The rapid proliferation of commercial satellites is also revealing increased potential for counter-satellite military operations and collateral damage.
SpaceX reported that its Starlink satellite internet service was jammed in Ukraine after the start of the war, and Viasat reported hackers attacking its satellite internet service there around the same time. In the wake of Russia’s debris-generating test of a ground-launched anti-satellite weapon in November 2021, operators running satellites in low-Earth orbit saw increased risk as more than 1,500 new pieces of debris were scattered in that region.
No law prohibits such ASAT tests today, but the Russian action intensified calls to establish norms of acceptable behavior in space. The U.S. government pledged not to perform any future debris-generating tests in space.
To help inform efforts to establish norms, the not-for-profit Aerospace Corporation’s Center for Space Policy and Strategy studied other areas where civil and military activities converge. That study, “Commercial Normentum: Space Security Challenges, Commercial Actors, and Norms of Behavior,” published Aug. 23, notes that commercial satellites could make attractive targets in a space war and suggests that commercial operators should be involved in the issues raised as a result. The paper lists factors for companies to weigh when deciding whether to take an active role in establishing norms and ideas for how they might do so.
Aerospace’s Robin Dickey, the report’s author, writes that establishing security norms could be more important in space than in other domains because “the physics of debris propagation in space make it much harder to limit the effects of any single accident or conflict.”
Indeed, Dickey continues, “the behavior of any single actor in space has the potential to affect other actors in space through phenomena like debris or spectrum interference, and this interconnectedness raises the stakes on norm development.”
The number of satellites the U.S. tracks in Earth orbit has more than tripled since the Space Force became an independent military service.
“Three years ago, I would have told you we were tracking 1,500 satellites,” said Chief of Space Operations Gen. John W. “Jay” Raymond at the AFA Warfare Symposium in March. “Today, we’re tracking almost 5,000 satellites.” The number increases by leaps and bounds in part because satellites have gotten smaller and satellite constellations have proliferated. In that same speech, Raymond noted a single launch that had just released “another 47 out of Cape Canaveral.”
Adding to the complexity and risk is the emerging intermingling of civil and military uses of satellite assets. The Space Force is increasingly interested in incorporating commercial constellations and data into its activities, both as a means to extend situational awareness and to ensure resilience in space in the future. Raymond has called America’s and allied space industries a “great advantage” and said the Space Force must harness and leverage the “explosion of business that’s going on.”
Army Gen. James H. Dickinson, head of U.S. Space Command, said at April’s Space Symposium, Colorado’s largely commercial space event, that he is most interested in how commercial space firms can improve space domain awareness. “How do I get better at space domain awareness … is very critical to what we do.”
The risk, both to commercial entities and the U.S. military, is how military uses for those systems could turn them into legitimate military targets. “The increasing role that commercial satellites play in providing services such as communication and remote sensing to militaries could also contribute to heightened perceptions of commercial satellites as potential threats,” Dickey writes.
Some companies worry, she writes, that “commercial satellites could be the first targets in a conflict.” China, in particular, would be unlikely to differentiate between military and commercial constellations: “Were conflict to significantly escalate in space, the potential lack of distinction between military and commercial satellites could result in targeting of even commercial satellites that do not provide military services.”
As uncrewed assets, commercial satellites could also be seen as lower-threshhold targets, making their destruction “less escalatory” than manned assets in other domains, Dickey writes. And because they travel in predictable orbits, they are particularly vulnerable to attack. Meanwhile, “potential defenses are prohibitively expensive or infeasible given the constraints of physics in space.”
Treaties already address a potential nuclear detonation, and a pre-existing prohibition on sovereignty means no one can violate it. The cost, complexity, and risks associated with a kinetic attack on a satellite also make less-destructive, nonkinetic attacks more likely.
“Just as a kinetic attack on another country’s commercial satellites could create debris that in turn threatens the aggressor’s [own] satellites,” Dickey states this could reduce the likelihood of commercial satellites being attacked. “An aggressor may instead target a ground station or opt for more limited means of attack,” she added.
RISKS FOR COMPANIES TO CONSIDER
Dickey drew comparisons with past instances in which militaries targeted civilian property, organizing them into three categories:
- Collateral damage from attacks on military objectives. Landmines roughly equate to how ASATs scatter destructive debris, she writes. The International Space Station provides an example of how the debris field created during Russia’s test affects satellites. In the July meeting of NASA’s Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel, member Mark Sirangelo, former chair of the DOD’s Defense Innovation Board, reported that out of 681 conjunction notifications the ISS crew had received in 2022, to warn of closely approaching objects, 505 traced back to the Russian ASAT test. For satellites, radio frequency interference or nuclear detonations could potentially cause collateral damage to commercial satellites as well.
- Attacks due to misidentification or misinterpretation of a commercial activity. At least six commercial airliners were shot down before clear norms were established for mitigating against such commercial targets in the midst of combat. In space, similar norms could provide a way for satellite operators to establish safe passage in space, avoiding risk of loss due to military activity.
- Deliberate targeting—either kinetic or nonkinetic—in war. Historically, commercial maritime shipping has been targeted during military conflict, justified because such ships either carried legitimately targeted supplies or helped support military activity economically. In space, deliberate jamming, cyberattacks, or the “disruption of sensors” with directed energy could similarly be used to apply pressure to commercial activities. Some legal experts have warned that co-locating military and commercial payloads on the same satellite could turn that platform into a legitimate military target. The same could be argued for commercial satellites whose primary use serves military purposes.
Dickey makes the case, in part, that because companies have a stake in space security, they should also get a say in establishing the security-related norms that otherwise might seem like the purview of governments.
Because norms will only work to deter bad behavior to the extent that they’re accepted around the world, Dickey concedes that they may prove most useful in justifying a response—“providing a legal or political point around which other space actors can rally if a state goes rogue.”
Practices such as establishing minimum cybersecurity standards for satellites; transparently sharing mission data between the commercial sector and governments—even competing ones; and implementing formal lines of communication in case of problems all could help protect satellites and avert disaster.
So could coming to a “common understanding of which behaviors will be interpreted by states as a threat” and which can inform commercial operators on actions to avoid. For example: “How close can a satellite get or what actions can it take before a state is allowed to use force against it? What measures are states expected to take to identify and communicate with satellites before they can be categorized as a threat? Is the burden to prove that a satellite is not a threat on the state, the commercial operator, or some combination of the two?”
Dickey’s paper recommends three potential approaches:
- Protect all civilian/commercial satellites. In this circumstance, any attack on commercial assets would be ruled out, regardless of the satellite’s purpose. Determining what constitutes an attack would also be necessary. “Does temporary interference that does not cause physical damage count as an attack?” Dickey writes. “Are commercial satellites that sell services to militaries viable military objectives?” However, she acknowledges that this option could be “ignored by states that perceive a strong strategic need to disrupt any services flowing to the military of an adversary.”
- Protect all essential space services. In this approach, only certain kinds of services would be protected.The risk of this plan “would exclude numerous commercial satellites from the highest degree of normative protection” … but it could get closer to legal and political common ground.
- Protect only those commercial satellites that do not provide military services. This could be done by conveying to other countries “intentions and activities to de-escalate misunderstandings.”
Establishing normative behavior does not assure that satellites will never fall prey to military attack or collateral damage, Dickey notes. But by establishing international standards of behavior, such rules could help mitigate against risks.
Norms “should not be the only approach to mitigating potential threats,” Dickey writes. “However, they can be an important piece of the larger puzzle.”