A New Era of Irregular Warfare in Space
A long-exposure image taken in Uruguay captured a group of SpaceX’s Starlink satellites passing overhead, highlighting the increasing presence of satellites in space. However, this image also serves as a reminder of the growing threats and challenges in space warfare.
Dr. John J. Klein, a Senior Fellow and Strategist at Delta Solutions & Strategies, LLC and faculty at George Washington University’s Space Policy Institute, warns that we are now living in an era of irregular warfare in space. Just as irregular warfare has been used throughout history to achieve political goals without engaging in conventional military conflicts, irregular actions in the space domain are becoming routine.
Russia and China are actively employing irregular approaches in space to challenge US superiority. These activities, which fall outside the realm of traditional military force, include cyberattacks against space services, attacks on commercial space capabilities during conflicts, and proximity operations aimed at coercing others. While these actions may not involve direct military confrontation, they have a significant impact on the battlefield and the balance of power in space.
Cyberattacks on Space Assets
One example of irregular warfare in space is the cyberattack against US satellite firm Viasat. Russian government hackers conducted this cyberattack just before invading Ukraine, causing a loss of communication for the Ukrainian military, which relied on Viasat’s satellite services for command and control. This cyberattack, which weakened the Ukrainian military’s capabilities, is a typical example of Russia’s hybrid and irregular warfare strategies.
Lt. Gen. Stephen Whiting, commander of Space Operations Command, has warned that cyberattacks pose a serious threat to space architectures, which can undermine the military advantage of space capabilities. The vulnerability of space networks in cyberspace makes them an attractive target for adversaries.
Role of Commercial Space Companies and Proxies
Another aspect of irregular warfare in space is the use of commercial space capabilities and proxies by rival nations during conflicts. Russia, for instance, jammed SpaceX’s broadband internet communications signals from its Starlink constellation in Ukraine. Russian military leaders perceived Starlink’s services as crucial for Ukrainian forces and sought to deny them. The importance of commercial capabilities and the resilience demonstrated by Starlink’s satellite network against Russian jamming highlight the significance of distributed and proliferated space architectures in countering irregular warfare tactics.
Proximity Operations in Space
China has also demonstrated sophisticated rendezvous and proximity operations (RPO) in space, particularly in geostationary orbit (GEO). China’s Shijian-17 satellite has engaged in RPO activities with other Chinese satellites in GEO, often conveying an implicit threat to rivals. Proximity operations in space can leverage political or military objectives without resorting to direct force, imposing unfavorable decisions on competitors.
Countering Irregular Warfare in Space
In order to maintain space superiority, the US Space Force and US Space Command must develop strategies, plans, and invest in space capabilities and architectures that can effectively counter irregular warfare tactics employed by Russia and China.
Understanding the nature of irregular warfare in space and drawing upon historical experiences and strategic insights can help policymakers and military leaders anticipate future challenges and develop effective solutions. Dr. Klein’s book, “Fight for the Final Frontier: Irregular Warfare in Space,” offers valuable perspectives on the subject.
While US officials are aware of the threats posed by irregular warfare in space, comprehensive strategies and countermeasures need to be developed to safeguard US interests. By staying vigilant and adaptive, the US can maintain its technological edge and ensure its military advantage is not compromised in the contested realm of space.