AMAC Exclusive – By Andrew Abbott
Amid Russia’s continued military invasion of Ukraine, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has praised Elon Musk’s Starlink satellite network for providing an essential “lifeline” to embattled citizens. While horrific scenes of violence on the ground have captured most of the headlines, the conflict has also underscored the vital importance of satellite technology to a country’s security in the 21st century. Yet even as America’s adversaries grow more aggressive in the development of space-based and anti-satellite weaponry, the Biden administration may now be actively undermining the ability of the United States to respond to those threats.
Putin’s attempt to subjugate Ukraine has been based on psychological as much as military methods, with the Russian leader continuing to insist that the invasion is a pre-emptive strike to rid Ukraine of “Nazism.” Hoping to take advantage of a chaotic environment inside the country, the Russian propaganda machine has been working in overdrive to convince the Ukrainian people that their struggle for freedom is hopeless. As Zelenskyy told Wired, the Ukrainian government has often “completely lost communication” with cities surrounded by Russian invaders, who have “told them that Ukraine doesn’t exist anymore, and some people even began to believe it.”
This situation underscores the importance of Musk’s Starlink, a privately-owned network of internet satellites that provides fast and reliable connectivity from anywhere. While the system is still in its infancy for most of the world, Musk has accelerated deployment of receiving terminals to Ukraine, so that embattled residents can remain connected even as the Russian army severs traditional lines of communication. This has in large part neutralized the Russian disinformation campaign and allowed the rest of the world to remain plugged in to the details of the conflict, helping keep global pressure up on Russia to call off its attack.
While Starlink was designed for civilian use, its deployment in Ukraine has revealed just how powerful a tool satellites can be in great power competition – and raised fresh fears among U.S. leaders about the security of America’s own satellite arsenal.
For decades, countries have been researching the potential of anti-satellite weapons—these range from land-based “direct ascent” missiles to actual armed and crewed spacecraft. In 1985, the United States destroyed an orbiting satellite with a missile launched from an F-15 fighter jet. In 2007, the Chinese alarmed American military experts by destroying a satellite with a projectile launched from a land-based missile.
The potential catastrophic effects of satellite warfare were fully revealed just last year when the Russian Federation also destroyed a satellite with a land-based missile. The targeted satellite was obliterated into a “space debris cloud” that threatened to damage the International Space Station and several communication satellites. While the crisis was ultimately averted, the debris cloud continues to circle the planet and will do so for years, if not decades.
There is a fear in the scientific community that if such a cloud destroys other satellites, those clouds will, in turn, become debris clouds of their own. The cascading wave of destruction could knock out critical satellites and even make space travel impossible, a situation referred to as Kessler Syndrome. The effect was dramatized in the 2013 blockbuster film Gravity.
The international community quickly condemned the Russian test and excoriated the Russian Federation for even attempting it. International think tanks and opinion leaders then promptly called for a complete ban on all anti-satellite weapons testing. In April of this year President Biden followed suit. In a speech at the Vandenberg Space Force Base in California, Vice President Kamala Harris announced that the U.S. would self-impose a ban on all “Direct Ascent Anti-Satellite” (ASAT) testing, stating that “tests are dangerous, and we will not conduct them,” while calling nations who continue such tests “reckless and irresponsible.”
Yet while the U.S. is abstaining from any new testing, American adversaries have made no similar pledge. Six months before Harris’ announcement, Chinese researchers announced that “they have built and tested an anti-satellite robotic device that can place a small pack of explosives into a probe’s exhaust nozzle.” The explosives could theoretically be planted in satellites and detonated at a precise time to cause maximum damage to either the satellite system or surrounding satellites. That same month, the Chinese military also announced that they had developed ASAT weapons that could “melt” enemy satellites with lasers and even capture them in orbit.
The Chinese Communist Party has a long history of embellishing claims regarding its technical prowess. Yet, even if these weapons are a fraction as capable as the Chinese claim, this could place the Chinese years ahead of America in terms of satellite technology. With the Biden-Harris ban on new testing, the U.S. will likely only fall further and further behind.
Whether a treaty to limit anti-satellite weapons would make sense or not, there should be no question that unilateral disarmament is risky and foolish in the extreme.
Isolating and controlling the flow of information to a battlefield is a critical objective in any offensive military operation. As Zelenskyy noted, Russian propaganda was so effective that some Ukrainians were successfully convinced that their nation no longer existed and more likely would have been if not for Starlink.
In future great power conflicts, space will undoubtedly be a key battleground, and perhaps even the centerpiece of any offensive strategy. President Biden – and all future American leaders – would be wise to recognize as much, and stop ceding American leadership in technology that could give the United States an edge over our adversaries.
Andrew Abbott is the pen name of a writer and public affairs consultant with over a decade of experience in DC at the intersection of politics and culture.