Russia tested an anti-satellite missile Wednesday in a move tracked by U.S. Space Command in Colorado Springs that leaders said showed Moscow’s effort to weaponize Earth’s orbit.
The weapon was described as a “direct-ascent” weapon, which could hit targets in orbit. It’s a capability that Russia has long sought as a counter to American anti-missile programs that could also be used to target satellites. Space troops in Colorado Springs use satellites that spot the heat from rocket launches and a string of powerful radars to monitor Russian space and missile launches.
“Russia’s missile system is capable of destroying satellites in low Earth orbit and comes on the heels of Russia’s on-orbit testing the U.S. highlighted in February, namely COSMOS 2542 and COSMOS 2543,” the command said. “These satellites, which behaved similar to previous Russian satellites that exhibited characteristics of a space weapon, conducted maneuvers near a U.S. government satellite that would be interpreted as irresponsible and potentially threatening in any other domain.”
The test launch echoed fears voiced in the White House and Congress that drove the December creation of the Space Force, a separate armed service branch for satellite troops.
Congress in 2019 authorized the creation of U.S. Space Command, a Colorado Springs headquarters that plans for warfare in orbit.
“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,” Gen. Jay Raymond, who heads the command and is chief of the Space Force said in an email.
“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.”
The Russian weapon, and similar programs in China and Iran, drive concern in the military because of growing U.S. dependence on satellites to fight wars on the ground, in the air and at sea. Troops in Colorado Springs operate communication, navigation and missile warning satellites that give U.S. troops an unmatched advantage in combat.
In recent days, Russia has kicked off an Arctic war game, sent spy planes near Alaska and fired the missile, in moves that some say are aimed at testing how the U.S. can respond with the government focused on battling coronavirus.
Leaders have long feared that an enemy could attack American satellites as a prelude to a wider war, an action that has been called a “space Pearl Harbor.”
Space Command and the Colorado Springs-based National Space Defense Center have run war games to determine how an enemy would target American satellites and have developed plans to move American satellites to safety while targeting enemy spacecraft.
Leaders are also working to develop satellites that would be harder to target, including fleets of small satellites that would be cheap to replace if hit.
At the same time, America and its allies have worked to develop a framework of international agreements that moderate military behavior in space and give the U.S. partners it can lean on if war hits the stars.
“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,” Raymond said.
Contact Tom Roeder: 636-0240