Nov 1, 2022 - Science

Commercial satellites are the next front in space war

Illustration of a satellite with dog tags hanging from it

Illustration: Natalie Peeples/Axios

Private satellite networks that aid militaries in wartime are becoming potential targets for enemy forces — stoking fears that earthly conflicts are extending further into space.

Why it matters: Space is an essential part of war-fighting. Satellites provide situational awareness for troops on the ground, communications and views of the battlefield.

Driving the news: Ukraine is relying on SpaceX's Starlink constellation of internet-beaming satellites after Russia cut off internet service to the nation.

  • Senior Russian foreign ministry official Konstantin Vorontsov said last week that commercial satellites could be "legitimate" targets in wartime if used for military purposes.

What's happening: Once-hypothetical questions about wartime norms involving commercial satellites are now real concerns that nations must grapple with.

  • White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said in response to Vorontsov's statement that any attack on a commercial U.S. satellite would provoke a response from the U.S.
  • "We will pursue all means to explore, deter and hold Russia accountable for any such attacks," Jean-Pierre said during a press gaggle last week.

The big picture: In the shadow of these escalations and thinly veiled threats, international attention is turning toward establishing norms and rules for behavior in space.

  • "There's nothing you can point to and say, 'OK, we've all agreed that that's a bad idea'," the Secure World Foundation's Victoria Samson tells me.
  • Establishing international norms would allow nations to point to bad actions in space and say, "this isn't just a geopolitical rival complaining about what you're doing," Samson said. "This is something our international community has come together and identified as something they find incredibly irresponsible or inflammatory."
  • The Pentagon is also highlighting the lack of basic norms as a major threat to U.S. assets. "The risk of inadvertent escalation is particularly high due to unclear norms of behavior" among other issues, the National Defense Strategy report released last week said.

Between the lines: The U.S. military has historically relied on large, expensive satellites for situational awareness on the ground. Those spacecraft are obvious targets for attacks.

  • The National Defense Strategy calls for the creation of constellations of satellites in orbit that are "diverse, resilient, and redundant" — similar to those being built by private companies — that can aid in national security.
  • The Space Development Agency (SDA) already has plans to launch a satellite constellation that would distribute sensors used in missile tracking and other military efforts across hundreds of satellites.

Where it stands: Starlink's efforts in Ukraine have also shown the SDA a distributed network of satellites can aid in military efforts, according to a report from Sandra Erwin at SpaceNews.

  • Russia has not shot down any Starlink satellites, and if it did, it likely wouldn't take out the full network.
  • Cyberattacks against the constellation also haven't been successful.

What to watch: The U.S. has already moved toward establishing a norm in space by saying it would no longer test debris-creating anti-satellite weapons in orbit. Multiple nations have now signed on to that plan.

  • Those conversations and lines of communication could lead to establishing more norms of behavior, including what is considered appropriate behavior toward private satellites in orbit during wartime.
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