Russie’s generation of a large amount of space debris deserves condemnation from the United States and others. However, we must also understand Why Russia did what it did. This event carries two essential lessons for the United States.
First, it is imperative to adopt appropriate policies and international legal rules to limit anti-satellite threats (ASAT), in this case a ban on ASAT debris-producing tests.
Second, the United States must make it a priority to understand the outlook and proactively shape the policy incentives of other countries. A critical way to do both is for the United States to be proactive by systematically identifying and understanding in advance the unique characteristics of each ASAT threat vector and the best means to counter it; scenario planning of the genre pioneered by Herman Kahn in the 1950s is likely to be a particularly effective methodology for doing so.
November 15, Russia led its first known exo-atmospheric test of death impact of a direct-ascension anti-satellite weapon (DA-ASAT) launched on the ground. This test produced some 1,500 larger pieces of debris, and General James Dickinson, head of US Space Command, Noted that it will also generate “probably hundreds of thousands of pieces of smaller orbital debris.” The resulting debris cloud endangered astronauts – including Russian nationals – aboard the International Space Station, and immediately drew and widespread international conviction. On November 16, the Russian Defense Ministry publicly confirmed the ASAT test while deny the obvious threat of debris. What’s going on?
The test was likely performed to confirm that a DA-ASAT system known as PL-19 Nudol is now operational. There have been at least 10 previous flight tests of Nudol over the past eight years, including at least eight apparent successes. Russia started by testing only the launch vehicle, then moved on to the launch test from a road mobile transporter-assembler-launcher (TEL), then carried out launches incorporating the killing vehicle, and has now led the supreme event: the demonstration of a real-world kinetic interception capability. It is the same path taken previously by the United States, China and India with regard to their own DA-ASAT.
Russia has issued an Airmen Advisory (NOTAM) for a missile launch from the Plesetsk Mobile Missile Launch Complex which aligned with the trajectory of the destroyed Russian satellite (Kosmos-1408), and various declarations of senior American officials prove that the missile was a DA-ASAT. Historically, Russia’s ASAT program has consisted primarily of co-orbital and airborne capabilities; While the Soviet Union’s ballistic missile defense (BMD) system, the A-135, technically had possible use as an ASAT, it was very limited and deeply impractical. But in 2010, the Russian defense company Almaz-Antey – responsible for developing what is called “active space defense”- began work on the replacement missile defense system A-235 as well as a directly related missile called the Nudol. The latter has been framed explicitly as valuable for endangering American satellites in low earth orbit. This system was describe in 2015 by the Russian state media as a mobile (i.e. launched from a transporter-assembler-launcher (TEL)) “new complex of long-range missile defense interception and Russian space defense… as part of OKR Nudol [experimental development project]. “
The interceptors of the A-135, that is to say the 51T6 Gorgon – were nuclear point, due to great skepticism about the reliability of conventional missile defense. While the environmental control systems visible on representations of Nudol indicate that it may retain the ability to mount a nuclear warhead, Russian media in 2018 reported that the system would at least primarily be conventional. This makes sense, allowing use in a much wider range of circumstances, and is made possible in part because Russia has made major strides in targeting and tracking from space, integrated command and control, and guidance on board. systems (for the original Russian, see here). Other major features of the Nudol include the fact that it is launched by TEL, as noted above, and that it uses a two-stage missile, likely capable of reaching an altitude of up to 850 kilometers (although the protests have so far been more of the order of 100 kilometers) and allowing sophisticated target guidance, whether it is a hypersonic glide vehicle or an orbital strike platform.
But all of this begs the question: why would Russia do this? It wasn’t because they had no choice, nor that they ignored the consequences. Instead, the test appears to be the product of several factors.
An important element is most likely inertia / bureaucratic dynamics. Famous Russian analyst Pavel Podvig labeled this test “very weird” and said that “with a reasonable decision-making system, I just don’t see how this sort of thing would happen”. One piece of the puzzle is that decision making is not actually unitary and streamlined, but is nonetheless predictable and consistent: factors such as Almaz-Antey’s strong interest in building this system are important to keep in mind.
Second, Russia’s approach to counter-space issues must always be understood in the context of its fear, even paranoia, that the United States will continue or achieve a splendid first strike capability. Russia has many reasons for concern: the consistent pattern of historical US behavior – from the 1983 announcement of the Strategic Defense Initiative to the US withdrawal from the ABM Treaty in 2002, to periodic efforts to achieve a rapid and technically viable global strike (PGS) and a space missile defense layer, the continued refusal to tolerate legal limits of any kind on BMD or space-based weapons – provides ample fodder for feverish speculation inside the Kremlin. Seen through this prism, if one accepts the premise that the United States is going or even strength seek one day to base an existential threat on its orbiting nuclear arsenal, then demonstrate reliable means of destroy quickly these assets with Nudol ASAT start to look like a very rational insurance policy.
Which brings us to the final critical piece of the puzzle: the next one Summit of the future, to be held in September 2023. A anti-satellite destructive testing ban collected more and more broad support, and this ASAT test will probably add more momentum. But what is particularly remarkable is that while Russia has so far voted versus such proposals, now that they have successfully tested a DA-ASAT, they may not need it anymore, or at least not so loudly. Traditionally, Russia and China have demanded a treaty banning the deposit of weapons in space (known as PPWT or PAROS) which clearly lacked verifiable limitations on the development of ground-based anti-satellite weapons. This is due to the aforementioned priority of limiting US space-based missile defense. Since 2008, Russia exploited the opening left by the failure of the United States to advocate viable alternatives to claim direction and deflect criticism. While it will likely continue to push the PPWT into the background, it is also likely that Russia will take the opportunity to dishonestly control the narrative by returning later to approve a version of an ASAT testing ban. kinetics.
Russia’s test of Nudol last weekend contains vital lessons for the United States on space security. First, there is a clear need to build an international consensus to ban ASAT debris-producing tests. Second, the United States must understand Russia’s point of view and be more proactive in shaping its strategic incentives in a way that promotes international stability and the national interest of the United States. For example: it will be important to ensure the participation of Russia in a space traffic management diet, but such an agreement must include limits on en masse prepositioning close to vulnerable satellites, a disposition they will likely be opposed to in the absence of careful alignment of incentives.
If the United States sees this test as a wake-up call and seizes the opportunities open to it, the next two years could be a major turning point in the security and sustainability of space. If, however, the United States does not understand Russia’s point of view and does not recognize the importance of being proactive in defining the strategic incentives of potential adversaries, then the future of the space environment and of the international sphere will probably be much darker.
Brandon kelley is Debate Director at Georgetown University and a graduate student in the Security Studies program. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. Brian chow is an independent political analyst with over 160 publications. He can be reached at email@example.com.