UK, US say Russia tested space-based anti-satellite weapon

Harry Lye 24 July 2020 (Last Updated July 24th, 2020 18:48)

The US Space Command and UK’s Director Space have accused Russia of testing a space-based anti-satellite weapon.

UK, US say Russia tested space-based anti-satellite weapon
Imagt: Nasa / ESA.

On Thursday, the US Space Command said it had evidence of the Russian test, with the director of the UK’s Space Directorate Air Vice Marshall Harvey Smyth calling on Russia to ‘avoid any further such testing’.

Commenting on the test the US Space Command said: “US Space Command has evidence that Russia conducted a non-destructive test of a space-based anti-satellite weapon. On July 15, Russia injected a new object into orbit from Cosmos 2543, currently Satellite Catalog Number 45915 in Space-Track.org.

“Russia released this object in proximity to another Russian satellite, which is similar to on-orbit activity conducted by Russia in 2017, and inconsistent with the system’s stated mission as an inspector satellite.”

Both the UK and US condemned the test, with Commander of US Space Command and US Space Force Chief of Space Operations General John Raymond said: “The Russian satellite system used to conduct this on-orbit weapons test is the same satellite system that we raised concerns about earlier this year when Russia manoeuvred near a U.S. government satellite.

“This is further evidence of Russia’s continuing efforts to develop and test space-based systems, and consistent with the Kremlin’s published military doctrine to employ weapons that hold U.S. and allied space assets at risk.”

The US State Department called Russian activity in space ‘hypocritical and concerning’ after having raised concerns about Russian behaviour in 2018 and 2019. The State Department added that Russian ‘satellite behaviours were inconsistent with their stated mission and that these satellites displayed characteristics of a space-based weapon’.

Commenting on the test, US Assistant Secretary of State currently performing the duties of the Under Secretary for Arms Control and International Security Dr Christopher Ford said: “This event highlights Russia’s hypocritical advocacy of outer space arms control, with which Moscow aims to restrict the capabilities of the United States while clearly having no intention of halting its own counter space program — both ground-based anti-satellite capabilities and what would appear to be actual in-orbit anti-satellite weaponry,”

Responding to the test, the director of the UK’s Space Directorate Air Vice Marshall Harvey Smyth said: “We are concerned by the manner in which Russia tested one of its satellites by launching a projectile with the characteristics of a weapon.

“Actions of this kind threaten the peaceful use of space and risk causing debris that could pose a threat to the satellites and the space systems on which the world depends.”

US Space Command called the test ‘another example’ that the threats to the US and allies’ space-based systems were ‘real, serious and increasing’. Adding Russian development of orbital weapons highlighted the importance of the US standing up the US Space Force and the US Space Command.

Raymond added: “The United States, in coordination with our allies, is ready and committed to deterring aggression and defending the nation, our allies and vital US interests from hostile acts in space.”

The comments from Smyth mark the first time the UK has officially accused Russia of testing-firing a space-based weapon. Smyth added: “We call on Russia to avoid any further such testing. We also urge Russia to continue to work constructively with the UK and other space partners to encourage responsible behaviour in space.”

Condemnation of the test was echoed by the Canadian Air Force (CAF). CAF Space Component Commander Brigadier General Mike Adamson said: “Testing of space-based weapons on orbit destabilises the space environment. Ensuring responsible behaviour in space is critical for Canada, our partners, allies and the broader global community.”

MP and chair of the Defence Select Committee Tobias Ellwood told Air Force Technology the test was ‘deeply concerning’. Ellwood said: “Our government should carefully consider how to appropriately respond to these developments. Actions such as these signify a threat to the peaceful use of space which has brought so many benefits.

“The Integrated Security, Defence and Foreign Policy Review must look at how the UK can best engage with adversaries in this new domain and how to protect and defend our interests there. Our committee is monitoring these developments with interest.”

Anti-satellite weapons and the space domain

Royal United Services Institute Space Policy and Security Research Fellow Alexandra Stickings told Air Force Technology that the test did not come as a surprise adding: “Russia, along with other major space powers such as China and the United States, have been developing capabilities that can deny space assets, whether that is through anti-satellite missiles (a capability which is also possessed by India) or other means, which can range from GPS jamming, cyber-attacks or other non-kinetic activities such as using lasers to dazzle optical sensors on a satellite.

“This is in response to more states seeing space as a warfighting or operational domain. But it is also important to understand that the concept of anti-satellite capabilities goes back to the beginnings of the use of space – this is not new. As long as space remains important for military operations and national security, it will be contested, and states will look at how they can gain advantage.”

Space is defined by some organisations and countries including the US and NATO as an operational domain, with space-based systems being vital to communication networks, navigation, intelligence systems in both civilian and military sectors.

In 2019, NATO adopted a new space policy that recognised the domain alongside air, land, sea and cyberspace. At the time NATO Leaders stated: “We have declared space an operational domain for NATO, recognising its importance in keeping us safe and tackling security challenges, while upholding international law.”

Ground and air-based anti-satellite weapons have been tested in the past, with India test-firing a rocket that shot down one of the country’s own satellite systems in 2019. China has also in the past tested similar weapons, however, the Russian test is different as it involved an in-orbit weapons system. In Russia’s test, one satellite launched an object close to another in a test of how an in-orbit anti-satellite weapon would be deployed.

Stickings added: “I think overall what this event highlights is that there is a problem in understanding exactly what is happening in orbit, which adds a level of concern to activities that are not ‘normal’.

“We are also suffering from a lack of ‘rules of the road’ and norms of behaviour, which again makes it more difficult to understand what the intentions of certain activities are and the level of threat that they pose.”