WASHINGTON — Russia conducted its second test this year of a direct ascent anti-satellite missile test, according to a U.S. Space Command, yet again drawing sharp criticism from the U.S.
“Russia has made space a war-fighting domain by testing space-based and ground-based weapons intended to target and destroy satellites. This fact is inconsistent with Moscow’s public claims that Russia seeks to prevent conflict in space,” said Space Command head Gen. James Dickinson in a statement. “Space is critical to all nations. It is a shared interest to create the conditions for a safe, stable and operationally sustainable space environment.”
Space Command said the direct-ascent anti-satellite missile tested is a kinetic weapon capable of destroying satellites in low Earth orbit. A similar anti-satellite missile test by India in March 2019 that destroyed the nation’s own satellite on orbit drew criticism from observers, who noted that the debris created from the threat could cause indirect damage to other satellites.
Russia has completed tests of its Nudol ballistic-missile system several times in recent years, including in April of this year. Nudol can be used as an anti-satellite weapon and is capable of destroying satellites in low Earth orbit. According to the CSIS Aerospace Security Project’s “Space Threat Assessment 2020,” Russia conducted its seventh Nudol test in 2018.
Under the Trump administration, the U.S. has used the development and testing of anti-satellite weapons by Russia and China as a justification for creating both Space Command and the U.S. Space Force in 2019.
“The establishment of U.S. Space Command as the nation’s unified combatant command for space and U.S. Space Force as the primary branch of the U.S. Armed Forces that presents space combat and combat support capabilities to U.S. Space Command could not have been timelier. We stand ready and committed to deter aggression and defend our nation and our allies from hostile acts in space,” Dickenson said.
Acting Secretary of Defense Christopher C. Miller made similar comments last week as the White House released a new National Space Policy, which calls for the U.S. to defeat aggression and promote norms of behavior in space
“Our adversaries have made space a war-fighting domain, and we have to adapt our national security organizations, policies, strategies, doctrine, security classification frameworks and capabilities for this new strategic environment. Over the last year we have established the necessary organizations to ensure we can deter hostilities, demonstrate responsible behaviors, defeat aggression and protect the interests of the United States and our allies.”
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo stated his department would “encourage and uphold the right of nations to responsibly and peacefully use space, while identifying and resolving behaviors that threaten that right.”
Beyond direct-ascent missile tests, Space Command has raised concerns about other anti-satellite capabilities in Russia’s possession, including a “combat laser system” acknowledged by the Russian government in 2018.
Perhaps more concerning are the activities of Russian satellites on orbit, moves that U.S. officials have called “irresponsible” and “hugely provocative.” In multiple instances, Russian inspectors have cozied up to commercial and government satellites on orbit. While that alone has been a cause for concern among U.S. officials, the testing of a potential weapon from those same satellites was even more alarming.
In 2017 and 2020, Russian satellites demonstrated the ability to launch objects from satellites in space at high speeds. In one case, a Russian satellite known as Cosmos 2521 was able to sidle up to another Russian satellite before firing an object into space.
The satellite “launched an additional object into space — Cosmos 2523 — at the high relative speed of about 250 km per hour,” recounted Assistant Secretary of State for International Security and Nonproliferation Chris Ford in April. “I don’t want to put too fine a point on it, but Cosmos 2521 demonstrated the ability to position itself near another satellite and to fire a projectile.”
“Since the Russian military had already demonstrated its ability to fire a projectile from one satellite in space just over two years before, Russia’s irresponsible recent movements are clearly hugely provocative,” said Ford.
Russia carried out a similar test in July of this year. The Space Force and Space Command call that capability a weapon.
Space Command used the most recent incident to again draw a contrast between Russia’s diplomatic stance on space weapons and its perceived aggression behavior. Russia has advocated for the international adoption of the Treaty on Prevention of the Placement of Weapons in Outer Space and of the Threat or Use of Force Against Outer Space Objects, and at the United Nations it has pushed for a No First Placement of Weapons in Outer Space resolution. Given Russian anti-satellite weapon development and it’s activities on orbit, Ford compared these diplomatic efforts to a snake oil salesman.
Following the new test, Dickinson also called out Russia for hypocrisy.
“Russia publicly claims it is working to prevent the transformation of outer space into a battlefield, yet at the same time Moscow continues to weaponize space by developing and fielding on-orbit and ground-based capabilities that seek to exploit U.S. reliance on space-based systems,” he said. “Russia’s persistent testing of these systems demonstrates threats to U.S. and allied space systems are rapidly advancing.”
Nathan Strout was the staff editor at C4ISRNET, where he covered the intelligence community.