Russia Makes Threats Against Commercial Satellites While Australia Joins ASAT Test Moratorium

Russia Makes Threats Against Commercial Satellites While Australia Joins ASAT Test Moratorium

Australia has become the seventh country to join the United States in agreeing not to conduct destructive direct-ascent antisatellite tests. The U.S. initiative came in the wake of Russia’s ASAT test in November 2021 that littered low Earth orbit with debris. Russia made no apologies and just this week threatened that commercial satellites used to support Ukraine could be legitimate targets for attack. The White House countered that any attack “on U.S. infrastructure” would be met with a response.

Vice President Kamala Harris pledged in April that the United States will not conduct debris-generating direct-ascent ASAT tests and invited other countries to join what now commonly is referred to as the ASAT test moratorium. Importantly it is not a moratorium on ASAT tests generically, only on tests where a satellite is destroyed by impact creating hundreds or thousands of pieces of debris that imperil other satellites. Testing an ASAT system against a point in space, for example, is not prohibited.

Russia’s November 15, 2021 ASAT test was the debris-generating type. A Russian missile slammed into an old Russian satellite, Cosmos 1408, and created at least 1,500 hundreds of pieces of trackable debris and thousands more too small to be detected by today’s sensors. Other satellites now must try to avoid that debris.

The International Space Station with a crew of at least seven astronauts and cosmonauts is one of them. Just this week the ISS had to change its orbit because one of those pieces was coming too close. Ironically, it was a Russian Progress cargo spacecraft docked to the ISS that was used to make the adjustment.

On the day of the test, the ISS crew had to shelter in their spacecraft for a day in case they needed to make an emergency return to Earth as debris whizzed by. Two Russian cosmonauts were aboard then and three are there now.

International Space Station as seen by the departing Crew-2, November 8, 2021. Credit: NASA

Australia now has accepted Harris’s invitation to join the moratorium. Canada, New Zealand, Japan, Germany, the United Kingdom, and South Korea did earlier, bringing the total to eight.

Australian Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Defence Hon Richard Marles MP said: “Destructive testing of direct-ascent anti-satellite missiles threatens the security of vital systems in space, which Australia and other nations depend on every day. With this pledge, the Government is demonstrating Australia’s commitment to act responsibly to protect our national security interests.”

Conversely, Russia is amping up rhetoric that commercial satellites may be targets if they are used to help defeat Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Russia’s state news agency TASS quoted Konstantin Vorontsov, deputy director of the Russian foreign ministry’s nonproliferation and arms control department, as telling the United Nations First Committee on Wednesday that “quasi-civil infrastructure may be a legitimate target for a retaliation strike.”

“I would like to draw special attention to the extremely dangerous tendency, which has surfaced in the course of the developments in Ukraine. I mean the use of outer space civil infrastructure facilities, including commercial ones, in armed conflicts by the United States and its allies. … Quasi-civil infrastructure may be a legitimate target for a retaliation strike. The West’s actions unreasonably jeopardize the stability of the civil space activities and numerous socio-economic processes on the ground, which determine people’s well being, first of all in developing countries.” — TASS, quoting Konstantin Vorontsov

Asked what the U.S. would do if there were such an attack, White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre reiterated an earlier statement by National Security Council Coordinator for Strategic Communications John Kirby that attacks on U.S. “infrastructure” will be met by a response. Speaking to reporters Thursday, she declined to go further.

So, I’m just not going to speculate from here. But what — what we will say is that any attack on U.S. infrastructure will be met with a response, as you’ve heard from my colleague, in a time and manner of our choosing. And that still stands.

We will pursue all means to explore, deter, and hold Russia accountable for any such attacks. Clearly, I’m not going to lay them down here in front of — in public. But we have made ourselves very clear. — Karine Jean-Pierre

Commercial satellites have been an integral part of U.S. national security operations for decades, especially in communications and remote sensing. But the proliferation of companies offering satellite-based services and the critical role they are playing in helping Ukraine fight Russian aggression is raising their profile, especially SpaceX’s Starlink high-speed Internet service and imagery from companies like Maxar.

At the same time, DOD is fully embracing commercial space services and expanding the use of Public-Private Partnerships to procure new national security space systems. At this week’s AIAA ASCEND conference in Las Vegas, Lt. Gen. John Shaw, Deputy Commander of U.S. Space Command, proffered that we have entered a third Space Age, a “conjunction” where all three space sectors — civil, commercial, and national security — are reliant upon each other. That means commercial satellites face a security issue.

“I am certain that my counterpart in Russia, whoever that is, or whoever they are, is not very happy with Starlink as it’s assisting Ukraine. And with commercial imagery, such as Maxar’s products, that are plastering all over the world news things that are going on. I don’t think they’re very happy about that. And we know that they’re probably going to take steps to try to stop those commercial services because they run counter to Russia’s national interest. That automatically means there’s a security issue facing commercial companies that we need to think through in the future as we enter a potential crisis or conflict. And I think security will be something that will envelop all of our sectors to one degree or another.” — Lt. Gen. John Shaw

Victoria Samson, Director of the Secure World Foundation’s Washington Office, told today that “SWF has been saying for years that commercial satellite operators needed to acknowledge the security implications of their products; I think that now we’re starting to see the companies realize that this is an issue and that they will have to now incorporate in their cost-benefit analysis of whether government contracts are worth the trade-offs.”

Although direct-ascent ASAT attacks are in the forefont of everyone’s mind because of Russia’s test last year, there are many other ways to compromise satellite services. Generically called “counterspace” capabilities, they include jamming, cyberattacks, and “dazzling” or blinding remote sensing satellites with ground-based lasers.

At the ASCEND conference, U.S. Space Force Director of Staff Lt. Gen. Nina Armagno said both Russia and China have ground-based lasers that can dazzle satellites. SpaceX’s Elon Musk has complained about Russian jamming of and hacking attempts on Starlink receivers in Ukraine. And a malware attack on modems for Viasat’s satellite Internet system in the hour immediately prior to Russia’s invasion is formally blamed on Russia by the United States, United Kingdom and European Union.

Victoria Samson, Director, Washington Office, Secure World Foundation

Samson sees those types of counterspace activities as more likely than direct-ascent ASATs.

“I don’t see Russia using destructive counterspace capabilities against commercial satellite operators. Russia has already demonstrated its willingness and ability to use counterspace capabilities against commercial satellites: it launched a cyberattack against ViaSat in tandem with its invasion of Ukraine in February. That was non-kinetic and temporary and it was against the ground segment of the ViaSat network. I would expect to see more cyber intrusions, as well as continued jamming – again, non-destructive counterspace capabilities.” — Victoria Samson

Hopefully that proves to be the case. China’s direct-ascent ASAT test against one of its own satellites in 2007 created over 3,000 pieces of debris, the vast majority of which are still in orbit. Along with Russia, the United States and India are the only other  countries to conduct such tests, the U.S. in 1985 and India in 2019.  The U.S. destroyed one of its own satellites in 2008 with an Aegis missile because it had malfunctioned and reentering intact could have posed a hazard to people on the ground (Operation Burnt Frost). Some count that as an ASAT test meant as a warning to China that although the U.S. does not have a dedicated ASAT system, it has other systems that can serve the same purpose.

Lt. Gen. Stephen Whiting, Commander, Space Operations Command, U.S. Space Force at a CSIS webinar, October 14, 2022. Screengrab.

SWF maintains a spreadsheet of all such events, how much debris was generated and how many pieces are still in orbit. None remain from the U.S. and only 11 from India, but there are 2,763 from China’s test in 2007 and 1,225 pieces from Russia’s in 2021.

Lt. Gen. Stephen Whiting, Commander of U.S. Space Force’s Space Operations Command, told the Center for Strategic and International Studies on October 14 it might be possible to forgive China because their space program was still in a nascent stage in 2007 and they might not have understood the consequences.

Not Russia, though: “you absolutely in no way can forgive the Russians for doing that less than a year ago as a historic and sophisticated space power. They knew what they were doing and they were sending us a message.”

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