The fifth test of Russia’s anti-satellite missile, the PL-19 Nudol, occurred near Plesetsk, Russia on Friday. The launch was monitored by American intelligence gathering capabilities and the missile is reported to not have impacted anything in orbit. Whether this denotes a failed test or the weapon was never meant to achieve a kinetic kill is unknown. Russia has long claimed that the Nudol is a mid-course anti-ballistic missile system used for defensive purposes only. The consensus is that, although it may have this capability, its other primary mission is to knock enemy satellites out of orbit.
Anti-ballistic missile systems are a natural fit for plinking satellites. The US Navy used its SM-3 interceptor and Aegis combat system to do just that back in 2008 under Operation Burnt Frost, swatting a malfunctioning surveillance satellite out of the sky successfully.
Other Russian weapons in development are thought to also have anti-satellite capabilities. These include the S-500 anti-ballistic missile and air defense system and more shadowy weapons like the maneuvering orbital "satlet"—likely capable of near observation, disruption and possibly even manipulation of other satellites—launched under the guise of Kosmos 2499. Russia is also experimenting with airborne lasers designed to blind or even kill enemy satellites.
The Pentagon is facing threats in emerging mediums of combat. Cyber warfare may be grabbing all the headlines lately, but space—the place where so much of America’s unique combat capability is enabled from—is the US military’s glaring achilles heel. China and Russia are rapidly developing new capabilities to destroy, disable, blind or even hijack American satellites in orbit in an attempt to level the playing field should a peer-state conflict breakout. The US is slowly trying to adapt to this new reality by spinning up new ways to navigate and target in GPS-denied combat environments—as well as coming up with new communications techniques that work around reliance on satellite relays.
For years, anything but kinetic anti-satellite weaponry remained on the dark fringes of the defense world. Now these concepts and capabilities are emerging into the mainstream. These range from the mysterious X-37B miniature space shuttle, to DARPA led initiatives aimed at servicing other satellites in space or using space junk to create cheap communications satellites. Any of these could be used to monitor, jam, or even destroy enemy satellites without creating terrible debris fields that will limit future access to space. Other highly classified space technologies also likely exist.
I wrote the following in 2012:
“What may be in retrospect the “Wright Flyer” of this emerging new realm of space drones is the highly publicized but little understood Boeing X-37B. This reusable mini-spaceplane has a reconfiguration payload bay about the size of pickup truck bed and could theoretically be used for any of a plethora of new technologies. At the same time, other white-world drone-like orbital space programs are popping up fast, many of which are seem quite benign at first glance but offer serious military potential with simple modifications.
For instance, DARPA’s “Phoenix Program,” which will see space junk turned into large communications relays via the deployment of small and maneuverable micro satellite parasites, called “satlets,” could theoretically de-orbit space junk or commandeer it for other purposes. These same “satlets” could also take old satellites to a tender for refueling or even repair. This capability combined with NASA’s DEXTER android-like remote manipulator system could literally put astronaut repairman’s hands virtually on a satellite in need."
"Although not found in DARPA’s “Phoenix Project” press materials, it is clear that if you can do the things mentioned above with friendly or abandoned satellites than you could disable, de-orbit or even capture an enemy’s satellites as well. In other words, DARPA may be creating an incredible low-earth orbit space custodian and tow truck of sorts with their “satlet” drones, but at the same time they also may be creating the ultimate anti-satellite weapon, one which does not create thousands of pieces of deadly space junk like their crude “kinetic” fore-bearers. Orbital space debris caused by a traditional “hit to kill” anti-satellite weapons can harm even the very user’s orbiting capabilities as well as the enemy’s.
Although DARPA’s Phoenix program and the X-37B are promising, with every new capability there will eventually be a countermeasure, which begs the question: could we one day see near space filled with “satlets,” both of the offensive type mentioned above and of a defensive type, deployed to guard our critical military satellites from marauding enemy “satles?” I think it’s not only possible but probable.”
This very important topic is picking up steam in the mainstream press. 60 Minutes did a story on it last year, but maybe the best and most current primer on space weaponry and America’s vulnerabilities in this most inhospitable of realms comes from CNN. Their documentary War In Space goes through a lot of the emerging capabilities we have discussed in the past, and does so in a pretty attainable manner. Make sure to check it out below but be aware, you may sleep a little less easy at night after watching it.
Contact the author Tyler@thedrive.com