What happens if Russia hacks a U.S. satellite?

BlackJack3D/Getty Images

A Russian official warned that impacting their satellites would be considered a declaration of war, but the U.S. stance is more circumspect.

Russia’s senior space official recently warned that any tampering with the nation’s satellites is grounds for war, underscoring how reliant modern communications and military operations are on the orbiting tools.

Whether America views satellite hacking or attacking as basis for a war declaration, though, isn’t so cut and dry.

“The United States has an abiding interest in a secure, safe, sustainable and accessible space domain for the benefit of all humanity,” a State Department spokesperson told Nextgov on Thursday. “We urge all space actors to abide by their international obligations.”

That response came after inquiries to multiple federal entities, including the Space Force, Defense Department and other federal components regarding whether it would be considered an act of war if U.S. satellites were targeted.

“Again, I'm not going to be able to comment. The only thing I really can say in response to that, I think, is that anyone who attacks a U.S. asset has to be very concerned about the consequences of that act,” Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall said on Thursday. “You're talking about something that's fairly unprecedented, quite frankly.”

He was responding to a question regarding whether America considers such actions worthy of a war declaration, during the Air Force Association’s Warfare Symposium. Kendall’s remarks came one day after Roscosmos Director-General Dmitry Rogozin said on Rossiya 24 television that hacking a Russian satellite would be an act of war. 

“I want to warn everyone who tries to do it that it is essentially a crime, which should be toughly punished,” Rogozin said, which Interfax and Reuters first reported. “Because disabling the satellite group of any country is generally a casus belli, that is, a reason to go to war. And we will be looking for those who organized it." 

Those comments followed previous threats Rogozin made about potentially crashing the International Space Station—which Russia partners with the U.S. and other nations to maintain—into Earth, in response to sanctions set to impose costs for Russia’s large-scale, ongoing invasion of Ukraine. The claims also came after a group of hackers said it hit Russia’s civilian space agency-run satellites, but Rogozin dismissed that in his statement.

Reflecting on their initial reactions to Rogozin’s comments, two national security experts expressed hesitancy believing any statements from Russian leadership. 

“My first thought was that either they have been hacked or they are preparing a misinformation campaign to justify further aggression in space,” Todd Harrison, a senior fellow in the Center for Strategic and International Studies’ International Security Program told Nextgov this week. “Russia could claim a cyberattack against their space systems and use that as a pretext for attacking other space systems.”

New America Strategist and Senior Fellow Peter Singer noted his first response was, “‘I hope [Rogozin] remembers this the next time Russia tries it.’”

“Second,” he added during a separate conversation with Nextgov, “it fits within a larger pattern of bluster that [Rogozin] and the Russian government have thrown out towards the West in the midst of their invasion of Ukraine.”

Both officials pointed out that documented instances of cyberattacks against space systems during peacetime already exist. Harrison, who also serves as director of CSIS’ Defense Budget Analysis and Aerospace Security Project, noted that Russia possesses a full suite of counter-space capabilities—like jammers that can disrupt signals going to and from satellites, lasers that can blind satellites and missiles that can shoot down satellites.

There are a variety of ways the ongoing crisis might play out at this point, but it’s unfolding in a technology-driven era.

“I think what is different in this conflict is that commercial space remote sensing is playing a more important role than ever before, and it is possible that this could be the first conflict in which counterspace weapons play a major role—depending on what Russia chooses to do,” Harrison said. He further added that “the partnership with Russia on the ISS may also be a casualty of this conflict, but that depends in large part on how Russia chooses to respond and whether it tries to use the ISS as leverage to get relief from sanctions.”

In 2021, the White House published its Space Priorities Framework. The Space Force also released a high-level doctrine in 2020, but like the later document, it’s not comprehensive on America’s space policies. 

“It doesn’t provide a lot of specificity, so it's not particularly helpful for a conflict like this,” Harrison said. “And a further complication is, what if there is a cyberattack against a commercial space system? So Russia is, you know, saying that there was a cyberattack against them, in which case, what they're actually saying, what's out there in public, is that it was an attempted cyber attack on a non-state actor against Russia. What if Russia uses retaliatory attack also against a non-state actor in the form of a U.S. commercial space company? How would the U.S. government respond to that? And that's where I don't think we have a lot of experience, and it's not clear that the government has actually formulated policy and courses of action for that outcome.”

Certain elements playing out now will carry to future wars, in Singer’s view, but he also emphasized that it’s also one particular case at a particular stage of conflict. 

He noted that now, there’s an “incredible wealth of information” flowing in from civilian and government satellites—and when combined with cell phone footage and social media, it has “created a conflict that feels like it's observed to a level that we haven't seen before.” It’s all part of a larger trend that first surfaced in conflicts in Syria and Iraq, but the scale of the current conflict “is pretty overwhelming, at times,” Singer said.

In some ways, space is already playing a crucial role in this modern conflict.

“But there are other elements where it hasn't played a role—for good reason. That doesn't mean that if there was, for example, a war between the U.S. and Russia, we would not see massive space elements of it,” Singer added. “[But] I'd be wary of drawing conclusions about the entire future of space warfare out of a couple of days of the Russian-Ukraine conflict.”

Defense One’s Tara Copp contributed to this article.

X
This website uses cookies to enhance user experience and to analyze performance and traffic on our website. We also share information about your use of our site with our social media, advertising and analytics partners. Learn More / Do Not Sell My Personal Information
Accept Cookies
X
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Do Not Sell My Personal Information

When you visit our website, we store cookies on your browser to collect information. The information collected might relate to you, your preferences or your device, and is mostly used to make the site work as you expect it to and to provide a more personalized web experience. However, you can choose not to allow certain types of cookies, which may impact your experience of the site and the services we are able to offer. Click on the different category headings to find out more and change our default settings according to your preference. You cannot opt-out of our First Party Strictly Necessary Cookies as they are deployed in order to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting the cookie banner and remembering your settings, to log into your account, to redirect you when you log out, etc.). For more information about the First and Third Party Cookies used please follow this link.

Allow All Cookies

Manage Consent Preferences

Strictly Necessary Cookies - Always Active

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data, Targeting & Social Media Cookies

Under the California Consumer Privacy Act, you have the right to opt-out of the sale of your personal information to third parties. These cookies collect information for analytics and to personalize your experience with targeted ads. You may exercise your right to opt out of the sale of personal information by using this toggle switch. If you opt out we will not be able to offer you personalised ads and will not hand over your personal information to any third parties. Additionally, you may contact our legal department for further clarification about your rights as a California consumer by using this Exercise My Rights link

If you have enabled privacy controls on your browser (such as a plugin), we have to take that as a valid request to opt-out. Therefore we would not be able to track your activity through the web. This may affect our ability to personalize ads according to your preferences.

Targeting cookies may be set through our site by our advertising partners. They may be used by those companies to build a profile of your interests and show you relevant adverts on other sites. They do not store directly personal information, but are based on uniquely identifying your browser and internet device. If you do not allow these cookies, you will experience less targeted advertising.

Social media cookies are set by a range of social media services that we have added to the site to enable you to share our content with your friends and networks. They are capable of tracking your browser across other sites and building up a profile of your interests. This may impact the content and messages you see on other websites you visit. If you do not allow these cookies you may not be able to use or see these sharing tools.

If you want to opt out of all of our lead reports and lists, please submit a privacy request at our Do Not Sell page.

Save Settings
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Cookie List

A cookie is a small piece of data (text file) that a website – when visited by a user – asks your browser to store on your device in order to remember information about you, such as your language preference or login information. Those cookies are set by us and called first-party cookies. We also use third-party cookies – which are cookies from a domain different than the domain of the website you are visiting – for our advertising and marketing efforts. More specifically, we use cookies and other tracking technologies for the following purposes:

Strictly Necessary Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Functional Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Performance Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Social Media Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Targeting Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.