The Trump administration should declare a U.S. moratorium on destructive ASAT testing and work with like-minded countries to begin laying the groundwork for an eventual legal prohibition. These would be an immense step forward on limiting future ASAT testing and enhancing space security for both the United States and the world.
Gen. Jay Raymond, commander of U.S. Space Command and chief of space operations for the Space Force, announced on April 15 that the United States was aware of and tracking a Russian direct-ascent antisatellite (DA-ASAT) test held that day.
But the facts suggest this was simply a flight test of Russia’s Nudol system, a ground-launched, mobile ballistic missile that has been in development since 2010. No intercept appears to have been attempted, according to the available facts. In order to truly understand the significance of this test, it is important to look at how it fits into Russia’s broader counterspace programs overall and how it compares to U.S. and Chinese counterspace capabilities in operation or development.
In his statement, Raymond claimed the system “was capable of knocking out satellites in low Earth orbit”. While creating the capability to do that is probably the program’s goal, Nudol has not been used to intercept an orbital target. This appears to have been the ninth or tenth flight test of the Nudol program, with several likely flight test failures. To date, it appears that none of these attempted to intercept an orbital target, and were all simply flight tests of the booster or the kinetic kill vehicle. Nudol is thought to be able to reach an altitude of about 1,000 kilometers and there is some debate among analysts over whether its primary mission is counterspace or ballistic missile defense.
Even during the Cold War, the Soviet Union never demonstrated the ability to destroy an orbital target with a DA-ASAT. The Soviet Union conducted more than a dozen tests of its Istrebitel Sputnikov (IS) co-orbital ASAT system, which was composed of a satellite launched into orbit that altered its orbit to approach a target and explode, showering the target with fragments. The Soviet Union also had an operational exoatmospheric missile defense interceptor 51T6 (NATO designation SH-11 Gorgon) that likely could have been used to target satellites, but there is no known record of it being tested in that capacity. Towards the end of the Cold War, the Soviet Union also had in development an air-launched DA-ASAT missile program known as the 79M6 “Kontakt” program. There are no confirmed tests of Kontakt against an orbital target, although a former MiG test pilot claims that there was at least one deliberate “near-miss” of an orbital target.
By contrast, China, the United States, and India have all demonstrated the ability to destroy satellites with ground- or air-launched missiles. In the mid-1980s, the United States had an air-launched DA-ASAT missile known as the ASM-135 in development and successfully used it to destroy the American Solwind P78-1 weather satellite on Sept. 13, 1985. On Jan. 11, 2007, China used its SC-19 ground-based DA-ASAT system to destroy the Chinese FY-1C weather satellite. The 2007 Chinese ASAT test was just one of a series of tests of the SC-19 system or follow-on versions, some of which included intercepts of ballistic targets, and the system is likely currently operationally deployed.
On Feb. 20, 2008, the United States used a modified ship-based SM-3 Blk II-A missile defense interceptor to destroy a failed U.S. intelligence satellite, USA 193. While the United States has stated that the use of the SM-3 in an ASAT role was a one-time occurrence designed to clear the skies of a potentially dangerous satellite, most countries assess that the US retains the ability to quickly convert the SM-3 into an operational ASAT system — if it so chooses. And on March 27, 2019, India used a ground-based Prithvi Defense Vehicle Mark II to destroy India’s Microsat-R target satellite.
The most newsworthy aspect of this latest Nudol test is that it was mentioned so prominently by top U.S. officials, and so quickly after it happened. Traditionally, the U.S. military is extremely reluctant to provide even confirmation of a Russian or Chinese ASAT test, let alone specific details. Any information provided by the U.S. government was usually reserved for broad comments made by the Director of National Intelligence during their annual public briefing on global threats.
So, if this wasn’t an actual intercept attempt and was part of a broader flight test program that has been on-going for years, why did the Commander of the U.S. Space Force go public so quickly?
The most likely answer is because talking publicly about space threats helps reinforce the narrative that the United States needs both U.S. Space Command and the U.S. Space Force to combat counterspace threats. Senior U.S. defense officials have statedfor years that existing classification restrictions prevent them from talking more publicly about what they see as the growing threats to U.S. national security space capabilities. In his statement about the most recent Nudol test, Raymond called it “another example that the threats to U.S. and allied space systems are real, serious and growing.” It is also part of a broader effort by the national security space community to talk more openly about emerging threats, including recent unclassified publications by the Defense Intelligence Agency and the National Air and Space Intelligence Center on counterspace threats.
Public discussions about emerging space threats should be encouraged. This was a major reason we started publishing our Global Counterspace Capabilities report back in 2018: we felt that by putting out more open source information, it would encourage discussions of not only the threat, but also of what should be done about those threats. That said, so far, the United States has been very quiet about what it plans to do in response to these threats. In 2014, the Obama Administration began a series of classified discussions on how to respond to these threats, but revealed very few elements publicly. In 2018, the Trump Administration released a new National Space Strategy that echoed many of the same elements but was again short on details.
Part of our concern is that the United States might feel it needs its own offensive and destructive counterspace capabilities to deter Russia and China from attacking U.S. satellites. This is not a new stance: in 1975, the Ford Administration started a series of policy reviews on what to do about growing Soviet counterspace capabilities and the potential threat to U.S. satellites. In the end, they decided that new U.S. offensive capabilities would not deter Soviet attacks and instead pushed efforts to harden U.S. satellites against attack. However, the Carter Administration did greenlight a new U.S. offensive counterspace program, the aforementioned ASM-135, to develop the capability to deny specific Soviet space capabilities in a conflict. However, further testing of the system was met with stiff resistance in Congress and the Reagan Administration ultimately decided to cancel the program before it became operational.
The Trump Administration also appears to be using this most recent Russian ASAT test to support its political position against any new space arms control agreements. Chris Ford, assistant Secretary of State for international security and nonproliferation, has blasted proponents of arms control in space and other domains and stated that the United States is more interested in voluntary norms than in legally-binding measures. This narrative even includes conspiracy theories, such as Robert Wood, the U.S. ambassador to the Conference on Disarmament, publicly suggesting that Moscow had reached out to Beijing to get its okay to hold the ASAT test.
Gen. Raymond stated, “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.” While Russia has indeed held a hypocritical stance on space arms control for some time, Nudol is more a violation of the spirit of Russian space arms control proposals than their letter. The only space arms control proposal on the table, the Russian and Chinese-backed Draft Treaty on the Prevention of the Placement of Weapons in Outer Space (PPWT), defines a “space weapon” as an object placed into orbit with the intent of harming other space objects. Thus, Nudol, which flies a suborbital trajectory and does not enter orbit, would not violate the PPWT. Many analysts have concluded that the definition of “space weapon” in the PPWT was constructed this way to restrict U.S. efforts to develop space-based missile defense interceptors while allowing Russia and China to continue their ground-based ASAT programs.
While Nudol is not a good example of Russian hypocrisy on the PPWT, there are other Russian counterspace programs that are. Russia appears to have at least three different programs aimed at developing the capability for rendezvous and proximity operations (RPO). The activities of one of them, Burevestnik, suggests it may be more than just a surveillance platform. Burevestnik was started in 2011 and is managed by the Central Scientific Research Institute for Chemistry and Mechanics (TsNIIKhM). In August 2019, two satellites connected with the Burevestnik program, Cosmos 2535 and Cosmos 2536, conducted a series of RPOs that resulted in the creation of several pieces of orbital debris, including some thrown into orbits hundreds of kilometers higher. Six more pieces of orbital debris were released during additional RPO between the two satellites in December 2019. This suggests some sort of weapons test, although the publicly available data is not conclusive.
The latest Nudol test comes as tensions between the United States and Russia over military interactions in space are growing. The Space Force press release noted that the latest Nudol test by Russia “comes on the heels of Russia’s on-orbit testing the U.S. highlighted in February, namely Cosmos 2542 and Cosmos 2543. 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.” Our research suggests that Cosmos 2542 and Cosmos 2543 are not part of Burevestnik but rather are part of a different Russian RPO program called Nivelir aimed at developing on-orbit intelligence and surveillance capabilities. These are also capabilities the United States has been developing for decades, including the XSS-10 and XSS-11 inspection satellites flown by the U.S. Air Force in the early 2000s, and capabilities that China has been actively developing and testing since 2010.
Thus, we are left with a situation in space that is ripe for tragedy, with potentially destabilizing consequences for space security writ large. Russia, the United States, and China are all conducting national security space activities and developing counterspace capabilities that create security concerns for the others in the absence of any agreed upon norms of behavior. At the same time, all three show a lack of transparency and intransigence on meaningful restrictions on ASAT testing, creating a security environment with few off-ramps for misperceptions, misunderstandings, and mistakes. Any one of those could lead to an incident in space that raises tensions or escalates to an armed conflict, with potentially disastrous consequences for all.
As a first step to resolve this situation, Raymond’s statement about the Nudol test was absolutely correct in highlighting the need for norms of behavior in space. He said, “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.” The United States has been talking about the importance of norms of behavior for nearly a decade now across two administrations, but has yet to propose any specific norms to which it is willing to adhere. That must change. Moreover, the discussion on norms needs to include military activities in space, and likely will need to be held as a separate conversation from the discussion on norms for commercial and civil activities in space.
But norms are not likely enough to resolve the problem on their own. At some point Russia, China, the United States and other space powers will need to put in place legal restrictions on certain military activities in space as well. These restrictions need to be focused on specific behaviors that have negative implications for all space activities and are easily verifiable, such as destructive ASAT testing that creates orbital debris. Doing so means dropping the Russian and Chinese posturing about banning all space weapons and the American pretension that it is impossible to define a space weapon, and having a pragmatic discussion about the actual threats to all.
The Trump Administration has touted its efforts at restoring American leadership in space. The time has come to extend that leadership to improving space security. The Trump White House should open a dialogue with Russia and China, and perhaps other major space-faring countries, aimed at developing concrete norms of behavior for military activities in space, akin to the discussions that led to the Incidents at Sea Agreement during the Cold War. The Trump administration should also declare a U.S. moratorium on destructive ASAT testing and work with like-minded countries to begin laying the groundwork for an eventual legal prohibition. These would be an immense step forward on limiting future ASAT testing and enhancing space security for both the United States and the world.