Blowing satellites up is harder than Putin would have you believe

Physics stands between Russia and effective space warfare
The future of warfare: Complicated.
The future of warfare: Complicated.
Photo: Mikhail Klimentyev/AFP (Getty Images)
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Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has shone a spotlight on the powerful new capabilities of commercial satellites—and painted a target on their back.

Russian officials have mused about attacks on these spacecraft. Diplomat Konstantin Vorontsov told a UN meeting this week that “quasi-civilian infrastructure may become a legitimate target for retaliation.”

While the US military and intelligence agencies have their own spacecraft in orbit, a new generation of satellite operators is now providing communications and remote-sensing to American soldiers and spies, as well as their allies. Privately owned satellites are tracking the Russian military using optical, radar, and radio sensors, and providing communications to Ukrainian forces.

This has not escaped the notice of the Russian military. Russian-backed actors have attempted to jam transmissions from communications satellites and GPS navigation signals, and hacked into satellite networks to shut them down. But these “non-kinetic” attacks have not really succeeded in stopping the use of space assets in support of Ukraine. That has led to the discussion of kinetic threats—using missiles to destroy satellites in orbit.

There’s no question that Russia has the capability to do this. In Nov. 2021, it destroyed one of its own satellites as a demonstration, a move that scattered chunks of satellite and missile around the planet, which the International Space Station had to dodge to avoid being struck.

Why destroying a modern satellite network is so difficult

The problem for Russia is that most privately-built satellites are small and relatively cheap, operating as networks of hundreds or even thousands of spacecraft flying many miles apart. Destroying one or even several of these spacecraft could degrade the capability of the satellite network, but not put it out of action entirely. The precision-guided missiles required to destroy the satellites, on the other hand, are expensive to build and launch, at a time when key components like silicon chips and gyroscopes are difficult for Russia to import due to sanctions.

Indeed, the ability of SpaceX’s Starlink network to continuously provide communications to Ukraine fighters has convinced the US military that using swarms of smaller satellites is smarter than its traditional approach of flying large, expensive satellites very high above the planet.

Legally speaking, an attack on civilian infrastructure exists in a grey area. Signatories to the UN Outer Space Treaty, which include Russia, commit to the peaceful exploration of space and to not deploy nuclear weapons in orbit. Otherwise, however, there is no limit on military action. Anti-satellite weapons have been tested by several countries, including the US, Russia, China, and India. They haven’t been used against enemy targets because, thankfully, space powers have not gone directly to war with one another.

Now, ostensibly civilian satellites are providing services directly to military users. It’s easy to see, from a Russian perspective, why they could become targets of opportunity. If in some future conflict, a privately built Chinese satellite network was assisting the People’s Liberation Army in a conflict against a US ally, you can imagine the tables being turned.

Still, there’s another reason to be cautious about attacks in orbit: Destroying a satellite generates debris that threatens other spacecraft, which is why the US and other countries are pushing for a ban on testing such weapons. Any serious attempt to take out a constellation would involve multiple strikes and unpredictable results. Other satellites would be threatened, as would the International Space Station. Any state that has invested in space assets would think twice about risking them with a large strike in orbit.