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Jamming, Blinding?

Russian Armed Attack on US Commercial Satellites Considered Unlikely

Space security experts think Russia is unlikely to engage in armed attacks on U.S. commercial satellite assets despite its reportedly considering commercial satellites aiding the Ukrainian military effort as legitimate military targets. Though such an attack might be justified legally, nondestructive attacks like jamming or blinding satellites via lasers are far more likely, we were told.

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The State Department "would pursue all means to deter, and hold Russia to account, for any such attacks," a spokesperson emailed. "We are not going to lay those out in public, but we have made our position very clear to the Russian government." Space Force didn't comment.

Russia is less likely to launch an armed attack like a rocket than take other actions aimed at jamming or blinding satellites, said Iain Boyd, University of Colorado-Boulder Center for National Security Initiatives director. Russia has demonstrated destructive anti-satellite capabilities in the past, targeting one of its own satellites, and it probably could shoot down someone else's, Boyd said. But the ongoing Ukrainian war might have drained Russia of a lot of its more sophisticated weaponry, he said.

Earth imaging satellites and SpaceX's Starlink would be the most likely targets, Boyd said. Russia might focus on a low-value target like a small earth imaging company, "to see what the West does," he said. A smaller company might also still fit Russia's desire to deter U.S. commercial companies from providing images and data to Ukraine, he said.

Russia's anti-satellite capabilities are getting all the attention, but "there is a far greater range of counterspace capabilities that Russia can -- and already has -- brought to bear," emailed Brian Weeden, Secure World Foundation program planning director, citing the cyberattack on Viasat (see 2210040063) and reports of ongoing jamming and cyberattacks against satellite services in Ukraine, including Starlink and GPS. He said many commercial satellite operators providing services in Ukraine likely have hardened their networks against cyberattacks and probably are looking at ways to implement anti-jamming, though the latter is very difficult to do once as satellite system is designed and built.

Weeden said it's unlikely Russia still has the capability for destructive attacks on satellites, which was demonstrated last fall (see 2111160063). That anti-satellite test "was likely the end of the development program for the Nudol system, and it's unlikely they have deployed it in any significant numbers," he said. "But even if they did have dozens of Nudols operationally ready, I don't think it would be all that useful" because destroying dozens of commercial imagery or communications satellites won't have much of an impact on global capacity, he said. However, such actions would create orbital debris volumes that would threaten everyone's satellites in space and the International Space Station, he said.

"Russia has a point" legally that commercial satellite operations can be seen as legitimate military targets, said Jack Beard, University of Nebraska-Lincoln director-space, cyber and telecom law program. Under international law, a "military objective" is something making an effective contribution to military action. And satellites providing the Ukrainian military with imagery for targeting or connectivity for communications are likely something Russia can target under international law, he said, but he said since there hasn't been an armed conflict in space, it isn't clear that the law of armed conflict applies.

Orbital debris created in a destructive attack on a satellite arguably should be part of the calculation whether such an attack is a disproportionate response -- and thus legally unjustified, Beard said. That's a difficult calculation because it's tough to know how big or persistent a debris field might be, he said. A nondestructive attack on a satellite, such as jamming, probably doesn't qualify as an armed attack under the U.N. charter, since countries haven't made a practice of asserting jamming operations already happening terrestrially are an armed attack, Beard said.

A satellite industry executive said the space industry definitely is taking the Russian threat seriously. That threat also isn't new since conflicts anywhere on earth inevitably bring cyberattacks and efforts to jam commercial communications systems, he said.