Russia is expanding its domain. Not satisfied with grinding Ukraine into submission, now Russia is threatening a war in space. President Vladimir Putin has demonstrated that he will use weapons to achieve his expansionary illusions on the ground and in the heavens.
Russia is threatening to take down Elon Musk’s Starlink satellites because they helped the Ukrainian army sink the flagship of Russia’s Black Sea fleet, Moskva. The sinking of the key warship has been seen as a humiliating blow to Moscow as the war rages on.
Anton Gerashchenko, an adviser to the Minister of Internal Affairs of Ukraine, tweeted: “Russia is starting a space war! Medvedev [an ally of Putin] announced a task is given to destroy @elonmusk Starlink satellites in a document by ‘United Russia [a party document].’ It says that firing on the Moskva was done with the help of Starlinks.”
It’s not an idle threat on the part of the Russians.
To demonstrate that they could take down satellites, Russia stalked an American reconnaissance satellite called USA-245 in January, 2020.
Then the stalking Russian satellite, Kosmos-2542, split in two. In fact, the larger part spat out another, smaller craft. The smaller one moved even closer to the American satellite. Speaking later, in February, General John W. “Jay” Raymond, chief of the newly established Space Force, would describe it by saying, “The way I picture it, in my mind, is like Russian nesting dolls (Harper’s, November, 2021)”
After the two Russian satellites stalked the U.S. satellite for months, the smaller Russian satellite fired a projectile. While it didn’t hit the U.S. satellite, it was a clear warning shot.
Of course, Russia claimed that the projectile wasn’t a weapon at all but merely part of a “close inspection” and that “most importantly, it did not breach any norms or principles of international law.” The Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs called the American assessment of the events “propaganda,” and responded that the U.S. accusation was hypocrisy: the United States and Britain, it said, “naturally keep silent about their own efforts” and “programs on the possible use of … counter-satellite weapons.”
We are extremely dependent on satellites. Not only for GPS location but hurricane tracking, search-and rescue locators, financial transactions, and emergency messages -all could go dark.
The military depends on satellites. American military reliance on space has been building since Operation Desert Storm, when U.S. satellites proved a tactical advantage: American troops navigated unmarked stretches of desert using GPS and blindsided the Iraqi Army, which expected them to approach by road.
The war in space is not limited to knocking out satellites. China demonstrated a “spoofing” technology, a type of interference where a satellite’s signal is mimicked by a fake. In July 2019, a U.S. container ship in the port of Shanghai received false GPS locations and notifications of phantom ships fast approaching. The spoofing was likely sent by the China military. The captain of the ship could see with binoculars that the GPS was wrong but without visual confirmation, the spoof could have been disastrous.
The West has avoided direct war with Russia, despite Russia’s bloody invasion of Ukraine. If Russia’s expands its war into space, we will have no alternative but to respond. In a race to destroy each other, there will be no refuge.