Russian Anti-Satellite Test Highlight Arms Race In Space

Yesterday Russia successfully tested a ground launched ‘direct ascent’ anti-satellite missile:

Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu has said that Russia’s cutting-edge future weapon system being tested has hit its target with great precision.

“It is true that we have successfully tested a cutting-edge system of the future. It hit an old satellite with precision worthy of a goldsmith. The remaining debris pose no threats to space activity,” Shoigu told the media during a working tour of military units in the Western Military Region near Voronezh.

The U.S., China and India have previously made similar tests of kinetic weapons designed to kill satellites. Such tests are problematic because they create debris fields which will endanger other objects in the earth’s orbit:

Seven astronauts on the International Space Station were forced to take shelter in their transport spacecraft early Monday (Nov. 15) when the station passed uncomfortably closed to orbital debris, according to reports.

The space junk passes began in the pre-dawn hours of Monday and the International Space Station has continued to make close passes to the debris every 90 minutes or so, according to experts monitoring the situation. Russia’s space agency Roscosmos confirmed the space junk encounter with, though NASA has not yet commented on the situation either publicly or to

Anti-satellite missiles can be used against more than satellites. An intercontinental missile will deliver its warhead on an out-in-space trajectory. An anti-satellite missile could destroy it before it reenters the atmosphere.

Why would Russia want to kill satellites one might ask. U.S. weapon producer Northrop Grumman recently gave an idea:

Northrop Grumman Corporation (NYSE: NOC) recently completed the critical design review of the Hypersonic and Ballistic Tracking Space Sensor (HBTSS) prototype for the U.S. Missile Defense Agency (MDA). The review establishes the company’s technical approach for precise, timely sensor coverage to defeat ballistic and hypersonic missiles.

HBTSS satellites will provide continuous tracking and handoff to enable targeting of enemy missiles launched from land, sea or air. They are a critical part of the Overhead Persistent Infrared (OPIR) multi-layered constellation of satellites, which can sense heat signatures to detect and track missiles from their earliest stages of launch through interception.

Tracking and targeting Russian hypersonic missiles? Looks like Russia seeks ways to prevent that.

Ain’t arms races fun?

Russia and China have long urged the U.S. and others to agree to a space treaty that would prohibit active weapons systems in space, anti-satellite missiles and thereby also some of the anti-ballistic missiles defenses the U.S. would like to have. The U.S. side has consistently rejected to open negotiations over such a treaty.

The U.S. Space Command, founded last year to militarize space, is now accusing Russia of doing similar:

“Russia is developing and deploying capabilities to actively deny access to and use of space by the United States and its allies and partners,” [U.S. Army Gen. James Dickinson, U.S. Space Command commander,] added. “Russia’s tests of direct-ascent anti-satellite weapons clearly demonstrate that Russia continues to pursue counterspace weapon systems that undermine strategic stability and pose a threat to all nations.”

The Russian Defense Ministry responded:

Russia’s Defense Ministry has branded the statements by the US Department of State and the Pentagon as hypocritical when they tried to accuse Russia of creating risks for the International Space Station (ISS), the military agency said on Tuesday.

The Russian military agency reiterated that in 2020, the US created the Space Command and officially adopted a new space strategy with “ensuring space superiority” being one of its official goals. “In their turn, the Pentagon both before these official steps and, moreover, afterwards, has been actively developing and testing in orbit without any notifications the newest attack combat means of various types, including the latest modifications of X-37 space drones,” the ministry said.

The X-37 is an unmanned space shuttle that the U.S. has sent on several months long secret missions. It is suspected of being able to hijack or manipulate satellites.

In the following exchange of public diplomacy the British Ambassador to the Conference on Disarmament also displayed U.S. grade hypocrisy:

Aidan Liddle @AidanLiddle – 21:56 UTC · Nov 15, 2021
Russia’s ASAT missile test goes directly against its own calls not to weaponise space, and illustrates exactly the threats to space systems 🇬🇧 highlighted at #FirstCommittee a few weeks ago. Russia needs to engage in the UN process on responsible space behaviours.

To which his Russian counterpart replied:

Mikhail Ulyanov @Amb_Ulyanov – 12:50 UTC · Nov 16, 2021
Sorry to remind you, Mr.Liddle, that it is U.K. and US are the main opponents of a legally binding instrument to prevent weaponisation of outer space. I remember my disputes with your predecessor in this regard.

Aidan Liddle @AidanLiddle – 12:57 UTC · Nov 16, 2021
Sadly, your draft treaty would do nothing to prevent this sort of thing, or other threats to space systems. That’s why we’ve launched a discussion at the UN about responsible space behaviours, which would. Looking forward to working with Russia and others in that regard.

Aidan Liddle @AidanLiddle – 12:59 UTC · Nov 16, 2021
We don’t rule out a legally binding instrument on outer space. But it’s got to deal with the threats as they are today.

Mikhail Ulyanov @Amb_Ulyanov – 13:08 PM · Nov 16, 2021
If the draft treaty on #outerspace tabled by Russia and China isn’t perfect, nothing prevents London to make counter proposals and start negotiations. But for U.K. a legally binding instrument isn’t acceptable. It prefers vague and non-binding “responsible space behaviours”.

Aidan Liddle @AidanLiddle – 13:12 UTC · Nov 16, 2021
The draft treaty isn’t just not perfect, it’s fundamentally flawed. It’s not an appropriate starting point for negotiations. The new UN OEWG offers a vehicle for all states to discuss the threats, and possible solutions – including legally binding ones.

Mikhail Ulyanov @Amb_Ulyanov 13:20 UTC · Nov 16, 2021
OK, if you think so, table your own draft Treaty in addition to the first one and start negotiations in accordance with normal diplomatic practice. Unfortunately the very idea of a legally binding instrument to prevent weaponisation of outerspace is unacceptable for London.

Aidan Liddle @AidanLiddle – 13:32 UTC · Nov 16, 2021
Beginning negotiations involves having a shared understanding of the threats we’re trying to tackle. That understanding is not yet there, so proposing a draft instrument would be premature. Hence the OEWG, to begin a thorough and inclusive study of the problem.

Mikhail Ulyanov @Amb_Ulyanov – 14:19 UTC · Nov 16, 2021
British colleagues believe that it would be premature to start negotiations on outer space b/c over the last 40 years at the Conference on Disarmament we haven’t yet got shared understanding of relevant threats. No urgency? Let’s then spend another 40 years for general exchanges.

Aidan Liddle @AidanLiddle – 14:28 UTC · Nov 16, 2021
There’s plenty of urgency: we can’t afford many more irresponsible DA-ASAT missile tests. We think that’s a threat. Russia clearly doesn’t. So it sounds like we do still need to reach a common understanding.

The excuse for not entering into treaty negotiations seems flimsy. Its another ‘international rules based order’ issue in which the ‘west’ wants to make up the rules and be the only side that is allowed to breach them.

The insistence of not negotiating a treaty guarantees a further arms race in which enormous amounts will get spend on useless weapons.

Dr. Jeffrey Lewis @ArmsControlWonk – 5:59 PM · Nov 16, 2021
The next step is that the US starts talking about how we need long-range conventional missiles to target the Russian ASATs that target the satellites that our anti-missiles rely upon to intercept Russian ICBMs.

It is also a race in which the U.S. is now several years behind the state of the art systems Russia and China are fielding today.

It is a race in which all common people lose out.