Russia is warning it could target commercial satellites assisting U.S. military operations as its invasion of Ukraine drags on -- a threat that could prompt the Space Force and U.S. Space Command to see action if Moscow follows through.
Commercial satellites have been used to take aerial images that show deployments, damage and destruction of Russia's faltering, unprovoked campaign against its neighbor. Additionally, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk's Starlink satellites have provided internet access to the people of Ukraine, and he lauded the technology as a "major battlefield advantage" in a tweet earlier this month.
Konstantin Vorontsov, deputy director of the Russian Foreign Ministry's non-proliferation and arms control department, said Wednesday in remarks to the United Nations that some commercial satellites pose an "extremely dangerous trend that goes beyond the harmless use of outer space technologies and has become apparent during the latest developments in Ukraine."
"Apparently, these states do not realize that such actions in fact constitute indirect participation in military conflicts," Vorontsov added. "Quasi-civilian infrastructure may become a legitimate target for retaliation."
Russia's warning marks some of the strongest language to date, and puts the newly created Space Force as well as the existing U.S. Space Command on notice to defend and protect those commercial assets in orbit.
But it’s unclear how the government would respond to an attack on a commercial satellite, as the White House, Pentagon and diplomats continue to iron out a plan of action.
The Department of the Air Force, which the Space Force is part of, deferred comment on Russia's warnings to the U.S. Space Command. But the command then deferred comment to the Pentagon. A spokesperson for the Defense Department's space policy did not immediately return a comment to Military.com.
On Thursday, the Pentagon released the 2022 National Defense Strategy. In it, officials recognize that Russia is already "deploying counter-space capabilities that can target our Global Positioning System and other space-based capabilities that support military power and daily civilian life."
But the new National Defense Strategy does not address the looming question of how the military would respond to an attack on a commercial satellite system connected to the U.S. or an ally.
"Starlink is used by the Ukrainians for offensive combat operations as well, including artillery ... it has built up just a civilian use and also an offensive military role as well," Seth Jones,
the director of the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington, D.C., think tank, told Military.com on Thursday.
"It's an interesting question, how the U.S. would respond in that case, to an attack against a U.S. or a multinational space company, particularly one that was involved in supporting an ally or a partner of the U.S.," he continued.
Russia has taken drastic measures to flex its muscle in space in recent years.
Last November, the Russian Federation destroyed one of its own Soviet-era satellites with a missile, sending thousands of scraps of shrapnel hurtling through space, a cloud of debris that threatened other orbiting satellites, including those belonging to the U.S.
Gen. David Thompson, the Space Force's first vice chief of space operations, told The Washington Post that Russia also sent a small satellite so close to a U.S. national security satellite in 2019 that it wasn't clear whether it was attacking or not.
The Russian satellite backed off and conducted a weapons test by releasing a small target it then shot with a projectile.
"It maneuvered close, it maneuvered dangerously, it maneuvered threateningly so that they were coming close enough that there was a concern of collision," Thompson told the paper. "So clearly, the Russians were sending us a message."
Physical attacks on satellites are not widely broadcast by the military. Rather, many interferences are often never seen, and take the form of cyberattacks, radio jamming or making military equipment harder to function, according to the 2020 Defense Space Strategy.
U.S. government officials quickly rebuked the missile launch as "reckless and dangerous," and the military took it as a sign that Russia has no qualms about opening fire in space.
Norms of fighting and what defines a notable act of aggression in space are still being defined by the diplomatic community.
The White House's National Security Strategy, released Oct. 12, was not as focused on describing America's role in space as a battlefield, unlike President Donald Trump's administration.
"America will maintain our position as the world's leader in space and work alongside the international community to ensure the domain's sustainability, safety, stability and security," the 2022 strategy says. "We will enhance the resilience of U.S. space systems that we rely on for critical national and homeland security functions. These efforts aim to protect U.S. interests in space, avoid destabilizing arms races, and responsibly steward the space environment."
By comparison, the 2017 National Security Strategy said "any harmful interference with or an attack upon critical components of our space architecture that directly affects this vital U.S. interest will be met with a deliberate response at a time, place, manner and domain of our choosing."
Emily Harding, a senior fellow with the CSIS think tank, told Military.com that employees with those commercial satellite companies are unsure of what backing they would get from the military if Russia took aim at their equipment.
The fact that America's response to Russia's warnings are not covered in the new National Defense Strategy is also cause for concern, she added.
"I do know that, from the commercial side, a lot of those companies and corporations are debating internally, 'What have we gotten ourselves into?'" Harding said. "I do not think this [National Defense Strategy] tackles that question, and I think it's going to become a very pressing question in the next few years."
The Defense Department has gotten a request from Musk to take over funding for SpaceX's satellite network that is aiding Ukraine, The Associated Press reported. The billionaire tweeted that the system is already being targeted.
"We've also had to defend against cyberattacks & jamming, which are getting harder," Musk tweeted Oct. 14.
-- Thomas Novelly can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @TomNovelly.