Russia’s military has deployed several cutting-edge space warfare tools during its nearly 15-month war in Ukraine, using its space assets for intelligence operations and to limit the Ukrainian military’s battlefield command and control, according to a new report.
Electronic jamming of satellites, maneuvering robot spy satellites, cyberattacks on ground terminals and threats of directed energy strikes on imagery satellites show the Ukraine war to be a likely model for space conflicts in future wars, says the latest annual review by the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies.
“Russia’s attacks against space capabilities used by Ukraine are an example of how counterspace weapons can and will likely be used prior to and during future conflict,” the report, “Space Threat Assessment 2023,” said.
“As China and Russia put more counterspace weapons into operational units, such integration of counterspace weapons and tactics with broader military plans will only increase.”
The report also warned that the increased deployment of space weapons poses “disastrous effects for an array of national security, civil, and commercial users,” particularly if destructive weapons create orbital debris that make large areas of space unnavigable.
In one example, Russian space forces jammed the GPS signals from a European drone that was monitoring the Ukraine border in March 2021.
Also, a Russian maneuvering robot satellite called Luch appears to be supporting the Russian war effort by maneuvering and parking near commercial Intelsat satellites, including one satellite that was monitored for 100 days from October 2021 to January 2020.
The Luch satellite remains positioned near a U.S. communications satellite as of January, the report said.
The Intelsat satellites are used for secure military communications, an indication the Russians may be attempting to steal signals intelligence from the systems.
In another example, a Russian cyberattack shortly before the February 2022 invasion blocked thousands of Ukraine ground terminals used by the Kyiv government and military from sharing communications via the Viasat satellite communications network.
In response, SpaceX, owned by billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk, rushed thousands of Starlink communications satellite ground terminals to Ukraine, restoring critical communications and internet links.
Moscow then attempted and failed to jam the Starlink terminals in Ukraine, which evaded cyberattacks through software code adjustments, the report said.
The lessons being learned in the Ukraine conflict could be useful elsewhere, according to analysts: Taiwan could adopt a similar strategy of using a network of some 3,660 Starlink satellites to thwart possible Chinese electronic warfare during a future conflict across the Taiwan Strait, the report said.
The first space capabilities in the Ukraine war were the government and commercial satellite images identifying Russian military force movements prior to the invasion, largely negating the element of surprise for the invading forces.
Surprisingly, according to the report, the Kremlin so far has not used its significant counterspace arsenal – ground-launched anti-satellite missiles, lasers and jammers, and drone satellites — to blind or damage either category of imagery satellites helping Kyiv.
That could change, however, based on comments by Russian foreign ministry arms official Konstantin Vorontsov, who warned recently that Moscow could retaliate against commercial satellites supporting Ukraine in the fight.
Russia also has been jamming or sending false signals to receivers of the European Global Navigation Satellite System over Ukraine, the report said.
Four types of Russian electronic warfare devices were detected in Ukraine, the report said.
“While it is unclear which systems are deployed by Russia, it is clear that jamming has been widespread and frequent,” the report said.
Russia also to date has not used its Zadira directed-energy weapon against satellites over Ukraine, but a Russian official said the weapon had been deployed to destroy a Ukrainian drone.
“Despite much boasting of capability, there are no independently verified reports of Russia deploying directed-energy capabilities against satellites in its war on Ukraine,” the report said.
Retired Space Force Gen. John “Jay” Raymond, former commander of space operations, said it is not surprising that Russia has tried to deny access to commercial satellites through jamming and cyberattacks.
“Commercial space has served as a great equalizer, allowing Ukrainian forces to have the necessary intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance and command and control to better understand Russian force disposition, communicate and stay connected globally, and strike with precision,” Gen. Raymond said in a foreword to the report.
The CSIS report said Beijing’s military continues to develop and deploy significant space warfare capabilities.
“China maintains a substantial kinetic [anti-satellite] capability, most notably demonstrated by a debris-creating 2007 test, as well as numerous subsequent non-intercept tests in the years since,” the report said.
China is working on developing small laser weapons that can be mounted on satellites, the report said.
China also has several small maneuvering satellites, and in early 2022 two Chinese satellites squared off against a U.S. space surveillance satellite in what the report said was a “cat- and-mouse game” in space over several days.
“Each time the U.S. satellite would approach either SJ-12 satellite, the Chinese satellites would quickly maneuver away,” the report said.
China also launched two different space planes in August 2022 with military applications that appear modeled after the U.S. X-37B reusable space plane. One of the Chinese spacecraft remains in orbit.
Russia has conducted no anti-satellite tests in the past year, following the November 2021 test of a Nudol missile that destroyed a Soviet-era satellite.
Other countries are joining the space arms race, according to CSIS. The report notes that North Korea has used electronic warfare to jam GPS signals, and could use cyberattacks against space and ground systems in the future.
Israel is building a directed-energy system called Iron Beam to complement its Iron Dome anti-missile system.
“This electronic warfare weapon is currently being designed for UAVs and missiles, but with technological changes such as increased power and targeting, it could evolve into a counterspace capability,” the report said.