A senior U.S. diplomat has accused Russia of deploying another small, specialized satellite into orbit that it could use as an anti-satellite weapon. This is at least the fourth such system the Kremlin has launched since 2013 and highlights a continued lack of internationally accepted ground rules for hostile activities in space, even as the United States seeks to increase its military capabilities
Yleem Poblete, the U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Arms Control, Verification, and Compliance, raised the concerns about the Russian “space apparatus inspector” at a meeting of the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva, Switzerland on Aug. 14, 2018. Russia publicly announced the launch of this satellite in June 2017, but insists that its only function is to inspect the country’s own space-based systems for damage or other possible issues and potentially service and repair them.
The Russian satellite’s “behavior on-orbit was inconsistent with anything seen before from on-orbit inspection or space situational awareness capabilities, including other Russian inspection satellite activities,” Poblete said at the gathering. “We are concerned with what appears to be very abnormal behavior by a declared ‘space apparatus inspector.’ We don’t know for certain what it is and there is no way to verify it.”
When Poblete mentioned “other” activities, she was likely referring to three additional inspector satellites that the Russians launched between 2013 and 2015. These space-based systems, also known as Kosmos-2491, Kosmos-2499, and Kosmos-2504, conducted a number of apparent tests, getting relatively close to various pieces of space debris, before going dormant in 2016. The next year, Russia turned one of them back on and sent it near to a portion of a Chinese weather satellite, which that country had destroyed in a ground-based anti-satellite test in 2007.
The video below, from the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, shows one concept for using a small repair satellite to service other space-based systems.
Now it’s important to note that the concept of a small inspector satellite isn’t new and makes good sense. Sending manned missions to examine satellites and other space objects and potentially make repairs or modifications has historically been costly and complicated.
At the same time, fixing or making modifications to a satellite in space saves the trouble of building a replacement and paying to launch it into orbit. Famously, the United States sent astronauts to fix the Hubble Space Telescope in 1993 after NASA discovered a fault in the system’s main mirror.
Having a semi-autonomous, space-based repair crew of sorts on call could simplify the arrangement significantly. If nothing else, these robotic inspectors could assess the issue quickly so personnel on the ground could make an informed decision about how to proceed.
The problem is that any satellite that can maneuver itself very close to another one, and may have small arms or probes to physically interact with its target, is inherently capable of being a weapon. Any such repair system could easily smash sensitive optics and other components, or simply slam into the target, acting as a kinetic weapon. Their small size means that their terrestrial operators might be able to instruct them to try to hide near other objects, especially among the ever-expanding field of "space junk" floating around the earth, as well.
They might also be able to carry electronic warfare jammers or directed energy weapons that could blind optics or prevent a satellite from communicating information, including warnings about incoming missiles or vital intelligence data, to facilities down below. The “inspectors” could act as small intelligence agents, intercepting transmissions aimed at space-based communications systems. In that case, they might potentially send out spoofed signals with confusing messages or false navigational coordinates, as well.
Russia has since denounced Assistant Secretary of State Poblete’s comments as “unfounded, slanderous accusations based on suspicions.” However, statements from the country’s own Ministry of Defense regarding their newest inspector’s rendezvous with Kosmos-2519, another military satellite that itself has an unknown mission, strongly indicate that this satellite has a robust set of capabilities that could have a secondary military application.
“In trials involving controlling the maneuvering defense satellite, ground, and orbital communication systems were tested, and methods involving ballistic estimates and new software were employed,” Russia’s Izvestia newspaper reported based on information from the Ministry of Defense. “The space forces proved their ability to ensure the satellite's automatic undocking from the platform, the remote control of its flight, and the activation of the satellite payload, including surveillance hardware, data transfer to Earth, and data processing.”
For years, experts and others, including us at The War Zone, have pointed out the clear threat that these dual-use satellites might pose. The United States and China have and still are both actively exploring advanced space-based inspector-type systems, as well, which might set the stage for an even more complex situation that could involve groups of small satellites attacking and defending against each other. The U.S. military is also working on cost-effective, reusable hypersonic space planes, including the U.S. Air Force's secretive X-37B, that could rapidly deploy small satellites for various functions or otherwise perform their own offensive missions in space.
“The potential for a serious incident in outer space is being driven by advances in technology that challenge the existing rules and norms governing space activity,” Jeffery Lewis, now in charge of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey, wrote all the way back in 2004. “Micro-satellite proximity operations would be best regulated with confidence-building measures in outer space.”
More than a decade on, international rules and regulations have yet to catch up with these continued developments. Assistant Secretary of State Poblete made her comments earlier in August 2014 specifically to underscore the U.S. government’s continued opposition to a Russian-Chinese proposal for a Treaty on Prevention of the Placement of Weapons in Outer Space and of the Threat or Use of Force Against Outer Space Objects, conveniently abbreviated PWTT.
“How do we verify what countries say their spacecraft are doing?” she asked rhetorically. “What would be enough information to prove what the purpose of an object is?”
The U.S. government’s position is that the PWTT is not sufficient because it does not explicitly prohibit the development or test of space-based systems, such as the inspectors, with a potential anti-satellite role. This could let countries stockpile a “breakout capability” if they ever decided to abandon the agreement.
The proposed agreement also does not ban ground-based or air-launched anti-satellite systems, which Russia and China have been developing, as well. In February 2018, the Chinese military tested what they described as an anti-ballistic missile defense interceptor, but which might be a cover for an anti-satellite weapon. Russia has publicly said that it is working on anti-satellite interceptors and directed energy weapons.
Russia and China, as well as other critics of the American position, counter by noting that the U.S. government is actively looking to militarize space and put actual weapons into orbit, ostensibly for anti-ballistic missile defense. The two countries have already responded negatively to the U.S. military’s plans for a possible space-focused military branch.
Without any such agreement, what constitutes an attack on a nation’s interest in space has remained up for debate. It’s a gray area made more complicated by the likelihood that the United States and its potential opponents have satellites in orbit that they don’t acknowledge are vital to national security or are up there at all.
“Is jamming an attack? Is a laser an attack? Does it have to be a kinetic hit on a satellite to be an attack?” Douglas Loverro, then-Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Space Policy, asked during a talk in 2016. “It’s really difficult to go ahead and justify how you might attack somebody’s homeland if they’ve taken out a satellite that you don’t even admit exists.”
Unfortunately, it is clear that basic definitions of what constitutes conflict in space, if nothing else, are necessary now, more than ever. Without them, there is only an increasing possibility for dangerous miscalculations.
The activities of Russia’s latest inspector satellite, China’s own anti-satellite developments, and the United States’ plans for space-based ballistic missile defense weapons all show that these issues will only continue to become more pronounced in the future, whether there is any sort of international treaty that seeks to govern military activity in space or not.
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