Russia is employing a significant portion of its space assets to gather intelligence and conduct airstrikes in Syria, underscoring Moscow’s reliance on the military use of spacecraft, according to reports.
Valery Gerasimov, chief of the general staff for Russia’s military, said last month that Moscow is directing 10 satellites, including some with civilian uses, to conduct reconnaissance in Syria, locate targets, and enhance communications among Russian armed forces, the Daily Beast reported. Those assets constitute more than 10 percent of Moscow’s space warfare systems.
"Ten imagery and electronic warfare reconnaissance satellites, including civilian-use spacecraft, have been involved in reconnaissance," in Syria, Gerasimov told reporters.
One Russian propaganda outlet boasted that "Russia now fields one of the largest and most effective satellite groups in the world, and it has reached a peak of activity amid the military operations in Syria."
The Kremlin has used its satellites to claim that Turkey is facilitating ISIS oil trade, releasing images that allegedly show the terrorist group’s oil tankers traveling into Turkey. Turkey has denied those charges. Tensions remain high between the two nations after the Turkish air force shot down a Russian jet last month and claimed that it had violated Turkish airspace.
The world’s leading militaries, including U.S. armed forces, increasingly rely on satellites to collect intelligence and facilitate operations among various branches. According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, the United States possesses the world’s largest collection of spacecraft with more than 400 satellites, about half of which can be used for military purposes. Russia is second with 89 satellites, followed by China with 35.
U.S. Air Force Space Command did not respond to a request for comment about Russia’s use of satellites in Syria.
U.S. defense officials have raised concerns about Russia and China’s development of anti-satellite weapons systems, which could disrupt operations by the militaries of adversaries and create debris clouds that threaten all spacecraft. Both nations have tested their versions of direct ascent anti-satellite missiles in the last two months.
Gen. John Hyten, commander of Air Force Space Command, said last week that Russia and China’s construction of "kinetic energy anti-satellite weapons" poses long-term problems for space travel.
"It creates an environment that will be there for decades, if not centuries," he said. "And you can’t get rid of it."
"So I don’t want to go down that path, and Russia and China are going down that path," he added.
China destroyed one of its own satellites in 2007 in its first successful anti-satellite weapons test, an exercise that produced thousands of particles in Earth’s orbit and threatened hundreds of spacecraft.
While Russian President Vladimir Putin has claimed that his forces are only targeting ISIS and terrorist groups in Syria, U.S. military officials say Russia has continued to mostly strike rebel groups—including some backed by the United States—in order to prop up Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad. Aid workers say Russian airstrikes, guided by satellites, have worsened the humanitarian crisis in Syria and led to more civilian deaths in a conflict that has already claimed more than 200,000 lives.
Recent Russian strikes in northern Syria near Turkey, which have escalated since the downing of its warplane, have struck border crossings for humanitarian aid, grain silos, bakeries, and hospitals. Some have accused Russia of deliberately targeting civilian infrastructure to punish the rebel fighters that also live and use supplies in these areas.
"Of course, it is impossible for us to have certainty, but the frequency with which bombs are falling in hospitals or very close to hospitals is enough to make it really seem that, yes, they are targeting hospitals," a Doctors Without Borders official told the Washington Post.