NRO warns satellite operators of possible Russian attacks

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Scolese said both government and commercial satellites systems are potential targets

CHANTILLY, Va. — As the Ukraine crisis escalates, U.S. National Reconnaissance Office Director Christopher Scolese warned that Russia’s military could target satellites to disrupt communications and GPS services. 

“I think we’re seeing pretty clearly that Russia is committed to doing what they want to do in Ukraine, and they want to win,” Scolese said Feb. 23 at the National Security Space Association’s Defense and Intelligence Space Conference.

“So I think it’s fair to assume that, to the extent that they can, and to the extent that they feel it won’t extend the conflict out of their control, that they will extend it into space,” Scolese said. 

The NRO operates U.S. government-owned spy satellites, but increasingly a lot of imagery and intelligence is collected and distributed by commercial satellite operators like Maxar, Planet, BlackSky, and others, so any attempt to disrupt the United States’ ability to gather intelligence could impact private and public assets. 

Scolese did not comment specifically on what actions the Russians might take, but he said it’s easy to imagine based on past behavior. “They are already doing GPS jamming, as an example.”

Scolese said both government and commercial satellites systems are potential targets. “I would tell everybody that the important thing is to go off and ensure that your systems are secure and that you’re watching them very closely because we know that the Russians are effective cyber actors.”

“And, again, it’s hard to say how far their reach is going to go in order to achieve their objectives. But it’s better to be prepared than surprised,” he added. 

For years, the U.S. military has worried that Russia and China will try to jam U.S. GPS and communications satellites during a conflict. 

In addition to denying GPS through electronic jamming attacks, Russia could also target U.S. military GPS users with falsified PNT data, a technique known as spoofing. A GPS outage could wreak havoc across all military activities involving aircraft, ships, munitions, land vehicles and ground troops. “In an active military conflict, even brief denials and spoofing of PNT might make a difference if well-timed with other operations,” said a RAND Corp. report.