As Russia stalks US satellites, a space arms race may be heating up

By Aaron Bateman | May 22, 2020

An artistic rendering of an anti-satellite weapon.A 1980s US Defense Department artistic rendering of an anti-satellite weapon. Credit: public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

In August 2008, after skirmishes between pro-Russian separatists and government forces in Georgia, Russian forces invaded the former Soviet republic. Russian troops came within a few miles of its capital, Tbilisi, before agreeing to a ceasefire. On the surface, Russia appeared to get what it wanted during the five-day war: de facto independence for two restive regions of a country that overall had been clearly turning toward the West. But the swift victory masked the degree to which the war served as a wake-up call: the Russian military had gone to war in the 21st Century using World War II-era compasses for navigation and outmoded equipment for weapons targeting.

The Georgian conflict proved a far cry from the US military’s GPS-powered assault on Iraqi forces in a 100-hour ground offensive in 1991. For Russia, the conflict signaled the need for a major military upgrade–particularly in the satellite systems critical for navigation, targeting, and communications.

Twelve years and billions of rubles later, Russia is now challenging the United States’ long-standing supremacy in space and working to exploit the US military’s dependence on space systems for communications, navigation, intelligence, and targeting. Moscow is developing counter-space weapons as a part of its overall information warfare strategy. For example, Russia just tested an anti-satellite missile system designed to destroy satellites in low earth orbit. Moreover, military leaders in Russia view US satellites as the key enablers of America’s ability to execute rapid, agile, and global military operations; they are intent on echoing this success and modernizing their own military satellites to more effectively support Russian forces.

Since the end of the Cold War, the number of countries with space programs has markedly increased. Many of them are actively developing space weapons. China, for example, has an operational ground-launched anti-satellite system, according to the US intelligence community. India successfully tested its own space weapon in 2019. France announced that it will launch a series of armed satellites. Even Iran is believed to be able to develop a rudimentary anti-satellite weapon in the near term. Russia is the only country, however, that is reportedly approaching US satellites in an aggressive manner. Space systems are essential for warfighting on Earth and the large growth in the number of countries fielding space weapons means the likelihood that outer space will be transformed into a battlefield has increased.

Today, Moscow is closely tailing US satellites and testing its own anti-satellite weapon, openly engaging in more belligerent action in outer space because the Kremlin recognizes that America’s information advantage in warfare is totally dependent on space capabilities. Moscow’s destabilizing behavior could prompt the United States to take a more aggressive posture in space in the future. Russia’s behavior in space should not be dismissed as insignificant. Rather, this situation poses a grave vulnerability for the United States.

Russia’s space strategy has its roots in the Cold War. Moscow recognized after it shot down a US U-2 reconnaissance aircraft in 1960 that the United States had become completely dependent on satellites to collect intelligence. By then, Soviet military leaders had concluded that satellites had become Washington’s primary source for strategic warning of an impending attack.

Soviet leaders also suspected their American counterparts were using satellites for more than just intelligence gathering. In the 1960s, Moscow viewed a US inspection satellite program—designed to monitor other satellites—as an on-orbit weapons system. The Kremlin believed that the United States was developing satellites and other assets like the space shuttle program as offensive space weapons, ones that would be able to deliver nuclear weapons to Earth. From the Soviet perspective, the US shuttle program could be used to rapidly strike targets anywhere in the Soviet Union. A 1976 Soviet evaluation of the shuttle stated that it could “make a ‘dive’ in its orbit as it passed over Moscow and release a nuclear weapon.” And Ronald Reagan’s 1983 announcement of his Strategic Defense Initiative, more commonly called “Star Wars,” further stoked Soviet fears.

Sci-fi fantasies aside, for militaries, satellites are extremely useful in targeting Earth-based weapons against Earth-based targets. By the 1970s, the Soviets had launched the RORSAT ocean surveillance satellites that were designed to locate NATO ships and provide targeting information to Soviet anti-ship weapons. Moscow recognized, therefore, that space systems were invaluable for supporting tactical military operations. RORSAT served as a primary justification for President Gerald Ford to reinvigorate the US anti-satellite weapon program in 1977. The competition between the United States and the Soviet Union had now dangerously extended into outer space; satellites were becoming military targets.

US intelligence warns about Russia wanting nuclear weapons in space

In the late 1970s, the United States began developing an anti-satellite weapon that could be launched from an F-15 fighter. This program became known as the ASM-135 and the Miniature Homing Vehicle. In 1985, Reagan authorized a test against a US satellite that was successfully completed; this demonstrated to the Soviet Union that the United States possessed the capability to shoot down Soviet satellites in low earth orbit. As the Cold War came to an end, so too did this program.

Fortunately, the Cold War ended before space could truly be transformed into a theater of military conflict. Soviet ideas about military space operations, nevertheless, continue to shape Russian attitudes about the space environment.

Russia’s military space strategy. Space systems provide rapid and global communication, intelligence gathering, navigation, and precision targeting. In addition to enhancing its capabilities in space, Moscow is simultaneously developing counter-space weapons to destroy America’s space-enabled warfighting advantage. Senior Russian military officers have discussed Moscow’s need to maintain dominance in space. They advocate having the capability to disrupt adversary spacecraft and ground support equipment.

In February, 2018, then US Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats presented the annual World Threat Assessment to Congress, highlighting the US intelligence community’s position that “Russia is pursuing a diverse suite of capabilities to affect satellites in all orbital regimes.” In early 2019, Coats said that in the next few years Russia will likely have an operational anti-satellite capability for targeting satellites in low earth orbit.

According to US intelligence, Moscow is developing kinetic weapons, high-powered lasers, and jammers to target the full spectrum of American and allied space systems.

This research and development effort and Russia’s space awakening was spurred by the US military’s use of high-precision weapons and space-based systems during the first Gulf War, during which satellite technology had proved so successful that a seminal battle between American and Iraqi forces is known simply as the Battle of 73 Easting. This is a reference to a point on a north-south line in what was a featureless dessert–the kind of place you’d get to using GPS. Former US Air Force Chief of Staff Merill McPeak even referred to Desert Storm as the “first space war” because of how successfully space systems were integrated into combat operations.

Although the Gulf War prompted Russia to re-think its space strategy, the Kremlin’s short conflict with Georgia more than a decade later would highlight the woeful state of Russia’s space systems. Despite not having space-based navigation and intelligence during the August, 2008 campaign, Russia was able to quickly defeat its much smaller and weaker opponent. But military leaders recognized that other adversaries had significantly more sophisticated warfighting capabilities.

The short war with Georgia prompted Vladimir Putin, who was then the prime minister, to push for the largest modernization of the Russian armed forces since the collapse of the Soviet Union, an initiative that was branded the New Look. The military recognized the necessity of advanced command and control systems and the integration of air and space power for rapid and high-precision strikes.

For Russia to compete with peers like the United States, officials at the Ministry of Defense concluded, the country would need to extensively reorganize and modernize its information systems. During the Georgian war, Russia did not have constellations of satellites that could provide imagery in a timely enough manner to be used for targeting or effectively aid in navigation. The military couldn’t use GLONASS (Russia’s equivalent of GPS), furtherer hampering Russian air and land operations. The New Look program emphasized “efficiency of command structures, the need for more rapid reaction, and the modernization of technology.”

Space and counter-space systems would be essential to achieve information superiority during battle. Since the Georgian war, the Russian military has focused on improving its information systems to more effectively integrate intelligence and strike capabilities. Space systems and electronic warfare have been central to this effort. In many ways the Kremlin has succeeded. By October 2011, GLONASS became a fully functional constellation with global coverage, and Russian ships, aircraft, and tanks are outfitted with GLONASS navigation terminals.

Russia’s information warfare strategy also calls for the ability to control the information space. To that end, Russia has fully integrated tactical counter-space systems that target GPS and satellite communication satellites into its deployable electronic warfare suite. According to Russian military expert Roger McDermott, “Russian forces do not move or conduct operations without EW [electronic warfare] support.”

US intelligence warns about Russia wanting nuclear weapons in space

US intelligence agencies believe that Russia has gone further than developing systems to disrupt satellite signals and is working on weapons that can actually damage or destroy satellites. Without specifically mentioning types of weapons,  the head of the Russian General Staff Valery Gerasimov has  said space systems will be decisive in future conflicts.

To more effectively manage space capabilities, in 2015 Moscow decided to merge the Space Forces, the Air Force, and Aerospace Defense Forces into one organization known as the Russian Aerospace Forces. Major-General Aleksandr Tsymbalov observed that “the creation of the [Russian Aerospace Forces] marks recognition by Moscow that outer space and airspace will be the main spheres of future military operations.”

In order to effectively target adversary satellites, Russia needs accurate information on their location. To achieve this goal, the government has modernized the 821st Main Space Intelligence Center located outside of Moscow. This organization is responsible for using Russia’s echelon of electro-optical and radar space tracking systems to maintain an accurate catalogue of space objects.

Russian space surveillance seeks not only to keep track of satellites, but also to determine their purpose and capabilities. To fulfil this mission, Russia has been modernizing its space surveillance infrastructure. In 2015, the Russian Ministry of Defense announced that it had finished upgrading its Okno-M electro-optical space monitoring capability located in Tajikistan. According to the Russian military, the system is specifically designed to “collect information on space objects and control the geostationary region of space.” The Russian military has been upgrading its tracking radars to include the installation of a new system in Crimea that greatly expands the military’s space domain awareness.

As Russia expands its space capabilities, military leaders in Moscow recognize their increasing dependence on satellites could increase their own vulnerabilities. In the event of a war, having the ability to quickly re-constitute (i.e., deploy and replace) destroyed or damaged satellites will be a strategic necessity. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia’s most important launch facility, the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, found itself in a newly sovereign country. The Kremlin leases the property, but has sought to increase the security and autonomy of its own space launch infrastructure in the Russian Federation. To that end, in 2016, Vladimir Putin officially opened Russia’s third launch facility, the Vostochniy Cosmodrome located in the Far East.

What’s next. Russia has been taking advantage of the lack of international consensus on what constitutes acceptable behavior in space. The Russian military has closely tailed US satellites, suddenly approaching them without warning. It has also conducted an anti-satellite weapons test. This system could destroy critical US military satellites in low earth orbit. It seems clear that Russia is likely testing how the United States and its allies might react to aggressive space behaviors and is gaining important insights into American national security space capabilities.

As tensions between the West and Russia increase, so too will Moscow’s aggressive behavior in space. The Kremlin recognizes the qualitative superiority of NATO military forces, but it also knows that the alliance needs space systems for high-precision warfighting. Through its counter-space program, Russia hopes to achieve a means of reducing NATO’s information advantage. Space weapons provide Russia a mechanism for leveling the playing field with its Western adversaries.

Moscow’s aggressive behavior in space could prompt the United States to pursue more assertive policies, like the reinvigoration of Cold War-era anti-satellite weapons programs. In 2019, former Secretary of the Air Force Heather Wilson said that at some point, the United States needs the ability to “hit back.” Russia’s destabilizing actions in space could, therefore, fuel a dangerous arms race in space.

The coronavirus pandemic is further eroding the strength of international institutions like the World Health Organization and countries seem to be retreating into nationalist positions. At this critical moment, security challenges that have important implications for the future of humanity must not be dismissed.  The post-Cold War-era  treaty New START has provisions that protect national security satellites from interference. The treaty is set to expire in 2021, and it is not clear if the United States and Russia will successfully negotiate an extension. Even though countries of the world are facing an unprecedented crisis, now is the time to bolster international cooperation beyond Earth’s atmosphere.

Neglecting threats in space could transform the unsettling possibility of Star Wars into a dangerous reality.

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