US space officials expect Russia, Ukraine conflict to extend into space
CHANTILLY, Va. — Top U.S. space officials this week said it’s likely Russia’s invasion of Ukraine will extend to space, predicting continued GPS jamming and spoofing and urging military and commercial space operators to be prepared for possible cyber attacks.
“Ensure that your systems are secure and that you’re watching them very closely because we know that the Russians are effective cyber actors,” National Reconnaissance Office Director Chris Scolese said Feb. 23 during a National Security Space Association conference in Chantilly, Va. “It’s hard to say how far their reach is going to go in order to achieve their objectives, but it’s better to be prepared than surprised.”
Reports from the Secure World Foundation and the Center for Strategic and International Studies document Russia’s use of non-kinetic disruptive space capabilities in Ukraine in recent years, including spoofing and jamming as well as cyber attacks.
“Russia places a high priority on integrating electronic warfare into military operations and has been investing heavily in modernizing this capability,” the Secure World Foundation said in its 2021 Global Counterspace Capabilities report. “Russia has a multitude of systems that can jam GPS receivers within a local area, potentially interfering with the guidance systems of unmanned aerial vehicles, guided missiles and precision guided munitions, but has no known capability to interfere with GPS satellites themselves using radio frequency interference.”
One such electronic warfare platform is the Tirada-2, which entered service in 2019. According to SWF, the system can reportedly performing uplink jamming on communication satellites. Another system, Bylina-MM, is being designed to “suppress the on-board transponders” of some communication satellites.
In its 2021 Space Threat Assessment, the Center for Strategic and International Studies noted that Russia’s arsenal of electronic counterspace capabilities include two radar jammers — Karushka-2 and Karushka-4 — which could interfere with radar reconnaissance satellites.
Scolese said this week it’s likely Russia will employ jamming and spoofing capabilities to some extent – though he noted it’s not clear how far it will go.
“I think it’s fair to assume that to the extent that they can and to the extent that they feel it won’t extend the conflict out of their control, that they will extend it into space,” he said. “You can imagine they’re already doing GPS jamming, for example, and doing things against Ukraine.”
As for kinetic counterspace capabilities, Russia’s most recent demonstration of a direct-ascent anti-satellite (ASAT) weapon in November created an estimated 1,500 pieces of debris. Speaking at the NSSA conference Feb. 23, Lt. Gen. Michael Guetlein, head of the Space Force’s acquisition command, said actions like the recent ASAT test reinforce Russia’s interest in denying space access to adversaries.
Chief of Space Operations Gen. John Raymond has on multiple occasions referred to Russia’s July 2020 test of what he calls a “nesting doll” capability. The test — which CSIS said in its report was more sophisticated than some previous ASAT demonstrations — involved a Cosmos 2542 satellite that contained a smaller Cosmos 2543 space vehicle inside of it. During the 2020 test, the smaller satellite fired a projectile near another Russian satellite.
“This is further evidence of Russia’s continuing efforts to develop and test space-based systems, and consistent with the Kremlin’s published military doctrine to employ weapons that hold U.S. and allied space assets at risk,” Raymond said at the time.
CSIS notes in its report that Cosmos 2543 was very active after being released from its “mother satellite.”
“Before firing the projectile in July 2020, the inspector satellite was constantly changing its orbit to synchronize with other Russian satellites,” the report states. “This is out of the ordinary for most satellites, which rarely maneuver in this way.”
While not an on-orbit capability, Russia has also developed an aircraft called the Beriev A-60, which detects and tracks satellites with the intent of aiming laser beams at them, according to the SWF report. The aircraft has flown multiple times since 2010, and the country is reportedly installing a laser on it.
U.S. Space Command head Gen. James Dickinson said this week that space units are currently playing a supporting role to U.S. European Command to ensure it has “the space effects necessary to respond and characterize the situation in Ukraine.
SPACECOM’s Joint Integrated Space Teams, which are made up of intelligence planners and space professionals, have been working closely with EUCOM to coordinate space capabilities and integrate them into the command’s planning activities.
Dickinson said one of his command’s supporting functions has been to provide battlespace awareness of the space domain and provide the missile warning and GPS-enabled tracking capabilities over EUCOM.
Scolese noted that the response of the space enterprise to the ongoing Russian aggression in Ukraine is showing how integrated U.S. agencies are in providing key capabilities in a time of conflict.
“What we do in space and our technology and our partnerships are really coming to bear, and it’s going to show how we work together as a community to achieve some very significant objectives and to understand what’s going on in the world,” he said.
Courtney Albon is C4ISRNET's space and emerging technology reporter. She previously covered the U.S. Air Force and U.S. Space Force for Inside Defense.