Like the US Navy has long protected sea lanes during conflict, the military could be called upon to defend commercial satellites from attack, particularly as the Pentagon relies more on commercial networks for communication and surveillance, the Space Force’s top general said last week.
In comments at a conference in Hawaii on September 20, Gen. Chance Saltzman echoed many statements made by military leaders over the last few years: US military space capabilities are under threat from China and Russia, military leaders need more information about what other countries are doing in space, and commercial satellites are playing an ever-larger role in the military’s space programs.
But Saltzman went a little further in his comments when asked about the military’s role in protecting commercial satellites from an attack. The questioner specifically asked how the US military might respond if Russia attacked SpaceX’s Starlink broadband network, which Ukraine widely uses for Internet connectivity in its war with Russia, despite Elon Musk’s refusal to allow Ukraine to employ Starlink services on certain military operations.
A valid military objective?
Saltzman didn’t directly address the scenario posed in the question, but he clearly suggested the US military has a responsibility to defend commercial assets in space.
In a modern war, “there are going to be commercial entities, commercial organizations, commercial capabilities and assets that get caught up in the conflicts,” Saltzman said. “Space is no different than sea lanes. It’s no different than civilian airliner traffic in Europe right now. The US has a long history of saying we’re going to protect the things that we need to be successful. So it would stand to reason that that same philosophy would extend into space, and I have no reason to believe that that will be different.”
A hypothetical military operation to defend a commercial satellite from an adversary’s attack would likely go through US Space Command, a separate entity from the Space Force, which is charged with equipping and outfitting the military’s combatant commands with the people and technology to carry out their missions.
Space Command is currently led by US Army Gen. James Dickinson. In July, Dickinson basically punted on a similar question about defending commercial satellites from a foreign attack.
“I do have a mission area protecting and defending, and that’s widely known, assets on orbit,” he replied. “But to be honest with you, those have to be directed to me by, you know, my boss, and my boss’s boss, eventually if that were to happen.”
Saltzman said last week that it would be up to Dickinson’s command, and ultimately civilian leadership, to set the priorities on what commercial capabilities to defend from attack.
“The key will be how much capacity do you have to defend, and what are the things that you choose to defend at the highest prioritization,” Saltzman said.
Last October, a deputy director in Russia’s foreign ministry, Konstantin Vorontsov, said the use of Western commercial satellites by Ukraine established “an extremely dangerous trend.” While Vorontsov did not specifically name any satellites, he almost certainly was referring to SpaceX’s Starlink satellite constellation, which has been used by Ukrainian soldiers for communications and for tracking Russian troop and tank movements.
The use of civilian satellites for wartime purposes, Vorontsov said, essentially made them military targets. This was also the conclusion of Tara Brown, an officer in the Royal Air Force and a professor at the US Naval War College who specializes in space law.