Russia tested a ground-based missile last week, destroying a defunct but still-orbiting Soviet satellite, Kosmos-1408. China, the United States and India have conducted similar operations in the past, but this was the first time that Russia undertook a live intercept of this kind.
What, exactly, did Russia test?
The Russian military used an existing system, the PL-19 Nudol, to destroy the satellite. While information is sparse and contradictory, experts say Nudol has two alleged roles: as an antisatellite weapon and, more speculatively, as part of a new generation of the established antimissile system defending Moscow.
Nudol’s interceptor — the missile itself — is fired from a mobile launcher. Older generations of Russian and Soviet strategic antimissile systems were armed with nuclear weapons, but Nudol’s interceptor carries a conventional warhead. Russia has tested the system many times before, but without performing an interception of a real satellite.
Was the test dangerous?
The Russian Ministry of Defense said the test “did not and will not pose a threat” to other space users. The United States and its allies strongly disagree.
A U.S. Department of State press statement reported that the test created a cloud of more than 1,500 pieces of space debris. The debris will now orbit the earth at the same altitude as the International Space Station, China’s Tiangong space station, and satellites from several countries. Debris at this altitude travel at extremely high velocities — approximately 17,500 miles per hour — so even small pieces can inflict significant damage to other orbiting craft.
NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said he was “outraged” by the Russian test and reported that ISS crew, including Russian cosmonauts who are part of the international team, took emergency measures to protect themselves. The presence of the two Russians on the International Space Station, and their potential exposure to harm, makes Moscow’s test even more puzzling.
The debris that such tests create can pose a long-term threat to other space users, depending on the circumstances. A 2008 U.S. antisatellite test didn’t produce significant long-term space debris because it intercepted a satellite that was in the process of reentering the earth’s atmosphere. But space detritus from China’s 2007 test at a greater altitude remains a risk today. And the Russian test took place even higher above the earth’s surface, thereby increasing the potential for greater and longer-term risk.
Why would Russia test such a system?
The most straightforward explanation is that Russia wanted to prove Nudol’s capabilities as an antisatellite weapon. Moscow has a long history of developing “co-orbital” antisatellite systems — effectively satellites that would attack other satellites. Russia also has the capability to jam other countries’ satellites without attacking them physically. With a successful interception, Russia has now confirmed its capability to launch missile attacks on satellites from the earth as well, in line with U.S., Indian and Chinese antisatellite capabilities.
Russian antisatellite weapons pose a threat to the extensive U.S. military satellite network — which carries out a wide variety of essential intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance, navigation and communications tasks. Russia probably wants the ability to impair U.S. and allied military operations during a war by attacking or disrupting these satellites.
Experts also speculate that potential U.S. development of space-based systems capable of attacking targets on earth may be driving Russian development of this range of antisatellite weapons. This concern may seem far-fetched — the United States hasn’t tested any such system — but Moscow has held such concerns since at least the 1980s.
And what does this mean for space security?
Russia’s test underlines the risks that antisatellite weapons pose to space security. An armaments race in space could lead to further deterioration of relations between major space powers such as the United States, Russia, India and China. During a crisis or conflict, attacks on adversary satellites that provide warning of a missile attack could be highly escalatory, potentially provoking fears of a surprise nuclear strike.
However, the angry exchanges that this test has provoked suggest that the major space powers may not be prepared to tackle the long-standing obstacles in regulating the arms competition in this domain.
Existing arms control agreements like the 1967 Outer Space Treaty do not cover antisatellite weapons. Washington, Moscow and others have been exploring the possibility of controlling this type of weapon for over 40 years, so far without significant progress.
The United States dismissed previous proposals, while Russia recently objected to the United Kingdom’s attempts to begin a U.N.-based process to regulate what countries can do in space. Differences over what to limit — and how — are unlikely to be resolved anytime soon.
For now, it appears that space will remain an important domain for the burgeoning arms competition between the major powers.
James J. Cameron is a postdoctoral fellow at the Oslo Nuclear Project in the University of U.K. political science department. He is the author of “The Double Game: The Demise of America’s First Missile Defense System and the Rise of Strategic Arms Limitation.”