Private satellite used as wartime targets

During the latest meeting hosted by United Nations’ Open-ended working group (OEWG), the group aimed to develop new policies to encourage cooperation in space among nation-states. Substantial progress was made, with Japan and Germany joining the pledge to not engage in anti-satellite (ASAT) tests, which have the potential to create a large cloud of space debris and cause devastating damage to other space vehicles on impact.

Unfortunately, despite efforts to adopt guidelines to encourage accountability and responsibility, the Russian delegation issued a warning that commercial satellites may be used as targets in war. These remarks were made in reference to SpaceX’s support of Ukraine by sending Starlink terminals following the (likely) Russian-initiated Viasat attacks on the Ukraine network. The Russian invasion on Ukraine was also hindered by satellite photos taken by Planet, Maxar, and BlackSky, providing the world with status updates on the war.

Without a set of international policies to regulate space activities and no way to enforce them, adversaries can target satellites. Nation-states can easily initiate attacks, both direct ones like jamming and indirect ones such as ASAT tests located near adversaries’ vehicles, to wreak havoc without many consequences. Given the increasing dependence on satellites that host numerous services, from the Internet to science experiments, attacks like these can cause catastrophic damage on technological infrastructure. OEWG is taking a step in the right direction by encouraging collaboration among nation-states, but more must be accomplished for an international consensus to be reached.