U.S. Space Command Tracking Russian ASAT Test

U.S. Space Command Tracking Russian ASAT Test

U.S. Space Command announced this afternoon that it is tracking an ongoing Russian antisatellite (ASAT) test.  Gen. Jay Raymond called it further evidence of Russian hypocrisy in publicly advocating for space arms control while conducting its own counterspace activities that threaten space assets.  He also said the United States is ready to defend itself and its allies from such attacks.

Raymond is dual-hatted as Commander of U.S. Space Command (USSPACECOM) and Chief of Space Operations, leading the newly created U.S. Space Force (USSF), part of the U.S. Air Force.

Today’s test is of a Direct Ascent (DA) ASAT that is launched directly towards a satellite or a point in space in some tests. Raymond said the Russian DA-ASAT system can target satellites in low Earth orbit (LEO) where a large number of U.S. national security satellites operate, not to mention those for civil and commercial uses.  The International Space Station is in LEO.

All of those can be threatened if not by the ASAT itself, but by resulting debris if a collision takes place. A Chinese ASAT test in 2007 created more than 3,000 pieces of debris that the ISS and other spacecraft have to dodge from time to time. An Indian ASAT test last year was designed to limit the amount of debris it created and for those pieces to reenter within 45 days, but Jonathan McDowell of Jonathan’s Space Report (@planet4589) tells SpacePolicyOnline.com that 14 tracked objects remain in orbit today and all cross the path of the ISS.  Tracked objects are 10 centimeters or more in diameter.  Smaller pieces, which are also hazardous, may exist.

In an emailed response to SpacePolicyOnline.com, a USSPACECOM spokesperson declined to say whether the Russian test today targeted a specific satellite, but it is not tracking any debris.

Brian Weeden, Director of Program Planning at the Secure World Foundation (SWF), told SpacePolicyOnline.com that he believes this was a test of Russia’s mobile Nudol missile system, the tenth such test since 2005. The USSPACECOM spokesperson confirmed that the test was of a “mobile missile system.”

Weeden said “So far none of the Nudol tests appear to have targeted a satellite, but it may only be a matter of time before Russia follows in the footsteps of China, the United States, and India in doing so.”

DA-ASATs are part of a class of “kinetic kill” counterspace weapons that destroy a satellite by impacting it or exploding nearby. The United States had dedicated DA-ASAT ground- or air-based systems from the 1960s-1980s and in 2008 demonstrated the ability of its sea-based Aegis missile system to fulfill an ASAT role by destroying a U.S. military satellite (USA 193) that was out of control and posed a hazard if it reentered. Russia also has tested kinetic kill ASAT capabilities since the beginning of the Space Age.  All the U.S., Russian, Chinese and Indian kinetic kill ASAT tests have been against their own satellites.

Attempts since the 1970s to negotiate bi- or multi-lateral treaties to ban or limit ASAT weapons have failed.  Russia and China continue to promote the idea of a Treaty on the Prevention of the Placement of Weapons in Outer Space, The Threat of Use of Force Against Space Objects (PPWT) at the United Nations, but Raymond pointed out that today’s test demonstrates Russia is not serious.

“This test is further proof of Russia’s hypocritical advocacy of outer space arms control proposals designed to restrict the capabilities of the United States while clearly having no intention of halting their counterspace weapons programs.”

He focused not just on the overall threat to U.S. and allied space systems, but the timing of the test during the coronavirus pandemic.

 “Space is critical to all nations and our way of life. The demands on space systems continue in this time of crisis where global logistics, transportation and communication are key to defeating the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It is a shared interest and responsibility of all spacefaring nations to create safe, stable and operationally sustainable conditions for space activities, including commercial, civil and national security activities…”

But he also made clear the United States is ready to deal with these threats.

“The United States is ready and committed to deterring aggression and defending the Nation, our allies, and U.S. interests from hostile acts in space.”

Todd Harrison, Director of the Aerospace Security Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), shares Raymond’s views. Via email he told SpacePolicyOnline.com: “This is yet another example of Russian hypocrisy when it comes to the weaponization of space. Russia claims it will not be the first to deploy space weapons, but it has been testing and demonstrating counter space weapons since the 1960s. It should also serve as yet another wake up call for those who think the Space Force is not needed.”

CSIS and SWF just published their separate but complementary annual space threat assessments that provide detail from unclassified sources on the counterspace capabilities of Russia, China and other countries. The SWF report includes the United States.  DA-ASATs are only one type of weapon that can temporarily or permanently interfere with the operations of a satellite, but one that poses considerable collateral damage to other satellites from resulting debris if a collision occurs.

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