Russia escalates rhetoric on commercial satellites, calls them ‘legitimate targets for retaliation’

by
A Russian official said commercial space systems "may become a legitimate target for retaliation.”

WASHINGTON — A Russian official speaking at a United Nations meeting on outer space security, criticized Western nations’ use of commercial satellites in military operations, adding fuel to previous declarations that Russia could target space networks operated by private companies. 

Konstantin Vorontsov, deputy director of the Russian foreign ministry’s department for non-proliferation and arms, called the West’s use of commercial satellites “an extremely dangerous trend that … has become apparent during the latest developments in Ukraine.”

He said that commercial systems as “quasi-civilian infrastructure may become a legitimate target for retaliation.”

Russia in recent months has aimed its wrath at SpaceX’s internet satellite network Starlink, which has served as a communications lifeline for the Ukrainian military. Meanwhile, U.S. defense and intelligence agencies have increasingly relied on commercial imaging satellites to monitor the conflict. 

The aggressive rhetoric from Russia comes as the Pentagon plans to increase its use of commercial space services and considers how it might compensate companies if their spacecraft are damaged during an armed conflict. 

U.S. Vice Chief of Space Operations Gen. David “DT” Thompson, speaking at a conference Oct. 25, said these conversations are gaining momentum. 

For many years the U.S. military in strategic space wargames recognized that commercial vendors would play a role in a future conflict. “For a long time, we have worked on ideas and concepts of what it meant to be a commercial operator in a scenario like that, a military service depending on commercial capabilities, and we’ve also exercised it in real time,” Thompson said at a Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies conference.

However, all this wargaming was “theoretical and academic as you don’t know exactly what the real world would look like,” he added.

Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, “let’s just say that the conversation between us and our allies and partners in the commercial sector has picked up a sense of urgency, and a better understanding of what it might really look like based on what’s happened in Ukraine,” Thompson said.

“Commercial companies generally are interested in where their limits are, where their capabilities are, how they can contribute, but at the same time, in how they can be protected,” he added.

“We’ve been working on this for a long time, but I will tell you, Russia and Ukraine has changed the perspective based on the real world.”