On Dec. 16, the Russian military reportedly tested what appears to be an anti-satellite weapon — a rocket that can boost into low orbit and smash into enemy spacecraft.
The test could be the latest sign of Russia’s intention, and improving ability, to threaten America’s hundreds of government and private spacecraft — and chip away at the United States’ military and commercial advantage in space.
It might also be the latest provocation from a Russian regime that increasingly denies any responsibility for its most destabilizing moves. That’s how Moscow can get away with hacking elections in the United States and other Western countries and invading Ukraine, among other attacks on global order.
The apparent anti-satellite (ASAT) test largely escaped public notice. The Washington Free Beacon was the first to report on the weapon’s trial, on Dec. 21 — attributing the information to unnamed U.S. government sources. CNN also pointed out the test, again citing anonymous U.S. officials.
Capt. Nicholas Mercurio, a spokesman for the 14th U.S. Air Force, which oversees space systems, declined to specifically comment on the reported Russian test. “We monitor missile launches around the globe,” Mercurio told The Daily Beast, “but as a matter of policy we don’t normally discuss intelligence specific to those launches.”
For the anti-satellite test, the Russians have a tidy cover story — that the rocket isn’t actually an anti-satellite weapon, or ASAT. Instead, it’s a meant for shooting down incoming ballistic missiles.
That is to say, the rocket that Russia tested on Dec. 16 could be a defensive rocket-killer, rather than an offensive satellite-killer. “My take is that it could be either,” Pavel Podvig, an independent expert on Russian strategic forces, told The Daily Beast via email. “It is difficult to say at this point.”
But in fact, there’s no meaningful difference between an anti-satellite weapon and a defensive missile-interceptor. The same basic hardware can do both jobs.
“The only difference between a hit-to-kill interceptor for missile defense and one for low-Earth-orbit ASAT is going to be in the software,” Jeffrey Lewis, who helps lead nonproliferation programs at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies, told The Daily Beast via email. [Continue reading…]