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.”
Poblete’s question is an important one, and not only in regard to Russia’s Space Forces. The United States and China are both also rapidly developing new orbital technologies aimed at both bolstering their defensive capabilities back on the surface of the earth, but likely, aimed at defending their own orbital assets as well. China has already begun work on their own constellation of GPS satellites, aware that, if war were to break out with the United States, they likely could not rely on the existing GPS assets — which are funded and maintained by the American Department of Defense. Likewise, the U.S. Air Force has already secured contracts for a new constellation of hardened American GPS satellites that are less vulnerable to external attack.
Despite all the rhetoric being tossed about by American, Russian, and Chinese officials regarding the use of weapons in space, chances are good that there are already some up there. The U.S. Air Force’s X-37B is a space drone that remains in orbit for hundreds of days at a time. Thus far, the U.S. government has remained tight-lipped about the platform’s function or even capabilities, but it stands to reason that it could potentially engage in some sort of offensive operations provided it was equipped with the appropriate equipment. In truth, something as a simple as a retractable arm in the vessel’s cargo bay could potentially give it all it needs to interfere with a Russian or Chinese satellite.
China demonstrated their successful use of an anti-satellite weapon in 2007, proving they have the capability to shoot down satellites from surface-launched missiles, but they have also since experimented with maneuverable unmanned spacecraft as well. Like Russia and even some private American endeavors, many of these potential weapons systems are developed, launched, and tested under the guise of managing space debris. Often, these satellites close with and attach themselves to large chunks of debris, then engages its thrusters to send both into a deteriorating orbit that results in both debris and asset burning up upon reentry. That same principle could be used to destroy satellites.
In effect, because many of the satellites currently employed by the United States and its competitors are so vulnerable to attack, nations can deploy offensive weapon systems in orbit without having to acknowledge their actual purpose. This form of military subterfuge is unusual in today’s world, where a foreign nation could hardly park tanks in the streets of Washington D.C. and call them “inspector” vehicles, but in the borderless expanses of space, the world currently has to simply take nations at their word regarding the platforms being deployed.
And taking Russia at its word is rarely an effective form of foreign policy.