Raymond Asserts Russians Conducted ASAT Test Last Week

Raymond Asserts Russians Conducted ASAT Test Last Week

The Commander of U.S. Space Command asserted today that Russia conducted a non-destructive test of a space-based antisatellite (ASAT) weapon last week.  Gen. Jay Raymond, dual-hatted as the head of the U.S. Space Force, warned earlier this year of provocative actions by Russian “inspector satellites” as the United States amplifies its message that Russia and China have made space a warfighting domain.

Gen. John “Jay” Raymond.

The incident occurred on July 15 when Russia’s Cosmos 2543 released a sub-satellite in a manner U.S. Space Command considers threatening even though it did not collide with or otherwise harm any other spacecraft.  Although it was ejected near another Russian satellite (Cosmos 2535), Cosmos 2543 had been maneuvering close to a U.S. military satellite weeks earlier as Raymond revealed in a February interview in Time magazine.

The implication is that Russia could have propelled the sub-satellite toward a U.S. satellite just as easily.

What happened this time mirrors a 2017 incident described by a U.S. official at a 2018 United Nations meeting. Russia claims these are inspector satellites designed to observe other spacecraft, but U.S. officials worry the sub-satellites could be projectiles intended to damage or destroy.

Astrophysicist Jonathan McDowell, who authors the website Jonathan’s Space Report, told SpacePolicyOnline.com today that by comparing the closest approach of the two objects and their relative speeds, he calculated the sub-satellite was ejected at a speed of approximately 200 meters per second. He agreed that if construed as ejection of a missile to hit a target, that would be troubling, but argued there could be other explanations. For example, Cosmos 2535 might have sensors to characterize rocket plumes and was observing the sub-satellite in that regard. That would count as a missile defense sensor test, not an ASAT test, McDowell reasoned.

Smaller satellites separating from larger ones is not uncommon, especially in an era of cubesats and nanosats.  It is the velocity that makes this event unusual.

Brian Weeden of the Secure World Foundation (SWF) told SpacePolicyOnline.com that he concurs with Raymond’s evaluation that it was “some sort of weapons test.”  An expert on the development and testing of ASAT systems throughout the history of the space program, he sees it not as something new, however, but “a return to how things used to be.”  A SWF spreadsheet tracks 70 ASAT tests conducted in space since 1959. About 50 took place during the Cold War. After a decade-long break, they resumed in 2005 and about 20 have taken place since then by the United States, Russia, China and India.

“It is more accurate to say that space is returning to being a warfighting domain like it was during the Cold War, but with even more potential combatants now,” Weeden said.

SWF and the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) each publish annual reports on what are generically called “counterspace” activities.

Viewed as an ASAT test, the incident underscores the threat posed to U.S. satellites by Russia and the need for U.S. Space Command and U.S. Space Force according to Raymond’s statement. In the words of the State Department’s Christopher Ford, it also exposes Russia’s “hypocritical advocacy of outer space arms control” at the United Nations.

DOD recently issued a Defense Space Strategy with three objectives: maintain space superiority; provide space support to national, joint and combined operations; and ensure space stability.


This article has been updated.

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