Author : Manoj Joshi

Expert Speak Space Tracker
Published on Feb 27, 2024

Recent reports about Russia's experiments with new space technology have set off alarm bells in countries worldwide

A new frontier: Space warfare

Future war is seen as one with autonomous weapons, robots, and Artificial Intelligence (AI). But another key element that has emerged is the race to dominate space. Satellites in space provide a range of capabilities for combat systems on Earth like GPS guidance for munitions and men, surveillance of adversary movements, command, and control. Destroying or disabling them can have multiplier effects on ground.

Earlier this month, Michael R Turner, the chairman of the United States (US) House Intelligence Committee, remarked that a new Russian development of space technology was emerging as a “serious national security threat.” On the next day, US National Security Council spokesman John Kirby confirmed that information was shared with the US Intelligence Committee and be made available to other Congressmen. President Joe Biden was briefed about it earlier and he has ordered National Security Advisor, Jake Sullivan, to brief senior legislators. The Kremlin spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, dismissed the warning, terming it a “malicious fabrication” and a trick by the White House to get US lawmakers to approve more money for Ukraine to counter Russia.

While no details have since emerged, there has been speculation that this capability could pose a major threat to US intelligence and communications satellites with a nuclear weapon. Such a weapon, if deployed, could destroy communications, space-based surveillance and military command and control systems of the US. But it is unlikely that the Russians will put a nuclear warhead in space. Instead, the information could be more about a Russian nuclear-powered device that could blind, jam, or gut the electronic insides of US satellites or issue an electromagnetic pulse (EMP) that could destroy all satellite electronics in a certain range.

Like many major space-faring nations, Russia has experimented with space-based systems to disable satellites. This has ranged from ground-based missiles to knock off satellites in orbit, to nuclear energy and directed energy to disable them. In 2021, Russia launched a missile from Earth to destroy an old satellite of its own. In 2019, India had done the same. A nuclear explosion would indiscriminately destroy all satellites within a certain range and these could be Russian ones too. A nuclear weapon in space would also violate the UN’s 1967 Outer Space Treaty through which nations are barred from placing “in orbit around the Earth any objects carrying nuclear weapons or any other kinds of weapons of mass destruction.”

However, countries have experimented with several ways of disabling adversary satellites. One of them is a co-orbital anti-satellite (ASAT) system which could be anything ranging from a small satellite that is sent proximate to an existing satellite and detonated. Another technique is to use a robotic arm to grab or destabilise the target satellite.

In addition, high-powered lasers and high-powered microwaves can also be used to damage targeted satellites. In 2006, China the US publication Defense News noted that a ground-based laser had been used to “dazzle” and blind a US optical surveillance satellite several times. The Chinese themselves have acknowledged a successful 2005 experiment to blind a satellite using a ground-based laser gun. Chinese military literature has featured discussions on aeroplane—and satellite-based lasers. Similar discussions are available on micro-wave weapons systems which are being developed for shipborne use, but can also have implications for space.

The Russian development, probably follows the deployment of Starlink satellites by Ukraine to bypass their efforts to disable Ukrainian communications systems. Further, Starlink has provided them the invaluable ability to share information from diverse sources, ranging from commercial satellite imagery and the West’s secret intelligence. It is another matter that in 2023, the war settled into a phase of attrition, where Ukraine may have had the algrothmic advantage, but lacked adequate artillery ammunition.

The Starlink system with thousands of satellite offers resilience against traditional anti-satellite weapons like ASAT missiles and directed energy weapons. But a nuclear detonation could disable them by the hundreds if not thousands. But a nuclear detonation in space would not discriminate against friendly or adversary satellites and the Russians risk disabling their own satellites, as well as of countries who are not involved in the war.

The vulnerability from space was the reason why the US established a US Space Force in 2019. The force’s creation had to do with the capabilities that China and Russia had already developed in relation to satellite-based US communications such as GPS and the ability to detect missile launches. These capabilities included techniques of jamming satellites, intercepting their feeds, blinding, shooting them down and disorienting them by shifting their orbits using satellites with robotic arms.

The New York Times has noted that the US has already been at work to counter these threats for some time. Even as news of the alleged Russian space weapon broke, the US had put in orbit a missile tracking system prototype to test a new plan named Proliferated Warfighter Space Architecture that aimed at blanketing the Lower Earth Orbit (LEO) with hundreds of smaller, cheaper satellites in constellations similar to Starlink. The system would be able to operate even if dozens of them were destroyed.

According to a report, Russia has extensively jammed signals from GPS satellites in Ukraine to foil drone operations but has not used systems to blind satellites though it possesses such systems. In October 2022, a Russian diplomat warned in a speech at the UN that commercial satellites could become legitimate targets and that this “quasi-civilian infrastructure may become a legitimate target for retaliation.”

The issue of Russian activity is not an abstract one for India which also depends on satellites for communications, surveillance, and navigation. According to reports, the US has instructed its administration to hold negotiations with Russia on the issue and also reached out to India and China to dissuade Moscow from deploying such weapons.

Manoj Joshi is a Distinguished Fellow at the Observer Research Foundation

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Manoj Joshi

Manoj Joshi

Manoj Joshi is a Distinguished Fellow at the ORF. He has been a journalist specialising on national and international politics and is a commentator and ...

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