Blog Editor’s Note: The author is President of the RNT Foundation.
In mid-November, Russia destroyed a retired satellite with a ground-based anti-satellite (ASAT) weapon. This created significant debris, which endangered other assets in low-Earth orbit, including the International Space Station (ISS). Two Russian cosmonauts were serving on the seven-person ISS crew at the time.
Two weeks later, Russia followed up the ASAT demonstration with the boast that they could destroy all 32 Global Positioning System satellites at once, blinding the U.S. and NATO.
Based on the ASAT demonstration and unclassified reports from the U.S. Director of National Intelligence, it is pretty clear that Russia can destroy all, or at least most, GPS satellites in one go.
What is less clear, is whether Russia would really do that.
To find out, Dana A. Goward spoke with George Beebe, who once served as the Central Intelligence Agency’s top analyst for Russia and Eastern Europe. He is now the director of programs at the Center for the National Interest, a center-right think tank.
Dana A. Goward: Russia’s threat to destroy GPS was made shortly after they destroyed an old satellite in space. What do you make of that demonstration, and all the dangerous debris it created?
George Beebe: Well, they were clearly sending a message — several messages, in fact. First, of course, that they have the ability to destroy satellites in space. This is part of a larger narrative they want to tell — that they are a world power which must be reckoned with. And it is no coincidence that this was done while they were amassing troops along Ukraine’s borders.
Another message is that they know the U.S. and Europe are very dependent on space, and we are vulnerable there.
DG: But the space debris will threaten satellites and people in low-Earth orbit for years to come. That seems to be reckless and counter to their own interest.
GB: While others see that as reckless and irresponsible, Russian officials almost certainly see it as an expression of resolve. That was actually another message. They were saying, “We are willing to endanger our own equipment and people.”
Translate that to their concern about keeping Ukraine from joining NATO and otherwise falling into the West’s sphere of influence. It might be, “We are willing to accept the pain in order to keep Ukraine from leaving our orbit.”
Unfortunately, I am not sure most Western leaders picked up on the “We are resolved” message.
DG: Attacking GPS would be a huge, devastating and dangerous move, though. How could things get so bad they would do that?
GB: Russia sincerely believes it is generally threatened by the West, and specifically by NATO.
Since the fall of the Soviet Union, they have seen their global influence recede, and Western influence on their borders greatly expand. Some of their neighbors have joined NATO. Others, like Ukraine, have not, but would like to eventually come under the NATO umbrella. For the Kremlin, this is unacceptable. It is akin to what Soviet missiles in Cuba were for the United States.
Over the last decade and a half, Putin has rebuilt the Russian military. He is now looking to draw lines in the sand for the West to not cross.
At the same time, the West feels threatened by Russia. Hitler’s aggression and refusal to be appeased by territorial concessions is standard reading in every Western history class. American and European leaders feel compelled to hold the line and not give into what they see as Putin’s territorial ambitions.
This is a very dangerous situation as both sides see themselves acting defensively and the other acting aggressively.
DG: I guess it is much easier to justify something to yourself and your compatriots if you think you are only acting in self-defense.
GB: Exactly. The problem comes when one side does something in self-defense and, in response, the other side feels compelled to do something as well. This can spawn an escalating tit-for-tat that spirals out of control into a bigger conflict no one wants.
DG: The West is imposing economic sanctions. At least that is harder to interpret as aggressive.
GB: Before World War II, the U.S. imposed severe economic sanctions on Japan in response to its expansionist moves in Asia. The sanctions were so severe that they were crippling and threatened to bring down Japan’s military government. The week before Pearl Harbor, the Japanese delivered a diplomatic note to the United States saying the sanctions amounted to an act of war. So, economic sanctions are not always an absolutely safe route.
DG: Do you think Russia would ever really attack GPS? And how might that go down?
GB: It depends on how backed into a corner they feel. They certainly know that our military and our homeland are very dependent on GPS, and we have no real alternative in place. It doesn’t help that they are much less dependent on GLONASS and have an alternative for when signals from space are not available.
So, they can definitely do more harm to us than we can to them by interfering with navigation satellites.
It would take a lot to goad them into physically attacking GPS satellites. That would be an irreversible step they undoubtedly understand could lead to all-out war.
Far more likely would be a cyber-attack on the systems controlling the GPS constellation. Such an attack could be harder to attribute to them. It could also be reversed if they got what they wanted.
I could also see them jamming GPS and Galileo signals across Europe and the United States as part of an escalated conflict. Russian forces excel at electronic warfare, and the jamming could easily be turned off once they achieved their goals, or if things seemed to be getting out of hand.