Russia isn't done screwing with the United States in 2016.
On Dec. 16, the Russian military reportedly tested what appears to be an anti-satellite weapon—a rocket that can boost into low orbit and smash into enemy spacecraft.
The test could be the latest sign of Russia’s intention, and improving ability, to threaten America’s hundreds of government and private spacecraft—and chip away at the United States’ military and commercial advantage in space.
It might also be the latest provocation from a Russian regime that increasingly denies any responsibility for its most destabilizing moves. That’s how Moscow can get away with hacking elections in the United States and other Western countries and invading Ukraine, among other attacks on global order.
The apparent anti-satellite (ASAT) test largely escaped public notice. The Washington Free Beacon was the first to report on the weapon’s trial, on Dec. 21—attributing the information to unnamed U.S. government sources. CNN also pointed out the test, again citing anonymous U.S. officials.
Capt. Nicholas Mercurio, a spokesman for the 14th U.S. Air Force, which oversees space systems, declined to specifically comment on the reported Russian test. “We monitor missile launches around the globe,” Mercurio told The Daily Beast, “but as a matter of policy we don’t normally discuss intelligence specific to those launches.”
For the anti-satellite test, the Russians have a tidy cover story—that the rocket isn’t actually an anti-satellite weapon, or ASAT. Instead, it’s a meant for shooting down incoming ballistic missiles.
That is to say, the rocket that Russia tested on Dec. 16 could be a defensive rocket-killer, rather than an offensive satellite-killer. “My take is that it could be either,” Pavel Podvig, an independent expert on Russian strategic forces, told The Daily Beast via email. “It is difficult to say at this point.”
But in fact, there’s no meaningful difference between an anti-satellite weapon and a defensive missile-interceptor. The same basic hardware can do both jobs.
“The only difference between a hit-to-kill interceptor for missile defense and one for low-Earth-orbit ASAT is going to be in the software,” Jeffrey Lewis, who helps lead nonproliferation programs at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies, told The Daily Beast via email.
In 2008, for example, the U.S. Navy tweaked the code on one of its ship-based SM-3 missile-interceptors and successfully targeted an old U.S. satellite in low orbit.
The nature of the Russian test underscores the likelihood that the rocket in question is a satellite-killer. The rocket reportedly blasted off from a base in central Russia and arced into low orbit. There was no debris, according to CNN—meaning the missile likely targeted a point in space instead of aiming for, say, a decommissioned Russian satellite.
But the fact that the rocket targeted fixed coordinates in space indicates that it’s meant for destroying spacecraft. “Shooting at a point in space is useless from a missile-defense point of view,” Lewis explained.
That’s because incoming ballistic missiles move quickly. A missile-interceptor must be able to maneuver rapidly to match the target’s constantly-changing position. A satellite, by contrast, moves comparatively slowly and predictably. “You don’t know where a missile is going to be,” Lewis said, “but you do know where a satellite is going to be.”
Under Vladimir Putin, Russia has become the world leader in “asymmetric” warfare: targeting its enemies surreptitiously and in ways that avoid direct confrontation. After sending “Little Green Men”—troops without official uniforms—to invade Ukraine’s Crimea region, Russian forces pummeled Ukrainian troops with artillery that fired from the Russian side of the border with Ukraine… and denied doing it.
Likewise, Russia has targeted Ukraine and the tiny states along NATO’s eastern border with relentless cyberattacks. In late 2015, Russian hackers disrupted Ukraine’s power grid. (And another substation near Kiev was recently hit, although its unclear by whom.) The Kremlin hides its cyberattacks behind murky, non-state groups or individual hackers such as the notorious Guccifer 2.0. He’s the self-proclaimed “Romanian” hacker who claimed to hit the Democratic National Committee—only to be exposed as a Russian.
If the ASAT tests are successful and Russia deploys the weapon, its potential targets could include the surveillance, positioning, and communications satellites that the United States relies on to wage war—and that the American economy counts on for navigation, television broadcasts, and even mobile gaming.
The United States possesses nearly half of the world’s roughly 1,000 operational satellites, many more than any other individual country. Both Russia and China have been working hard in recent years to counter this numerical advantage.
In a 2007 ASAT test, China lobbed a rocket at a defunct weather satellite, smashing it into thousands of pieces—many of which remain in orbit and regularly endanger manned and unmanned spacecraft.
Both Russia and China have deployed small “inspection” satellites that, officially, exist to maneuver close to and monitor other spacecraft but which, with a simple command, could collide with U.S. satellites and hijack, damage, or destroy them.
For the record, the Pentagon also deploys inspection satellites that could threaten other spacecraft.
In parallel with its development of possible killer satellites, Russia has been hard at work on its Nudol rocket system, which is—officially—a missile-interceptor designed to protect Russian cities from nuclear bombardment. Moscow wants Nudol to replace decades-old Gazelle and Gorgon defensive missiles.
Nudol’s capabilities remain something of a mystery outside of the Russian government. If the Kremlin intends Nudol to replace Gazelle, then Nudol might not have applications in space. But if Nudol is supposed to replace the much more powerful Gorgon, then Nudol could pull double-duty as a missile-interceptor and a satellite-killer.
“Gazelle was not an ASAT threat, as its range was only a few miles,” Brian Weeden, a space exert at the Secure World Foundation in Colorado, told The Daily Beast via email. “Gorgon was likely an ASAT threat because it could reach into low Earth orbit.”
If Nudol matches Gorgon’s capabilities, then it’s possible the new missile-interceptor formed the basis of the rocket in the apparent ASAT test on Dec. 16.
Adapting Nudol to kill spacecraft makes sense. Instead of designing a new ASAT weapon from scratch—a potentially laborious process—Russia could simply modify a rocket it’s been working on for years.
The accelerating pace of Russian and Chinese ASAT developments—of which the Dec. 16 test is only the most recent—has kept some U.S. officials up at night. Air Force general John Hyten, the commander of U.S. Strategic Command, told Congress in September that Russia and China are developing offensive space weapons faster than the United States is developing countermeasures.
“We are moving much slower in certain areas than our adversaries,” Hyten said. “We need our industries and our acquisition process to move faster.”