WASHINGTON — U.S. Space Command is preparing for the possibility of Russia targeting American satellites in orbit, according to the command’s top general. 

Gen. Stephen Whiting, head of U.S. Space Command, commented on recent reports indicating that Russia has deployed “co-planar” spacecraft positioned to monitor U.S. satellites.

Speaking June 24 at the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies, Whiting said Russia’s launch of its Cosmos 2576 satellite in low Earth orbit on May 16 — which the Pentagon assessed to be a counter-space weapon — was “put on orbit in an operational capacity.”

“And when you look at where they put the satellite, in what we call co-planar to a national security satellite, that doesn’t seem to be accidental,” said Whiting.

Co-planar deployment refers to the positioning of satellites on the same geometric plane in space. When Russia deploys “co-planar” spacecraft, it means they are placing their satellite in an orbit that is aligned with the orbit of a U.S. satellite. This alignment allows the Russian spacecraft to monitor, track, and potentially interfere with a U.S. satellite because they are moving along the same path or plane in space. 

Whiting noted that this deployment came as no surprise. “We’ve been tracking objects on orbit for decades,” he said. “We can look at those orbital parameters and we can compare that launch to launches that the Russians did in 2017, 2019 and 2022 that look like this class of counter-space weapon that they’ve tested previously, and that now appears that they’ve put on orbit in an operational capacity.”

U.S. Space Command is taking these activities seriously and actively rehearsing a response to potential attacks on U.S. space assets, Whiting said.

An attack on satellites could have far-reaching consequences, potentially disrupting critical services such as GPS navigation, weather forecasting, and military communications. The Department of Defense has in recent years emphasized the importance of space assets for national security.

The general’s comments come amid rising tensions between the U.S. and Russia in the space domain. Intelligence reports have warned about Russia allegedly working on a nuclear anti-satellite weapon that is in development but has not been deployed. Whiting did not comment on these reports. Other U.S. officials have warned that a nuclear explosive device, if detonated, could produce a massive wave of radiation and a powerful electromagnetic pulse capable of destroying, blinding, or disabling satellites over a wide area.

Readiness ‘our number one priority’

“Our number one priority at U.S. Space Command is to prepare and posture to maximize combat readiness by 2027,” Whiting said. “So we are executing tests and operations and exercises with our service components to improve our tactics, techniques and procedures.”

Whiting emphasized that Space Command is working closely with allies to develop strategies to mitigate the effects of any potential attack. “We’re strengthening our partnerships through initiatives like Operation Olympic Defender, which allows us to share intelligence and plan joint defensive measures,” he said.

Operation Olympic Defender is a U.S.-led multinational initiative aimed at strengthening defense and deterring hostile actions in space. Current members include Australia, Canada and the United Kingdom. Whiting said France, Germany and New Zealand have been invited to join. “We hope to have a positive response from them in the next few months.”

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...