, if at all, should governments facilitate such regulation? Is there a clear line between peacetime and war operations in space? What if a non-state actor uses commercial space systems to conduct attacks? Who, if anyone, should be held accountable?
If the answers to these questions are less than crystal clear, should Washington lay down minimum hardening or reconstitution requirements for all commercial satellite systems for companies contracting with the U.S. government? What role, if any, should international governance play in reducing the risks of military conflict and escalation? Also, what, if anything, should the U.S. and allied governments do to protect satellites (both commercial and military) or to enforce any rules that states might want? Are additional passive and active defenses needed? What about space bodyguard systems that could gently push potentially hostile robot spacecraft a safe distance away from critical satellites?
So far, the United States and other spacefaring nations have either mostly deferred or taken a hands-off approach to dealing with these questions. Instead, Washington has treated commercial space as it has the internet — as a special area where protecting First Amendment rights and free-trade entrepreneurialism trumps instituting new forms of regulation. With space, states are roughly where they were with sea power in the 1600s and air power before World War I. In these periods, dramatic acts of air war and naval piracy were about to ensue, but instituting national or international regulation hardly seemed urgent…until they were.
All of this raises a fundamental question: Just how sustainable is it for us to continue our current relaxed approach to the military exploitation of commercial space?
To find out, the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center (NPEC) designed and conducted a wargame this summer tailored to purpose.
The game’s play begins in 2027. India contracts with U.S. commercial satellite imagery firm Maxar to buy a controlling 51 percent interest in a three-satellite, sun-synchronous system. Washington backs the sale and not only buys New Delhi mobile ground stations, but blesses India’s controlling a 51 percent share, and places U.S. military payloads on the satellites to demonstrate the significance of this U.S.-Indian space collaboration.
Meanwhile, China develops a similar system and sells its imagery and communications links to a Pakistani government-blessed private entity. The entity is run by a retired Pakistani general who has close ties to Pakistani terrorist groups. Without asking for explicit Pakistani permission, the general gives one such group access to the Chinese satellite system’s “peaceful” commercial imagery and communications links.
The terrorist group wants Islamabad to take a stronger stand against India’s “occupation” of Kashmir. Towards this end (i.e., to force the hand of Pakistan and draw it into a major war), the terrorist group mates long-range drones with the Chinese satellite system’s imagery and secure communications links to strike India’s strategic nuclear air base at Ambala twice. The terrorists’ drones destroy several Indian nuclear-capable fighters and strategic nuclear forces command planes and kill dozens of Indian airmen.
U.S. intelligence and other open sources confirm that China’s satellite system supported the strike. A flurry of diplomatic and international commercial legal initiatives ensues. None, however, are ultimately acted upon. Under mounting domestic pressure to act, India uses a newly constructed ground-based space-tracking laser to dazzle the Chinese-Pakistani satellite system the terrorists used. This dazzling unintentionally damages the Chinese satellite’s optics.
China, in the game’s second move, retaliates by using its own ground-based laser systems to damage the optics of one of the U.S.-India Maxar satellites. Shortly after, a Chinese rendezvous satellite closes in on a second U.S.-India Maxar satellite as it comes within range of China’s laser system. This second satellite, including its American payload, goes dead. It is unclear what caused the satellite to stop functioning.
Meanwhile, India informs Washington that another Chinese rendezvous satellite is closing in on the third and last U.S.-India Maxar satellite. Shortly thereafter, this Maxar satellite also goes dead. As with the previous Chinese attack, the United States has no bodyguard satellites to deflect a possible Chinese rendezvous satellite assault. At this point, U.S. intelligence briefs the President, who authorizes a covert U.S. cyberattack against the offending Chinese rendezvous satellite, which disables it. China immediately blames Washington for killing its satellite.
Meanwhile, India launches a cruise missile attack against suspected terrorist sites in Pakistan. As the Pakistani government ponders what retaliatory military action it will take on the ground against India, the U.S. Space Command readies itself for a Chinese space counterattack.
The NPEC wargame’s final hot-wash discussion session supported four key findings:
1. Space combat can catalyze combat both on Earth and in space. Many experts like to believe that whatever happens in space stays in space. This game strongly suggested otherwise. India and Pakistan’s exploitation of commercial space satellite systems not only encouraged the United States and China to attack each other’s commercial satellites but intensified land warfare between India and Pakistan. What makes this finding worrisome is the continued lack of clarity as to what an act of war might be regarding commercial satellite systems that get “damaged” or are exploited for military purposes. Nor does it help that such military space operations can be conducted quickly and send complex, ambiguous signals to military and civilian space operators. In the game, no fewer than four nuclear-armed states struggled to determine who was doing what, and even what was happening, as India’s nuclear strategic forces were seriously degraded and a U.S. military space payload was destroyed. All of this could be quite escalatory. At a minimum, it recommends engaging all spacefaring nations in further talks to clarify what acts of war in space might be and determine how their detection might best be enhanced and verified. The latter would likely entail some combination of private national and public international efforts. Ideally, one might create a dedicated international body to verify illicit space activities that could credibly assign attribution. This international body’s surveillance requirements, in turn, could be used to help justify additional national funding of private space support contracts to increase the quality and availability of space situational awareness information. It is unclear what, if any, thinking is being done within the U.S. government or elsewhere to determine the optimal mix of private and international space surveillance and verification efforts. Beyond this, the United States and its spacefaring partners need to consider what, if any, new kinds of space capabilities, such as bodyguard satellites and active satellite defenses, might be needed to enforce desirable offensive space operations red lines.
2. As commercial satellite systems spread, rogue states and terrorists will try to exploit them, increasing the likelihood that major, nuclear-armed states could be dragged into wars. In the game, a terrorist group based in Pakistan uses commercial satellite systems to target strategic Indian nuclear assets with the aim of forcing the Pakistani government to side with them and wage a major war over Kashmir. What made this gambit relatively easy was the largely unregulated provision of “private” commercial satellite services and links to a wide variety of states, firms, and nonstate entities. At a minimum, this suggests the United States and other like-minded governments should encourage private firms operating under national jurisdiction to assume greater responsibility for their possible misuse. Specifically, spacefaring nations should explore creating commercial rules analogous to “knowyour-customer” rules used in the banking industry. Governments should apply these new rules to private space service providers, holding them responsible for the harm their customers inflict using their services in wars or through acts of terrorism. The challenge here will be to prevent smaller nations from offering licenses under little or no such regulation. In these cases, insurance premiums from reputable insurers should be set much higher than for properly regulated licensing or not be made available at all. Again, it is unclear to what extent governments and private firms are yet thinking through these matters.
3. With the increased use of commercial satellite systems, America’s credibility in mediating conflicts between nuclear-armed combatants will be questioned in new, demanding ways. Historically, Washington has acted as an honest broker in numerous Pakistani-India military crises. In this space scenario, the United States, however, deferred to India so much that Islamabad and Washington mistakenly concluded there was little point in engaging with one another and that India was free to take considerable action on its own. This resulted in Pakistan reluctantly conceding to heavy-handed Chinese bullying for Beijing’s pre-clearance of any Pakistani diplomatic crisis messaging. If Washington had done more to engage not just India, but Pakistan, on security issues prior to the conflict, this might have been avoided. Once conflict began, though, both India and Pakistan sought Washington’s information on what was occurring in space and on the ground. Unfortunately, neither Pakistan nor India knew how much Washington knew, and Washington’s lack of transparency created distrust. Because space warfare and its diplomatic management demand more space situational awareness than will ever be available, building trust is vital. One way to increase confidence and transparency is to encourage the private sector to provide more access to the space situational awareness information they might have (something the American team facilitated in the game). Governments, including the United States, might facilitate this by paying private firms to share what they know with international or multilateral space organizations that, in turn, would make it generally available both in peacetime and during crises. Another way to increase trust, that the game players discussed, would be to create new multilateral space security working groups starting with states in war zones (including those that have nuclear weapons on their soil) that Washington has working relations with (e.g., three-way talks among the United States, Pakistan, and India; with Turkey and Greece; among Middle Eastern states and Israel, etc.).
4. Leaving space activities as unmanaged as the internet is a prescription for military mischief. One of the major game discoveries is that satellite systems’ increasing duality makes it difficult to attribute the cause of destructive and disruptive space incidents or to determine appropriate responses. In the game, the United States puts a major U.S. military payload on a commercial spacecraft that India controls. China attacks it; the United States conducts a space counterattack, escalating the conflict. This play raised several questions. What military missions should only be conducted on government-owned dedicated military spacecraft? If the United States needs or wants to place military payloads on foreign-owned spacecraft, should it only do so if the United States has a military security agreement with the state from which the spacecraft is launched? Should governments or international organizations require a minimum amount of survivability features for all commercial satellites (especially those that are dual-use)? Should states condition any government protection or indemnification of private space assets against foreign military assaults? What should these conditions be — hardening, adequate insurance, being able to quickly reconstitute the targeted space system, supporting the deployment of bodyguard satellite systems to deflect possible hostile rendezvous satellite assaults, etc.? All of these questions were raised before or during the game; none were answered.
Henry Sokolski is executive director of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center. Before founding NPEC, he was the Pentagon’s Deputy for Nonproliferation Policy from 1989 to 1993.
This article originally appeared in the October 2023 issue of SpaceNews magazine.