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Russia threatens commercial satellites that Pentagon sees as its future

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On Thursday evening, SpaceX launched yet another of its Falcon 9 rockets to space, the 49th in 2022, a record as it continues to launch a rocket about once every six days. This one carried 53 Starlink satellites to orbit, adding to a constellation that now has more than 3,000 in operation — more satellites than the rest of the world combined, according to analysts.

On Tuesday, SpaceX is scheduled to launch a much more powerful rocket, the Falcon Heavy. This time, the customer is the U.S. Space Force and the payload — a spy satellite of some sort? — is strictly classified.

The launches come as tensions between the United States and Russia mount over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and just days after Russia threatened to target the commercial satellites, which have proved a boon to Ukraine and its allies during the war.

The launches are yet another sign of the Pentagon’s increasing reliance on the commercial space sector, which has become more capable at the same time that space has become an increasingly contested domain. That partnership was even codified in the National Defense Strategy released by the Defense Department earlier this week: “We will increase collaboration with the private sector in priority areas, especially with the commercial space industry, leveraging its technological advancements and entrepreneurial spirit to enable new capabilities.”

But as those technologies — cheaper, reusable rockets that fly more frequently, small satellites that can be launched by the dozen — play a broader role in the nation’s defense and intelligence arsenal, national security officials know they could be threatened. What happens then, however, is not clear.

Commercial satellites test the rules of war in Russia-Ukraine conflict

“I am certain that my counterpart in Russia, whoever that is, is not very happy with Starlink, as it’s assisting Ukraine,” Lt. Gen. John Shaw, deputy commander of the U.S. Space Command, said at a space conference on Monday. “And with commercial imagery, such as Maxar’s products, that are plastering all over the world news the things that are going on, I don’t think they’re very happy about that either. And we know that they’re probably going to take steps to try to stop those commercial services because they run counter to Russia’s national interest.”

A few days later, a senior Russian official proved him prophetic, threatening commercial satellites during a meeting at the United Nations.

In a speech, Konstantin Vorontsov, deputy director of the Russian foreign ministry’s department for non-proliferation and arms, said the proliferation of privately operated satellites is “an extremely dangerous trend that goes beyond the harmless use of outer space technologies and has become apparent during the latest developments in Ukraine.”

He warned that, “quasi-civilian infrastructure may become a legitimate target for retaliation.”

Asked about the threat, White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre on Thursday reiterated earlier comments form her counterpart at the Pentagon, and said that “any attack on U.S. infrastructure will be met with a response, as you’ve heard from my colleague, in a time and manner of our choosing. And that still stands. We will pursue all means to explore, deter, and hold Russia accountable for any such attacks. Clearly, I’m not going to lay them down here in public. But we have made ourselves very clear.”

The threats have not slowed the Pentagon’s use of commercial space technology, which continues to evolve rapidly.

“The bulk of innovation in space is coming from the commercial sector, not the government, and that is a huge shift from previous decades,” said Brain Weeden, the director of program planning at the Secure World Foundation, a think tank. “The big challenge is, how does the U.S. military take advantage of that? It’s a very different way of doing business.”

Ukraine and its Western allies have relied on a number of commercial companies from the United States, including Planet and Maxar Technologies, which have provided real-time satellite imagery of the battlefield, and SpaceX, which operates the Starlink satellite constellation that has provided internet access, keeping Ukraine online despite Russian attacks on terrestrial communications systems.

The Pentagon is not just looking for big rockets to launch large, exquisite satellites. It has shown extraordinary interest in small rockets, designed to take off frequently and with short notice, allowing for a quick response to situations on the ground.

The Pentagon and U.S. intelligence agencies have taken a keen interest in Virgin Orbit, the small launch company founded by Richard Branson. Instead of launching its rockets from a vertical launch pad on the ground, the company tucks its boosters under the wing of a 747 airplane that carries it aloft. It then drops the rocket, which fires its engines and flies off to space. That allows the company to launch from any runway that can accommodate a plane the size of a 747.

Russia is adept at disrupting satellites, and has repeatedly tried to jam the Starlink system, though it has remained online, U.S. officials have said. Last year, Russia fired a missile that destroyed a dead satellite in a test that demonstrated its ability to target sensitive spacecraft.

That is why the Pentagon increasingly is relying on constellations of small satellites. Knock one or two out and there are dozens more to pick up the slack. And since they are relatively inexpensive, more can take their place.

An embrace of that technology was also noted in the Pentagon’s National Defense Strategy document: “In the space domain, the Department will reduce adversary incentives for early attack by fielding diverse, resilient, and redundant satellite constellations.”

Swarms of satellites make it simply more difficult to target them, as Derek Tournear, director of the U.S. Space Force’s Space Development Agency said earlier this week, according to SpaceNews: “How many Starlink satellites have the Russians shot down?” The answer, he said, was “zero.”

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