TYSONS, Va. — Despite Russia’s troubles on the battlefield in Ukraine and its relative decline as a space power, the head of United States Space Command warned against underestimating Moscow’s capabilities and intentions to challenge America’s dominance in the space domain.

“Russia’s struggles following their invasion of Ukraine should not create a false sense of confidence that Moscow is fading in the space domain,” Gen. Stephen Whiting, head of U.S. Space Command, said March 5 in remarks at the Potomac Officers Club 2024 Space Summit.

Whiting, who is responsible for U.S. military space operations, did not mention recent U.S. intelligence reports alleging that Russia is developing a space-based nuclear weapon. But he noted that Moscow “will remain a formidable and less predictable challenge to the United States in key areas over the next decade, while still facing many hurdles of its own making.”

Russia’s losses in conventional military strength could paradoxically compel Moscow to lean more heavily on space-based systems, cyber operations and other unconventional methods to pursue its strategic ambitions, Whiting added. 

Worries about cyberattacks

As an example of Russia’s willingness to employ cyber means to disrupt space-based systems, the Space Command chief cited the cyberattack launched against a commercial satellite company just hours before Russian troops poured across the Ukrainian border in February 2022. That attack affected thousands of civilian users across Europe as well as Ukrainian military communications.

With both Russia and China investing in counter-space weapons like ground-based anti-satellite missiles, electronic warfare systems and cyber capabilities, Whiting said the future space environment is only growing more complex.

In response to an audience question on whether the U.S. should step up hardening of satellites against electromagnetic pulse damage from a potential nuclear detonation, Whiting said EMP hardening generally is “quite expensive” and not worth doing in every scenario. He noted that the more immediate concern is protecting satellite systems from cyber attacks — which he has often referred to as the “soft underbelly” of U.S. space systems.

Sandra Erwin writes about military space programs, policy, technology and the industry that supports this sector. She has covered the military, the Pentagon, Congress and the defense industry for nearly two decades as editor of NDIA’s National Defense...