On November 15, 2021, before invading Ukraine, Russia tested an anti-satellite missile.

For as long as there have been satellites, there has been the desire for anti-satellite (ASAT) weaponry. The Soviet Union tested one successfully in 1970. The United States did the same in 1985. India and China also possess this capability.

The Russian ASAT demonstration in November destroyed a satellite and added yet more space debris to low Earth orbit. The dangerous fragment field even necessitated that NASA reposition the International Space Station. Though the ISS seems serene and stagnant in photographs from NASA, it flies around the earth at 17,500 miles per hour. Everything in orbit is fast, which means an errant bolt would impact like a mortar round.


Space sector observers and journalists seemed aghast that the lunkhead Russian military, in a pointless show of force, was stupidly endangering low Earth orbit.

In fact, threatening low Earth orbit was the whole point of the exercise. That the ASAT test preceded the invasion of Ukraine is no coincidence. I believe that it was a pointed warning to the United States, which is racing to develop satellite mega-constellations such as Starlink, which is owned by Elon Musk’s company, SpaceX.

The warning was not “We now have the ability to blow up satellites.” Rather, the warning was: “Interfere with what is to come, and we are willing to poison permanently low Earth orbit.”

But why would they do that, and how is this playing out in the current conflict?


Conventional satellite constellations have been around for a while, and several nations and alliances possess them. GPS is perhaps the most famous, consisting of 24 satellites distributed carefully to provide full coverage of the planet Earth. The Russians have their own 24-satellite positioning constellation—GLONASS—as do the Europeans, with Galileo. These constellations orbit at altitudes between 19,000 and 23,000 kilometers above the earth.

Starlink is a different animal entirely. The mega-constellation now consists of over 1,500 satellites at the low altitude of 550 km. Ongoing development will bring that to a total of 17,000 satellites in place at altitudes as low as 350 kilometers.

Unlike GPS, Starlink systems are design specifically for two-way communication. Small ground-based antennas send and receive broadband Internet through Starlink, solving the “last mile” broadband problem. Companies providing Internet to rural communities in the developed world, and vast swaths of the developing world, are simply unable (or unwilling) to lay high speed Internet wires from distribution points to villages. Once Starlink is fully operational, however, the whole world will have access to a high-speed Internet service. It is owned by an entrepreneur espousing a Western-style commitment to free-speech and the free flow of information.

Russia presently lacks the money and infrastructure to develop mega-constellations. The United States so utterly dominates that technology that it defies imagination that another country would even bother. Because of the cost of launch vehicles, constellations on the order of Starlink are virtually impossible without reusable rockets—another technology the United States alone possesses.

All this leaves Russia with a pointed strategic disadvantage. Russia can’t build mega-constellations. But one thing Russia can do, and is willing to do? Blow them up.


When Russia invaded Ukraine, one of the first things it did was mount a full scale assault on Ukrainian Internet connectivity. It was a perfect way of disorienting the Ukrainian people, not only denying them access to their government’s messaging and coordination during a deadly, terrifying catastrophe, but also cutting citizens off from each other. Overnight, it was significantly more difficult to check up on grandma, who happened to live in the red zone.

Moreover, daily life for the whole of the developed world now runs online. Without the Internet, everything from banking to weather forecasts are effectively blocked. The psychological effects of such isolation and uncertainty are immeasurable. Russia was clearly counting on a demoralized Ukrainian populace surrendering quickly.

Enter Elon Musk, who quickly activated Starlink in Ukraine, and is shipping access terminals there as fast as SpaceX can make them. Today, Starlink access software is the most downloaded app in Ukraine.

Elon Musk’s private company has effectively neutralized a key element in the Russian military invasion strategy.


The question now is how will Vladimir Putin respond—particularly if the war on the ground begins to falter. Would Putin begin targeting Starlink satellites? According to Tim Chrisman, a former CIA officer who is now executive director of Foundation for the Future, a space infrastructure advocacy nonprofit, Russians might see Starlink as a valid military target. If the Russians attacked it, the United States might have limited options in how to respond.

“On one hand, SpaceX is a U.S. government service provider, so, at least in some Russians’ minds, it’s probably a legitimate target,” he says. “A Russian company in the same position would be essentially an arm of the Kremlin.” Launching an ASAT attack on Starlink would not necessarily trigger World War III, however. “In the U.S. government policy world, that would be roughly the equivalent of the reporters—American citizens—who were killed in Ukraine. It’s horrific, but we’re not going to go to war over it.”

He suggests that in such a scenario, the most likely response would be a diplomatic condemnation of Russia.

With the Russian invasion of Ukraine, we are witnessing the dawn of a new age of warfighting, Chrisman says—akin to the dawn of air support in military conflicts: hot air observation balloons that were used in World War I. “Anti-satellite warfare is the equivalent of soldiers taking potshots at those balloons.”

Right now, Russia isn’t likely to start picking off satellites because to do so would tip its hand concerning its full ASAT capabilities. That could change if the Russians get bogged down in an Afghanistan-like campaign, however, and the results could be catastrophic and irreversible for decades to come. Low Earth orbit is critical to the future of human and robotic spaceflight. Rendering it uninhabitable with space debris would setback the natural progression of humanity itself.


Regardless of whether the war in Ukraine goes kinetic in the space domain, there is at least one big lesson for the United States and NATO to take from the invasion. “I am hopeful that the U.S. recognizes that the distributed nature of Starlink enabled an entire country to remain online despite going up against one of—if not the—most sophisticated electronic warfare nation in the world.”

Russia, he says, has decades of experience with advanced electronic warfare, including everything from jamming communications to full electronic attack capabilities—something they poured a lot of time and effort into developing during the Cold War.

Starlink, however, is a distributed network of software-driven satellites, he says. “They don’t operate at a single bandwidth that Russia can jam. Starlink can be adaptive. The U.S. should push hard toward deploying that sort of space-based technology as our go-to architecture. I think that that is going to be one of the big takeaways that we’ll see going forward.”

In the meantime, the war rages on, and we are left to wonder how widely it might spread.

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David Brown is a regular contributor to ClearanceJobs. His most recent book, THE MISSION (Custom House, 2021), is now available in bookstores everywhere in hardcover and paperback. He can be found online at https://www.dwb.io.