By Richard Weitz
The Russian military destroyed a Soviet-era Tselina radio surveillance satellite, Cosmos 1408, which had been orbiting nearly 500 kilometers above Earth since 1982, with a single short anti-satellite weapon (ASAT ) on November 15.
Although intended to intimidate the West, like the Russian military mobilizations near Ukraine and the Belarus-made border crisis, the ASAT test highlighted Russia’s growing ability to attack space assets. United States and NATO. Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said the “state-of-the-art system” used by Moscow had hit its target “with a precision worthy of a goldsmith”.
Although it is not clear that the Russian Civil Space Agency, Roscosmos, was aware of the planned test, Roscosmos Director General Dmitry Rogozin later explained that “anti-satellite weapons are being developed in Russia for a long time, so there is no secret about it. . It’s just that the time has come for the Department of Defense to do some testing. “
US Army General James Dickinson, Commander of US Space Command, warned that the test shows how “Russia is developing and deploying capabilities to actively deny US access and use of space and their allies and partners “.
Russia has amassed a portfolio of powerful counter-space capabilities to disrupt, degrade, deny, or destroy space objects and systems.
The most recent incident involved a direct ascension kinetic destruction (DA) vehicle, launched from Earth on a ballistic missile, which destroys exo-atmospheric targets by the force of the impact.
Russia has tested this PL19 / Nudol DA-ASAT system, which has been in development for almost a decade and can be launched from fixed or mobile platforms, several times in recent years. Until now, these tests have intercepted specific locations in space and time to simulate the impact of moving targets in orbit.
In addition, the Soviet Union and Russia carried out extensive research and development of “co-orbital” systems. These orbiting satellites and other space vehicles maneuver near other space objects to study, obscure, disrupt, grab, hack, or crush them.
Additionally, satellites that perform Rendezvous and Proximity Operations (RPO) to inspect, maintain, resupply, repair, and remove other space objects can potentially support military activities (such as placing explosives on another body. or damage it with a collision or robotic arm).
These co-orbital ASATs could establish a persistent presence in space to track down a target (like a high-value spy satellite), then quickly attack it on command with microwaves, chemical sprays, lasers, debris. generated or other means.
Russian academics have studied the use in orbit of obscure aerosols and nanoparticles that could block optical and radio-frequency signals from a targeted satellite or conceal Russian satellites from sensors on the ground.
Soviet Moscow design Burevestnik co-orbital system has the ability to disrupt space objects and potentially intercept communication links between satellites.
Additionally, Russian “nesting doll” satellites have expelled smaller objects which, traveling at over 17,000 mph, have the potential to damage a target by kinetic collision.
The Russian government claims that the purpose of these nested satellites is to approach and assess the status of Russia’s own orbiting objects.
In 2020, however, one of those “inspector” satellites maneuvered near USA 245, a National Reconnaissance Office KH11 satellite in high geosynchronous orbits that provides geospatial imagery to the US intelligence community.
After moving to a different location, this same Russian satellite setup launched a projectile that accelerated to 700 km / h, a speed sufficient to damage a target with kinetic energy alone.
Even though Russian satellites only “inspect” American satellites through interception of close-up data and photographs, they can still study where these precious assets are located, what capabilities they possess, and how they can be deactivated and destroyed.
Despite publicity surrounding Russia’s recent high-visibility test, Moscow’s most threatening ASAT weapons could include those capable of non-kinetic attack means.
Using soft-kill technologies such as directed energy or cyber weapons, these weapons make attribution of any satellite loss more difficult because there are plausible alternative explanations for any damage, such as technical failures or damage. natural phenomena. Additionally, they tend to produce little to no debris, be targeted more narrowly, and can be more easily terminated or reversible than kinetic strikes.
Russia’s national security space programs have explored directed energy weapons – such as laser, particle, or microwave beams with advanced pointing and control systems – that can track, disrupt or, if they are sufficiently powerful, destroy space objects.
The Russian Sokol-Eshelon (“Falcon-Echelon”) airborne laser experimental project, launched during the Cold War, investigated the application of a modified Il-76MD military transport aircraft, designated Beriev A-60, equipped with a laser powerful enough to deactivate space or air sensors.
Russia has built a Kalina stationary laser at the Krona space surveillance facility in the North Caucasus. Its purpose is probably to blind the electro-optical sensors of aerial reconnaissance satellites.
The Peresvet mobile laser dazzling system, declared operational at the end of 2019, has been deployed on erector launchers of missile carriers in several road mobile ICBM fields in Russia. The Peresvet has a limited-range point defense laser to temporarily dazzle the optical systems of low-flying reconnaissance satellites, as well as airplanes and drones, which could help track Russia’s mobile strategic missiles.
Like other Russian so-called “hybrid” offensive tools, such as the employment of paramilitaries in Ukraine or the militarization of migrants in north-eastern Europe, the use of these instruments aims to allow Moscow to remain in below the level of detection, attribution and response of the United States.
Whether responding to a direct attack on the United States or its forces or coming to the aid of their allies and partners, American defenders would face the dilemma of risking escalation with major kinetic retaliation or appearing too weak to deter further Russian aggression.
To deal with the Russian space threat, the United States needs more comprehensive and detailed space surveillance. The USSPACECOM space surveillance network, comprising telescopes and radars, can only follow in LEO space objects of 10 centimeters or more.
US defenders must also prepare for the rapid degradation of US space assets. A DA-ASAT can destroy a satellite in less than ten minutes after launch. Co-orbital systems already positioned near a target can attack it suddenly without warning, while laser or cybernetic weapons can deal damage almost instantly.
Other recommended actions include strengthening satellites against different types of attacks, ranging from kinetic strikes to cyber sabotage; deploy more satellites of various types and locations; and facilitate the replacement of space assets critical to national security by expanding the rapid space launch capabilities of the United States and its space partners.
Featured photo: Illustration 267463 © Cristian andrei Matei | Dreamstime.com