US gearing up for gray zone space wars

US gearing up for gray zone space wars

US defense planners are mulling response options to an adversary attack on privately-owned, military-oriented satellites amid rising concerns of gray zone warfare in space.

This month, The Washington Post reported that the US is developing policy responses to a possible Russian or other adversary state attack on the Starlink satellite constellation.

Starlink, operated by Elon Musk’s SpaceX company, has given Ukraine a decisive edge in the ongoing conflict, providing battlefield communications, artillery fire direction and supporting drone operations.

However, the report mentions that those responses are still being formulated, as several US agencies work to develop a policy framework to set reaction parameters if a satellite owned by a US commercial company comes under attack.

“First, commercial companies are thinking very clearly and carefully about, can we be involved? Should we be involved? What are the implications of being involved? … And on our side, it’s exactly the same thing. Should we depend on commercial services? Where can we depend on commercial services?” said General David Thompson, US Space Force Vice Chief of Operations.

Elon Musk’s Starlink satellite system has given Ukraine an edge in its war with Russia. Image: Twitter

Thompson’s comments, reported by the Washington Post, reflect the threat mentioned last October by Konstantin Vorontsov, deputy director of the Russian Foreign Ministry’s Department for Nonproliferation and Arms.

Vorontsov said the growing use of privately-owned satellites to support military operations is “an extremely dangerous trend that goes beyond the harmless use of outer-space technologies and has become apparent during the latest developments in Ukraine,” the Washington Post report said. He also warned that “quasi-civilian infrastructure may become a legitimate target for retaliation.” 

In response to Vorontsov’s comments, White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre reiterated that any attack on US infrastructure would be met with a response in a time and manner of its choosing.

The partnership between space companies and governments blurs the distinction between commercial and national capabilities. The resulting ambiguity creates confounding situations on how to respond to a state attack against commercial satellites supporting military operations.

The threat aligns with the basic principle of gray zone warfare, which involves coercive action short of military force.

Malcolm Davis points out in a June 2021 article for The Strategist that the key to space-based gray zone operations is to mask aggressive acts behind commercial activities while exploiting the resulting confusion and plausible deniability.

Davis also notes that space-based gray zone operations increase the risk of orbit, given the borderless nature of the space domain, dual-use space technology and the difficulty of responding to events thousands of kilometers above the ground.

Dean Cheng, in a January article for GIS, notes the challenges posed by the growing role of space companies that function as independent strategic players that nonetheless become extensions of state power.

Cheng notes space companies now provide critical capabilities, including high-resolution earth imaging, data relay, and Internet access, that were previously the sole domain of state space programs.  

Cheng notes that Western space companies may coordinate with Western governments in deciding to whom they provide services, while non-Western space companies, such as those established in Asia, Latin America and Africa, may disregard Western sensitivities in choosing and supplying their clients.

Cheng also mentions that, at present, space companies generally lack a unified set of norms and standards, a problem that is intensifying as more players enter the scene. Cheng also says that space companies may ally themselves with specific states or become tools of national power.

Destructive anti-satellite missile tests generate huge amounts of space debris that can endanger other satellites and manned spacecraft. Photo: Atalayar

He mentions that Chinese and Russian space companies are state-owned or heavily integrated into their respective national industrial complexes. He also notes that Chinese, Russian and US space companies are expected to side with their state supporters.

Given that, Cheng says that Western firms may seek protection by siding with Western governments or remaining neutral in cases of conflicting interests.

He also says that space companies founded by emerging players in Asia, Latin America, and Africa will likely reflect their home government’s foreign policy, which may not align with those of more prominent players such as the US, China and Russia.

As space becomes more crowded with private firms, enacting norms for responsible use may become more challenging. In a May 2021 article for Defense One, Patrick Tucker notes that major space players such as China, Russia and the US seem halfhearted or disinterested in pushing for space norms and agreements that may curtail any military advantage and hold them responsible for their actions. 

While Tucker notes that the US is reaching out to “like-minded countries” to create norms for the use of space, it has yet to enter into any legally binding agreements.

Despite the US declaring a self-imposed moratorium on testing destructive anti-satellite missiles of the like China and Russia have under development, the US is pursuing more potent satellite-killing technologies such as ground-based mobile lasers, radiofrequency jammers, microwave weapons and even hunter-killer satellites.