Days before the publication of last week’s report into Russian activity in the UK, and the subsequent call from several UK parliamentarians for a swift response to the ‘Russian threat’, Russia tested a new anti-satellite weapon capability releasing a small projectile from its Kosmos-2543 sub-satellite.
Kosmos-2543, a small satellite contained inside a larger satellite, Kosmos-2542, and ‘birthed’ into orbit in late 2019, recently came under scrutiny in January 2020 when it was reportedly caught ‘buzzing’ US spy satellites in Low Earth Orbit.
By releasing a small projectile from the Kosmos-2543 sub-satellite, the US claims that Russia has launched a new projectile into orbit with relatively high speed – estimated at around 500 km per hour – leading to concerns about the potential of Russia to develop this technology as a weapon to target foreign satellites.
It is not the first time Moscow has relied on a Russian doll – or matryoshka – approach to launching satellites into outer space. In October 2017, a sub-satellite, Kosmos-2521, was ejected from its main satellite, Kosmos-2519, into a high-speed object in low orbit.
The Russian Ministry of Defence has declared that its latest activity is just for ‘routine’ inspections and surveillance of Russia’s other space assets, with the government’s official statement avoiding recognizing the existence of the new object while, at the same time, Kremlin spokesperson, Dmitry Peskov, recalling Russia’s commitment for the ‘complete demilitarization’ of space.
While it is possible that Russia’s matryoshka satellites have indeed been developed to carry out routine repairs of Russia’s space fleet, they also have the potential to interfere with, and destroy, other satellites with such action needing to be considered a threat until Russia demonstrates otherwise.
Russia’s use of outer space
Russia is not the only state investigating anti-satellite weaponry capabilities. There is a wider trend (e.g. China, India, US) to demonstrate advanced space capabilities with nefarious, if not directly offensive, intent. But, for the past few years, Russia in particular, has been provocative in testing its space weapon capabilities.
For example, in April 2020, Russia launched and tested into low orbit the PL-19 Nudol direct-ascent anti-satellite (DA-ASAT) interceptor missile system from the Plesetsk Cosmodrome demonstrating its space assets with potential offensive capabilities, in particular, Russia’s capacity to destroy satellites in Low Earth Orbit.
In addition, the satellites, Kosmos-2535 and Kosmos-2536, launched in July 2019, are also suspected to be operating beyond their official mission of studying Russian orbital assets. It is reported that these satellites conducted a close proximity activity, coming within one kilometre from each other, which led to the creation of orbital debris.
Russia’s space strategy
By exploiting asymmetric advantages in space, Russia seeks to leverage its capabilities against competitors in space and in other domains, falling in line with its wider military strategy as well as its current Federal Space Programme for 2016 to 2025.
Russian space activities also have a cyber and electronic warfare angle. With the help of remote-sensing capabilities, Russian spy satellites potentially seek to disrupt military and civilian satellite communications and navigation systems. Indeed, in 2018, French authorities publicly accused Russia of seeking to intercept communication satellites for French and Italian armed forces putting data transmission through Western civilian and military satellites at risk of interception.
Furthermore, earlier this year, both Kosmos-2542 and 2543 came within 160 kilometres of a US spy satellite, US KH-11, similarly to Russia ‘buzzing’ around the British Isles or submarine surveillance that Norway and Sweden have been subjected to recently.
Shadowing and tailing in space is regarded as spying and this recent anti-satellite weapon test is part of a trend which demonstrates Russia’s persistent space strategy for close-proximity operations with foreign countries.
Despite Russia’s calls for a treaty to prevent the placement of weapons in outer space, there remains little international trust in Russia’s behaviour in space so far with a US-Russia Space Security Exchange meeting scheduled to take place in Vienna on 27 July to discuss outer space stability and security.
This is amid a backdrop of bilateral nuclear arms control talks on the extension of the extant nuclear weapons reduction treaty, New START, which is scheduled to expire in February 2021. There is no guarantee, however, that the talks will achieve anything especially since the future of outer space requires a wider multilateral dialogue with all parties involved – including China.
Anti-satellite tests (ASATs) are a particularly dangerous form of weapon. Not only do they create major vulnerabilities in a domain where so much of humanity depends on for navigation, communications and environmental monitoring, they are also primarily a target for destabilization and undermining global positioning information in times of crisis.
And, perhaps most significantly, they possess the highly destructive potential to create even more space debris in Earth’s orbits that endanger the peaceful use of satellites and could do serious damage to large parts of the economies of developed and developing countries.
Avoiding space warfare
Space is for all but there is a risk that it is being hijacked by a few. It is time to re-assert and reinforce the rules, principles and norms of responsible state behaviour in outer space enshrined in the 1967 Outer Space Treaty and its associated international agreements.
And, because the treaty specifically prohibits stationing nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction in orbit or on celestial bodies, it is necessary to build on it to ban other types of weapons in space.
Space has been militarized since 1957 with the launch of Soviet satellite Sputnik. But the increasing weaponization of space adds more uncertainty, and unveils more vulnerabilities, that states need to address before space warfare becomes a reality.
Dr Beyza Unal, Senior Research Fellow, International Security Programme and Mathieu Boulègue, Research Fellow, Russia and Eurasia Programme.