Russia has made some of its most provocative comments yet about Western commercial satellites, which have provided valuable imagery and communications data to Ukraine this year, suggesting they are appropriate wartime targets.
In comments made Wednesday, a deputy director in Russia’s foreign ministry, Konstantin Vorontsov, said the use of Western commercial satellites by Ukraine is “an extremely dangerous trend.” While Vorontsov did not specifically name any satellites, he almost certainly was referring to SpaceX’s Starlink satellite constellation, which has been used by Ukrainian soldiers for communications, and synthetic aperture radar satellites that have tracked Russian troop and tank movements. Vorontsov said:
We would like to specifically stress an extremely dangerous trend that goes beyond the harmless use of outer space technologies and has become apparent during the latest developments in Ukraine. Namely, the use by the United States and its allies of civilian, including commercial, infrastructure elements in outer space for military purposes. Apparently, these States do not realize that such actions in fact constitute indirect participation in military conflicts. Quasi-civilian infrastructure may become a legitimate target for retaliation. Western actions needlessly put at risk the sustainability of peaceful space activities, as well as numerous social and economic processes on Earth that affect the well-being of people, first of all in developing countries. At the very least, this provocative use of civilian satellites is questionable under the Outer Space Treaty, which only provides for the peaceful use of outer space, and must be strongly condemned by the international community.
This is not the first time Vorontsov has made such comments, as he made similar remarks last month to the United Nations Office for Disarmament Affairs working group. However, it is not clear to what extent Russia might be able to follow through on its threat to target commercial satellites.
Resilience through proliferation
Russia certainly has the ability to shoot down Starlink satellites or other vehicles in low-Earth orbit. It demonstrated that capability last November when it fired a Nudol missile from the ground, striking an aging Russian satellite at an altitude of 480 km and blasting it into more than 1,000 trackable pieces of debris. The test occurred just three months before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
“Some commentators said that it was meant as a warning against the US to not interfere in Ukraine,” Brian Weeden, director of Program Planning at the Secure World Foundation, told Ars. “I disagreed with that assessment, but even if it was true, that threat completely failed.”
This is because such a tactic, of a direct-ascent missile against a single target, would not be effective against a distributed network of hundreds or thousands of satellites in low-Earth orbit like Starlink. “They’re only really effective when facing small numbers of large, expensive satellites that are hard to replace,” Weeden said.
Derek Tournear, director of the US Space Force’s Space Development Agency, made similar comments this week when talking about the development of a “proliferated constellation” of satellites to deter attacks. Tournear said SpaceX’s 3,500-satellite constellation has validated the concept during the conflict in Ukraine.
“There’s obviously operational resilience through proliferation,” Tournear said at a Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies event. Even if the Space Development Agency network were to come under attack, he said, “we expect to be able to absorb a certain amount of attrition.”
Earlier in the war against Ukraine, Russia directly targeted commercial space capabilities, including launching a cyber attack against Viasat that crippled thousands of the company’s satellite communications terminals across Europe. Additionally, SpaceX chief executive Elon Musk has said there have been “repeated” jamming attacks on Starlink satellites. These appear to have had limited effect on the Starlink Internet service.
But a physical attack on a commercial satellite, likely through a direct-ascent missile, would represent an escalation. In a communiqué issued last year, NATO officials said that attacks on space-based assets could lead to the invocation of Article 5, which means that members of the NATO alliance would consider it an armed attack and assist the ally.
Nevertheless, it now seems clear that the perception of “commercial space” assets in space is changing. Russia’s comments and similar remarks from China show that the countries see Western commercial satellites as military assets rather than as separate entities. For decades, of course, commercial satellites have carried US military communications, but these were viewed as independent entities whose capabilities the Department of Defense could call upon.
Now, America’s adversaries see little to no difference. “It’s almost like they see companies like SpaceX as a branch of the US military, a mercenary in space, if you will, which changes how you view the lawfulness of attacking them,” Victoria Samson, Washington Office Director of the Secure World Foundation, told Ars.
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