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The anti-satellite test conducted by Russia on 15 November is the latest in a string of anti-satellite capabilities showcased by great powers. It offers us a perspective of what the future of warfare looks like according to Russian military doctrine and what role space plays in it.
On Monday, 15 November, a direct-ascent anti-satellite (ASAT) missile was launched from Plesetsk cosmodrome in the northwest of Russia. Its target was Kosmos-1408, a defunct intelligence satellite originally launched in 1982. The resulting breakup of the 2-ton satellite led to more than 1,500 of pieces of debris according to US Space Command.
The travelling debris fields posed a danger to Tiangong, the Chinese space station, and the International Space Station (ISS), which currently hosts two Russian cosmonauts. All crew on the ISS entered the two spacecraft docked to the station capable of carrying them back to Earth, the SpaceX Crew Dragon and the Soyuz capsule, and all hatches were closed according to procedure ‘Safe Haven’. Operations resumed over the course of the day, but as the ISS is travelling in lower earth orbit (LEO), the station either travelled through or approached the debris field around every 90 minutes.
The Dangers of ‘Space Junk’
There are several reasons why space debris is so concerning, other than the fact that deliberate destruction is polluting a space that is becoming increasingly crowded at the best of times. Space debris, whether an entire dead satellite, a piece of a destroyed satellite or a tiny piece of hardware, can pose real dangers.
Due to the high speed of impact, even a small piece of debris can have an impact energy akin to a hand grenade
In addition to the 1,500 trackable pieces of debris that were mentioned, there are hundreds of thousands of additional pieces that are too small to be tracked from Earth. Due to the high speed of impact, known as hypervelocity, even a small piece of debris can have an impact energy akin to a hand grenade – a chilling prospect given the manned missions currently operating in LEO.
Debris can be extremely long-lasting. It is already estimated that the debris caused by the break-up of Kosmos-1408 ‘will increase the number of avoidance [manoeuvres] […] by more than 100% in the next few years’ according to the European Space Agency’s Space Debris Office. The 2007 test conducted by China meant that the ISS had to dodge one of the debris pieces in November 2021 – more than 14 years after the satellite was destroyed.
The Role of Space in Future Warfare
With Russia’s extensive history of spaceflight and manned missions, the decision taken to launch the test would have included calculations over space debris and the risk it posed to international and Russian crew members in orbit at the time. This begs the question of why Russia decided to launch the weapon and why it decided that now was the time to do so. Motivation for developing counterspace technology in the first place can be found in Russian military doctrine, which centres around the acquisition of information dominance in future warfare – space assets, with their logistical strengths in storing and transmitting data, are bound to play a key part.
In 2015, Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu announced the creation of a new branch of the armed forces – the Aerospace Forces, which combines the air force, anti-air and anti-missile defences with Aerospace Defence. While this move is not unique – France carried out a similar merger of its air and space forces in 2019 – Shoigu stated that the restructuring was in response to ‘a shift in the combat “centre of gravity” toward the aerospace theatre’. While space is certainly an enabler for current conflict capabilities (and has been since 1991), this could be an indication that Russia calculates that space will play an increasing role, or potentially become a host to conflict itself. The Worldwide Threat Assessment by the Director for National Intelligence added that military reforms in Russia suggest that forces are being adapted to be able to carry out ‘attacks against space systems’. Further, space capabilities would support technology needed for non-contact warfare (beskontaktnaia voenna), which is seen as a future way of war from a Russian military perspective.
Russia may be calculating that space will play an increasing role, or potentially become a host to conflict itself
The shift to counterspace capabilities is certainly not unique to Russia, as there have been tests all around the world that have trialled this technology. China conducted an ASAT test in 2007, which created more than 3,000 pieces of debris. The US demonstrated the capability in 2008, creating around 800 pieces of debris during ‘Operation Burnt Frost’, while an ASAT test by India in 2019 created a similar-sized debris field.
It seems that at least part of the reason for the restructuring, and no doubt for further developments in space technology, is to counter US capabilities and catch up with global capabilities in the domain. Seeing Russia’s recent test in a wider context, it is evident that this technology has been in the making for a while. While Cold War-era technology has been in part revived since the 2010s, both ground-based systems and co-orbital capabilities (meaning space-based) have been trialled in the past few years. A ‘non-destructive’ co-orbital ASAT test took place in the summer of 2020, and a direct-ascent ASAT test was carried out later in the same year, seemingly without destroying a target. With previous tests seemingly testing launchers, the November 2021 test was the definitive showcase of Russia's capability to target satellites in LEO if they are passing over Russian territory.
US Space Command has repeatedly called out Russian behaviour in the domain, calling it ‘irresponsible’ and stating that the tests are ‘contrary to Russia’s diplomatic and public stance against the [weaponisation] of space’. Despite multilateral efforts over the years to come to a definite agreement over the militarisation of space, the main benchmark remains the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, which is lacking in detail and does not mention conventional weapons. The UK put forward resolution 75/36 at the UN General Assembly in December 2020, with the purpose of finding common ground by asking member states to define threats to space systems and what constitutes responsible behaviour. It remains to be seen whether countries will prioritise preserving space as a ‘province of all mankind’ over showcasing their technology to their adversaries.
The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.
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Research Analyst and Policy Lead