Earlier this week, a top U.S. State Department official addressed the United Nations at Geneva, using the opportunity to draw attention Russia’s military efforts in orbit, despite their ongoing media campaign aimed at discrediting the United States’ endeavor to mount a space-specific branch of its own.
Assistant Secretary of State for Arms Control, Verification, and Compliance Yleem D.S. Poblete brought the Kremlin’s own quotations to bear in defense of her suppositions regarding Russia’s space command, citing the statements of multiple high ranking Russian officials in recent months that have openly discussed the nation’s efforts to implement new weapons technologies in orbit.
Although Poblete discussed a number of weapons, the one that has drawn the most interest from the international community is a satellite Russia claims has no offensive capabilities whatsoever. The so-called “space apparatus inspector” satellite was launched by Russia’s space-centric branch of the armed forces last fall, and since then, its behavior has been so unusual that American officials contest that it could likely be the test bed for new offensive weapons.
The crux of America’s concerns truly lies in how easy it can be to interfere with the function of a satellite in orbit. A satellite doesn’t need to be destroyed to be rendered ineffective — a simple nudge could leave a whole region of the world without any form of early missile launch detection, as could something as simple as shining a laser on a satellite’s external sensor arrays. Platforms designed to close with and interact with satellites or debris in orbit, then, walk a fine line between maintenance tool and weapons system, and the United States now believes Russia is taking advantage of that confusion by developing weapons they can claim are simply orbital tools practicing rendezvous and proximity operations (RPO).
Now, I can tell you that our Russian colleagues will deny that its systems are meant to be hostile. The Russian Ministry of Defense has put out a press release stating these are simply inspector satellites,” she said.
So the question before this body is: How do we verify what countries say their spacecraft are doing? What would be enough information to prove what the purpose of an object is? We have pointed out Russian satellite behavior that is inconsistent with what Russia claims it is — a so-called inspector satellite not acting in a manner consistent with a satellite designed to conduct safe and responsible inspection operations.”