Russia has joined the anti-satellite test frenzy, conducting a successful test on November 15. The United States Space Command issued a statement confirming that Russia conducted the successful test of a direct-ascent anti-satellite (DA-ASAT) missile against the defunct Cosmos 1408 satellite, resulting in the creation of a debris field in low Earth orbit. An initial assessment suggested that the test created more than 1,500 pieces of trackable space debris, in addition to the possibilities of “hundreds of thousands of pieces of smaller orbital debris.” Astronauts on the International Space Station (ISS) were instructed to seek shelter, amid concerns that the debris posed a threat to the station.
U.S. Space Command Commander Gen. James Dickinson commented, “The debris created by Russia’s DA-ASAT will continue to pose a threat to activities in outer space for years to come, putting satellites and space missions at risk, as well as forcing more collision avoidance maneuvers. Space activities underpin our way of life and this kind of behavior is simply irresponsible.”
In its excellent technical analysis of the Russian ASAT test, LeoLabs noted that while the debris generated from the break-up of Cosmos 1408 is yet to be fully cataloged, which will likely take some time, what is clear is that “there will be some potential collision risk to most satellites in LEO from the fragmentation of Cosmos 1408 over the next few years to decades.”
Meanwhile, the Russian Defense Ministry confirmed the test but denied that it posed any danger to the space station and space activities. The ministry said that it “successfully conducted a test, as a result of which the inoperative Russian Tselina-D spacecraft, which had been in orbit since 1982, was struck,” adding that “the United States knows for certain that the resulting fragments did not represent and will not pose a threat to orbital stations, spacecraft and space activities in terms of test time and orbit parameters.” Russia tried to legitimize the test by saying that there have been precedents, citing ASAT tests conducted by the U.S., China, and India. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov made similar comments denying that Russia had engaged in any activity that put the ISS in danger. In a similar vein, Sergey Shoigu, the Russian defense minister, said that Russia “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.”
ASAT weapons are certainly not cutting-edge technology. Russia has conducted a number of ASAT tests in earlier decades, which suggests that there was no real requirement for Russia to engage in such a destructive test at this point.
Major General (Ret.) Vladimir Dvorkin, the former head of the 4th Central Research Institute (TsNII) of the Russian Defense Ministry, also said that “There is no direct violation of any international agreements. And we should not warn anyone when we test our systems — anti-missile or anti-satellite. We are not obliged to warn anyone about this, there is nothing like that.”
This is not exactly true. Victoria Samson of the Secure World Foundation, a U.S.-based think tank focused on outer space policy issues, commented on social media that Russia is bound by Article 9 of the Outer Space Treaty, which states that parties who undertake activities in outer space shall do so “with due regard” to the interests of other parties of the treaty and engage in space exploration in a manner that avoids “harmful contamination.” In situations where a state’s activities would “cause potentially harmful interference,” then the state party “shall undertake appropriate international consultations before proceeding with any such activity or experiment.”
Meanwhile, other major space powers have criticized Russia for conducting the test, contributing to further pollution of the space environment. In a statement, France called the Russian ASAT test “destabilizing” and “irresponsible” and said it may have created “consequences for a very long time in the space environment and for all actors in space.” Germany, too, criticized Russia’s ASAT test and urged the need for “new rules on behavior in space.”
Irrespective of the impact on the ISS, other space assets or activities, or even the size of the debris created as a result of the test, the Russian ASAT test goes against the very logic of the China-Russia draft Treaty on the Prevention of the Placement of Weapons in Outer Space, the Threat or Use of Force against Outer Space Objects (PPWT), which the two are trying to push at the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva. This is one of the key reasons why even those states that support legally binding measures have not extended support to the PPWT, because it ignores ground-based weapons targeting space assets, as demonstrated with the Chinese ASAT test in 2007.
The latest Russian test also raises questions about space sustainability. Commenting on the test, Brian Weeden of the Secure World Foundation said that “this test and their (Russian) reaction calls into question their commitment to dealing with the threats to the long-term sustainability of space and their expressed desire to prevent an arms race in outer space.”
Meanwhile, the Secure World Foundation has put out a statement on the Russian ASAT test, calling upon all four countries that have demonstrated an ASAT capability – the United States, Russia, India, and China – to undertake “unilateral moratoriums on further testing” of ASAT weapons because that would generate additional debris, putting space sustainability and safe space operations at risk. Earlier, the Outer Space Institute published an International Open Letter on Kinetic Anti-Satellite Testing, with more than 150 signatories, calling upon the U.N. General Assembly to take up the issue of an ASAT test ban treaty.
While these efforts are significant and build some amount of moral pressure on states to avoid activities that would intentionally or unintentionally result in harmful interference with other space assets and activities, major space powers need to recognize the urgent need to start multilateral negotiations on this issue at the Conference on Disarmament and other multilateral platforms. The absence of earnest multilateral discussions could send more states down the path of space weaponization, making access to space tricky. In this context, the U.N.’s Open-Ended Working Group (OEWG) offers an ideal platform to kickstart the debates on space weaponization. The OEWG has the potential to come up with something that is practical and feasible given the increasing threats to space security but bringing all important powers in a collaborative and productive manner will likely remain an important challenge.