Op-ed | Russia’s war could spread to space; the U.S. should be prepared

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The satellites on which the data for the blue dot on your phone are not beyond Russian reach. 

In both cyber and space, nefarious and destructive actions can be difficult to attribute to a specific actor or sponsoring nation-state. In the cyber realm, experts puzzle that we haven’t yet experienced a Russian cyber attack given the capability displayed during the Colonial Pipeline ransomware disruption.  

So far, Western banks and corporations’ defensive measures may account for the success. Or Russia may be walking a cyber tightrope — seeking not to cross the line of an “act of war” and hazard a U.S. or NATO response. 

But there are troubling signs that the cyber détente may not hold for space. Putin recently chose an ominous location for his first public appearance since the retreat of Russian forces around Kyiv. Putin addressed Russian space agency workers from the backdrop of a Russian space rocket and stated peace efforts in Ukraine were at “a dead end.”

Not being the first veiled warning, it is clear the United States is receiving the message. Vice President Kamala Harris announced that the United States has committed to not conducting destructive, direct-ascent anti-satellite (ASAT) missile testing. This is an indicator of just how seriously Washington is taking Russian threats. Yet, a self-imposed ban on ASAT tests is not enough.  

As background, recall that in November 2021, while amassing forces on Ukraine’s borders, Russia launched an ASAT satellite missile that destroyed one of its own satellites in orbit. It caused hazardous orbital debris and at the time seemed senseless. Russian authorities blathered and quibbled.

In hindsight, Russia’s demonstration of offensive space capabilities was on their pre-invasion checklist. This preparatory step to invading Ukraine sent a dual warning. First, when Russia invades, don’t interfere with Russian space systems upon which the Russian military relies. Second, if you seek to come to Ukraine’s aid, U.S. and NATO satellites upon which you rely will be in jeopardy.

Even earlier, Russia has been saber rattling in space. In February 2020, Gen. John “Jay” Raymond, the chief of space operations of the U.S. Space Force, reported that a Russian inspector satellite had actively maneuvered near a U.S. national security satellite. The inspector satellite, as if from a Russian nesting doll, detached from another satellite to purposefully approach and threaten the U.S. satellite.  

This precursor message was also exceptionally clear. The satellites on which the data for the blue dot on your phone, nearly every global financial transaction, and the effectiveness of military forces relies, are not beyond Russian reach. 

Russia’s provocations in space continue even while we cooperate on the International Space Station (ISS). But the invasion has changed that calculus as well. Upon the announcement of U.S. sanctions on the aerospace industry, the director of Roscosmos, the Russian Space Agency, tweeted, “If you block cooperation with us, who will save the International Space Stations (ISS) from an uncontrolled de-orbit and fall into the United States or … Europe?” 

With American astronauts on board, purposeful sabotage of the ISS would certainly be an act of war. Looking for other avenues to voice displeasure, Roscosmos looked at the commercial space industry. They demanded the United Kingdom guarantee OneWeb’s satellites, which were to be launched on Russian Soyuz rockets, not be used for military purposes. The United Kingdom demurred and SpaceX rockets have come to OneWeb’s rescue. 

Rather than passively awaiting further signals of Russian power in space at a threshold below an act of war, the U.S. can and should take clear measures to deter Russian aggressive action in space, in addition to the recently announced self-imposed ASAT ban.  Failing to do so only invites Russian attempts to harass, degrade or even mistakenly destroy U.S. satellites. 

First, the intelligence community should remain focused on attributing harmful or menacing Russian moves in space and reveal them. Just as the U.S. published Russia’s playbook on the ground prior to the invasion of Ukraine, the U.S. should reveal every dangerous or unprofessional movement of satellites near friendly satellites and thereby send our own signals to deter Russian malign activity in Space

Second, the Biden administration must forcefully pronounce a redline in space.  Even as SpaceX and Elon Musk helpfully delivered Starlink terminals, the U.S. must message that uninterrupted internet and satellite communications for U.S. and NATO forces and allies in eastern Europe is a national security asset. If our satellite network is attacked in any manner, it will be considered an act of war.  

Third, the administration should also pronounce that the ISS remains off limits to conflict, to sanctions and even any U.S. response options for Russian malign activity.  There are some areas where cooperation reigns above all, and we should reflect on the Cold War and model our cooperation as once done with the USSR. In the nuclear realm and where U.S. and Russian lives are tethered together, as they are on the ISS, we must keep cooperating. 

Fourth, the United States needs to quickly diversify its national security satellite architecture. National security satellites are not only vital for the blue dot on our phones, but they are also fundamental for military communications, intelligence collection and weapons-guidance systems. 

But, as was said when explaining the need for the creation to the U.S. Space Force, we built “glass houses in a world without stones.” Without the data flowing from and through national security satellites, the U.S. military could be relegated to paper maps and dumb bombs. The United States can immediately harness a more resilient satellite architecture by contracting for military data to flow through an array of commercial satellites more broadly. This will have a tangential beneficial effect of deterring Russia from incurring further commercial sanctions. The Space Force should also contract for and acquire excess satellites and launch capacity to have them at the ready if needed to quickly replace damaged satellite infrastructure. 

Fifth, a United States space station would provide several strategic advantages. China is already operating a crewed space station today. While NASA has awarded contracts for a commercial crewed space station to replace the aging ISS, the United States is still several years away from its own space station. 

A U.S.-owned, or U.S.-NATO partner led station, unlike the ISS, could have all the backup and redundant capability to ensure that when other satellites are being disabled or knocked out of the sky, the United States could still pass the data necessary for military communications, intelligence and guidance systems. Additionally, a U.S. or NATO led station would provide additional security since an attack on a crewed U.S. or NATO satellite would be a clear act of war.

Thomas Ayres, a retired U.S. Army major general, is a former general counsel of the Department of the Air Force