The First Shots in a Ukraine Conflict May Be in Space

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unarmed Minuteman 3 intercontinental ballistic missile
In this photo released by the U.S. Army Space and Missile Defense Command, an unarmed Minuteman 3 intercontinental ballistic missile launches during an operation test at Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif., on Tuesday, Feb. 23, 2021. (Brittany E. N. Murphy/U.S. Army Space and Missile Defense Command via AP)

This past November, the Russian Federation destroyed one of its own Soviet-era satellites with a missile, sending thousands of scraps of shrapnel hurtling through space, a cloud of debris that threatened other orbiting satellites including those belonging to the U.S.

U.S. government officials quickly rebuked the missile launch as "reckless and dangerous," and the military took it as a sign that Russia has no qualms about opening fire in space.

The missile launch could be a preamble, a reminder that, as the threat of a Russian invasion looms in Ukraine and modern warfare increasingly relies on satellites for intelligence and communications, space could be one of the first battlefields, according to experts.

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That leaves U.S. Space Command, and the newly created Space Force, to take the lead on defending the nation's satellite fleet from attack.

Todd Harrison, director of the Aerospace Security Project at the nonprofit Center for Strategic and International Studies, said that with the U.S. trying to avoid putting boots on the ground and aircraft in Russian airspace, a vast amount of America's intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance is going to come from outer space.

And the Russians know it.

"We can't get aircraft involved, but it does make outer space a target for Russia," Harrison said.

A potential conflict with Ukraine might also serve as the first opportunity for the newest service branch, the Space Force, to show the American public how important its role is, according to Harrison.

"This may be the conflict that gets the Space Force past the Trump-era laugh factor and shows the importance of their mission," he said.

The missile launch incident this past November was not the first time Russia has flexed its muscle in space.

Gen. David Thompson, the Space Force's first vice chief of space operations, told The Washington Post that Russia sent a small satellite so close to a U.S. "national security satellite" in 2019 that it wasn't clear whether it was attacking or not.

The Russian satellite backed off and conducted a weapons test by releasing a small target it then shot with a projectile.

"It maneuvered close, it maneuvered dangerously, it maneuvered threateningly so that they were coming close enough that there was a concern of collision," Thompson told the paper. "So clearly, the Russians were sending us a message."

Physical attacks on satellites are not widely broadcast by the military. Rather, many interferences are often never seen, and take the form of cyberattacks, radio jamming or making military equipment harder to function, according to the 2020 Defense Space Strategy.

U.S. Space Command didn't comment on whether a Russian attack has caused permanent damage to an American satellite in 2022 and said in an emailed statement that its satellite system "continues to perform as designed."

There are fears that interference with American satellites would escalate if Russia does invade Ukraine, according to John Venable, a senior research fellow for defense policy at the Heritage Foundation, a Washington think tank.

"If they were to actually go into a military incursion into Ukraine, you would see those temporary effects go up by a large measure," he said. "They have a sophisticated offensive capability in their space portfolio to jam sensors in space, and blind them."

Venable added that a physical attack on American satellites would be "a bold and an unwise move" by Russian President Vladimir Putin.

A move that Harrison said might not make headlines.

"We may not know about it right away, and we may never know about it," he said. "It could be very quiet and very behind the scenes with activities that aren't known to the public."

-- Thomas Novelly can be reached at thomas.novelly@military.com. Follow him on Twitter @TomNovelly.

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