Russia Threatened U.S. Satellites—Here Are the Two Main Attack Options

As geopolitical tensions surrounding the war in Ukraine rise, Russian threats have highlighted the possibility of the country attacking Western satellites. But how would such a move work in practice and what might the potential consequences be?

Last week, a senior Russian foreign ministry official, Konstantin Vorontsov, told the United Nations that "quasi-civilian infrastructure may be a legitimate target for a retaliatory strike" and that the trend of Western satellites aiding the Ukrainian war effort was "an extremely dangerous trend." Similar threats have also been made on Russian state TV.

SpaceX's Starlink broadband satellite constellation has played a key role in the war, providing free internet services to Ukrainian authorities and the public. Meanwhile, many communications devices in Ukraine are utilizing the satellite network of U.S. firm Iridium, and American company Maxar continues to capture satellite imagery of the conflict.

It is unclear whether the Russian threats are serious but an attack on satellites in space would be unprecedented and likely lead to a significant escalation in tensions with the West.

Split image of a satellite and Putin
This split image shows an illustration of a communications satellite and Russian President Vladimir Putin. A Russian official has suggested that Western satellites could be "legitimate" targets for attack amid the Ukraine war. iStock/Getty Images

If Russia did decide to mount such an attack, what kind of technology is available to them? Experts told Newsweek the country has several potential options split between two main approaches: kinetic (physical) and cyber attacks.

"The Russian Federation has an array of methods at its disposal to threaten the operations of both government and commercial satellites operating in low Earth orbit," Benjamin Schmitt, research associate at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics and co-founder of the Duke University Space Diplomacy Lab," told Newsweek.

'Kinetic' capabilities

Among the kinetic capabilities are so-called direct ascent anti-satellite weapons (DA-ASATs), ground and air-launched missiles capable of targeting satellites in low Earth orbit (LEO), which may include the Starlink, Iridium and Maxar spacecraft.

Russia demonstrated such capabilities recently with a DA-ASAT test on November 15, 2021, when they successfully destroyed Kosmos 1408—a defunct, Soviet-era intelligence satellite—with a Nudol rocket launched from the Plesetsk Cosmodrome, located around 500 miles north of Moscow.

Russia also has anti-ballistic missile systems that can theoretically reach LEO satellites, according to Mark Hilborne, a lecturer in defense studies at King's College London and head of the Space Security Research Group.

Aside from these, the Russian military could use "co-orbital weapons," which are essentially satellites that fly in similar orbits to their target. These are capable of operating in any orbit, not just LEO.

A co-orbital weapon "differs from a direct-ascent weapon because it is first placed into orbit," Hilborne told Newsweek. "When commanded, the satellite then maneuvers to strike its target. Co-orbital ASATs can remain dormant in orbit for days or even years before being activated."

In the past, Russia has also "parked" its satellites near Western ones, in what have been considered provocative acts.

"We are not sure why they have parked them there, but possibly to gain information, or as a warning, to be provocative," Hilborne said.

For example, in July 2020, the Kosmos 2543 satellite was stalking a U.S. spy satellite when it ejected a smaller satellite— 2542. The latter, in turn, appeared to fire a projectile.

"The 2542 projectile was not aimed at anything," Hilborne said. "Whether it was an overt weapons test is debated, but its speed meant that it was not merely a sub-satellite being deployed."

In the event of an attack using one of the aforementioned kinetic methods, the targeted satellite would likely explode and create large amounts of debris, according to Michelle Hanlon, co-director of the Air and Space Law Program at the University of Mississippi School of Law and its Center for Air and Space Law. This would present a collision threat to other spacecraft, including Russia's own.

"While this debris will ultimately fall out of orbit and burn up harmlessly in the atmosphere, it will take some time—on the order of decades," Hanlon told Newsweek. "The concern is not so much debris falling to Earth, but debris not falling to Earth. Creating debris fields contributes to what is known as the Kessler Syndrome and could, in a worst-case scenario, obstruct access to space."

The Russian DA-ASAT test in November 2021, provides a perfect example of the inherent risks involved.

"The Russian test generated a massive field of dangerous space debris that has continued to pose a direct risk to personnel—including Russia's own cosmonaut crews—aboard the International Space Station," Schmitt said.

"The creation of uncontrolled space debris has the potential to risk not only conflict escalation for the parties involved but to spread conflict to third-party nations or entities as their spacecraft become endangered. This is why many global democracies, including the United States and others across the Transatlantic community, have started the norm-setting process to ban such DA-ASAT tests over the past year."

With DA-ASATs, it typically takes one missile to destroy each spacecraft—although in the case of the Starlink constellation, which consists of several "trains" of satellites, destroying one could have an impact on those close by, according to Hanlon.

Using these methods, it would not be easy to take out enough satellites to have a significant effect on the Starlink network, for example, which now comprises more than 2,300 orbiting spacecraft, Hilborne said.

Russia could mount a surgical attack on certain Starlink locations, but the resulting creation of debris would threaten all space assets in the vicinity, including the International Space Station, the Hubble Space Telescope, commercial and imaging satellites, and others.

"We could easily imagine many unintended consequences," Hanlon said. "It's important to note that an attack on Starlink will not affect satellite TV, radio or GPS. These types of spacecraft are in much higher orbits, which the debris will not reach."

A large-scale kinetic attack would be the last resort, according to Hilborne, given that it might have effects on a variety of other satellites, including Russia's and China's, as well as those the United States uses for nuclear command and control.

"If such satellites were hit, it might be highly escalatory," Hilborne said.

Cyber attacks

Aside from the aforementioned kinetic capabilities, Russia also has the technology to launch cyber attacks against satellite infrastructure.

This kind of attack is more likely because the effects can be temporary and reversible, which would minimize international outcry, Hanlon said. A cyber attack would also would not necessarily result in the destruction of satellites, thus avoiding the creation of a debris field. Depending on the nature of the attack, the satellites could be recoverable.

Unlike a kinetic attack, which would likely be fairly small in scope, a cyber attack could potentially affect many satellites at once—conceivably the whole constellation in the case of Starlink, for example.

"Less dramatic, but equally debilitating for sectors reliant on satellite-based communications around the world are jamming and cyber attacks against space assets," Schmitt said.

"While the Russian military hasn't yet resorted to the use of a kinetic attack launches against government or commercial satellites during its ongoing aggression in Ukraine, there have been media reports of jamming and cyber attacks against communications and geospatial imaging platforms based in low Earth orbit that have been vital to Ukrainian defense."

According to Schmitt, the coalition of nations that have implemented sanctions on Russia to limit its military capabilities also needs to bring space policy into their thinking as well.

"Further sanctions and technology exports control measures should be deployed to deprive the Russian Federation of the hardware and software that will have the effect of degrading its kinetic and cyber capabilities in the space domain," he said.

"Ultimately, democracies around the globe need to engage in anticipatory space diplomacy to establish norms to mitigate the risks of future conflicts reaching space."

If Russia did mount a cyber or kinetic attack on satellites it is difficult to speculate what the Western response would be given the unprecedented nature of such an act. But Hanlon said it is likely that international condemnation would be swift.

"Satellites in low Earth orbit are crucial to communications Infrastructure and provide countless invaluable services from weather prediction to search and rescue," she said. "Purposefully destroying a satellite in orbit in and of itself is a terribly harmful activity due to debris generation."

"This type of activity poses a risk not just to Ukraine but all of humanity. Allowing the normalization of this kind of behavior in any way shape or form will have impacts across our most vulnerable communities who rely on satellites."