The 1991 Persian Gulf War is often called “the first space war” owing to the American military’s use of global positioning systems and other space-based technologies—the first of several US conflicts against opponents with no space capabilities. Three decades later, the Russia–Ukraine war is perhaps the first two-sided space war.
As a potential harbinger of the future, Russia’s war in Ukraine offers four preliminary lessons for political and military leaders. First, despite having no indigenous space capability, Ukraine has made effective battlefield use of space-based communications and intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance (ISR) assets from US and European commercial providers. Second, for all the attention on kinetic anti-satellite (ASAT) weapons, Russian counterspace attacks have been limited to the cyber domain—achieving some success and causing collateral damage in NATO countries. Third, commercial space will only grow in importance in conflicts, while policy makers in Western countries have yet to make clear when and how they would protect commercial assets. Last, Russia is gaining surprisingly little advantage from its space capabilities, reflecting the long-term weaknesses of the Russian space industry—weaknesses not shared by China, however.
Combatants can conduct space-enabled operations without owning space assets
In 2022, Ukraine had no national space capability. Nevertheless, space systems, in the form of third-party commercial and government assets, have played an important role in the Ukrainian war effort. The Ukrainian military makes extensive use of commercial satellite communications, in particular satellite links share data for its networked artillery system (GIS Arta, sometimes called “Uber for Artillery,” is an android app that collects target information from drones, US and NATO intelligence feeds, and conventional forward observers, then distributes orders to fire among multiple artillery units to make counterbattery fire more difficult.). Ukraine obtains high-resolution imagery from Western commercial firms, including synthetic-aperture radar that can “see” at night and through clouds. Specifics on Ukraine’s military use of commercial images are scarce, but the available resolution and timeliness of such images should make them tactically valuable. Commercial imagery can show individual military vehicles, and constellations of multiple satellites can image any target every few hours. This capability provides enough information to enable warfighters to attack fixed targets, or to cue assets such as unmanned aerial vehicles to the vicinity of mobile targets. The United States is also reportedly sharing imagery or signals intelligence from classified collection satellites.
The war in Ukraine demonstrates that what matters is having access to the products of space systems, not owning the satellites. With the explosion in commercial communications and imaging services, many combatants will have such products. Access will not be universal, however. Western companies are far in the lead in their capabilities and are subject to formal and informal limits on the customers to whom they sell data. Iran or North Korea could not buy the level of space-based services that Ukraine has at any price. Western governments should see this as a comparative advantage in supporting partners relative to what Russia or China can provide to their clients. Facilitating commercial access, supplying funding, and offering training in the use of commercial space products (or sharing classified products) can affect battlefield performance in a tangible way; moreover, such efforts are relatively low cost and perhaps less visibly provocative than weapons shipments.
Counterspace operations are more likely to be cyber or electronic than kinetic
In November 2021, Russia tested its Nudol kinetic ASAT weapon and created a cloud of orbital debris that threatened astronauts and satellites of many nations. Whether or not that demonstration was meant as a warning to NATO regarding Ukraine, there are no reports of physical space attacks being attempted. Russian cyberattacks, however, have succeeded. On the first day of the conflict, a Russian operation used destructive malware to disable tens of thousands of user terminals of ViaSat, a US-based commercial network, requiring factory repair of the devices before they could function again. The Ukrainian military was a heavy ViaSat user and the obvious target. Following that attack, SpaceX collaborated with Ukraine to deploy Starlink terminals. SpaceX leaders report that Russia has also attacked their service, so far unsuccessfully.
Space experts had assessed that cyber and electronic jamming would be more likely than physical space attacks, for several reasons. Cyberattacks do not create debris, they are less expensive than building interceptor missiles, offer deniability, and are probably less likely to spur armed retaliation. Developments in Ukraine also demonstrate the value of redundancy against ASAT attacks, that is, relying on large numbers of individually expendable satellites instead of a handful of large satellites. Starlink has twenty-five hundred satellites in service—too many for Russia to shoot down with its few, expensive interceptors. Communications and remote sensing services will continue to shift toward these so-called “mega-constellations.” The success of Russia’s attack on ViaSat, however, shows that an invulnerable satellite fleet is irrelevant if cyberattacks can impair its ground-based control systems and user access.
Commercial firms as important actors—and targets?
The Russia-Ukraine war highlights the explosive growth of the commercial space sector. Although the US military has long leased bandwidth on commercial satellites, the integration of Starlink at the battlefield level and the tactical use of commercial remote sensing is groundbreaking. Unsurprisingly, Russia says the satellites of companies working directly with the Ukrainian military are legitimate military targets—and the Russians are probably correct under international law. The international community accepts the established principle that third parties directly and knowingly contributing to a combatant’s war effort can be attacked, within the limits of proportionality and when causing minimal collateral damage. Recent articles in Chinese military newspapers suggested the Chinese also believe Starlink could be valid target in a future conflict.
It is unclear how the United States and its allies would respond to attacks on commercial space systems, whether by physical or cyber means. Russia’s successful ViaSat attack caused significant property damage to civilians in NATO nations, requiring tens of thousands of terminals to be replaced and causing disruptions, such as knocking thousands of wind turbines off the European electric grid for days. Satellite operators have been asking governments for more assistance in securing their systems and for more clarity about what governments will do to protect them; the current lack of clarity risks causing miscalculation by adversaries.
Evaluating Russian space capabilities (and lessons about China?)
Despite the long history of Soviet and Russian spaceflight, it is not obvious that the Russian military has benefited more from space than the Ukrainian side. Russian command-and-control difficulties, the absence of an apparent ISR advantage, and surprisingly large errors from Russian precision munitions (presumably GLONASS-guided), all hint at less effective employment of space systems than that of the United States or its more capable allies. This is not entirely surprising, however. Russian military communications and surveillance satellites lag far behind those of the United States in numbers and technology–Russia may only have two operational military imaging satellites. Technology sanctions imposed in 2014 set back the development of Russian space capabilities. Some Russian munitions may have been built with chips pulled from consumer appliances, but there is no alternative source for the unique radiation-hardened chips needed in satellites. Strict technology sanctions and the likely decline in Russian government revenues make it doubtful that Russia can close the space gap.
In the future, China would most likely be a more adept military space power than Russia. Beijing has launched dozens of military ISR satellites in the last five years. China has an emerging commercial space sector, and, unlike Russia, it has a sophisticated domestic electronics industry that can supply components for advanced military satellites. Russia might still lead China in ASAT missiles and a few other areas, but in most respects Chinese military space capabilities have surpassed those of Russia in quantity and technology. How the Chinese military fares at exploiting and integrating space capabilities in a real conflict remains to be seen.
Several implications flow from these observations:
- Space-based information services are a key enabler that the United States and its allies can provide to partner nations, especially “middle powers” with some technical proficiency (as opposed to less developed militaries, as in Afghanistan or Iraq).
- Redundant mega-constellations offset adversaries’ kinetic ASAT weapons, but cybersecurity at all levels must be a critical design and operational focus of space systems.
- The US commercial space sector is a strategic asset, but the United States and its allies need to develop clear policies for protecting commercial systems, whether through defense or deterrence.
- Although China has long been seen as “behind” Russia in space, that view is outdated. US military planners should assume China will likely make more effective use of space capabilities in a future conflict than Russia has in Ukraine.
David T. Burbach is an Associate Professor of National Security Affairs, US Naval War College. The ideas expressed in this essay are the author’s personal views and do not represent those of the Naval War College or the US government.
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