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Why Does the US Worry About Russia’s Anti-Satellite Weapons?

The US and the UK recently slammed Russia for testing its space-based anti-satellite weapons on July 15, a move that may spark an arms race among the world’s powerhouses in outer space.

War of Words: Russia vs. USA

Specifically, the US Outer Space Commander claimed it had evidence about Russia’s weapon testing, even though it was not destructive.

“US Space Command has evidence that Russia conducted a non-destructive test of a space-based anti-satellite weapon. Russia released this object in proximity to another Russian satellite, which is similar to on-orbit activity conducted by Russia in 2017, and inconsistent with the system’s stated mission as an inspector satellite,” military officials said.

Russia’s Foreign Ministry snubbed Washington’s and London’s allegations, arguing that such activity had complied with international law and did not pose a threat to any space objects.

What is an Anti-Satellite Weapon?

An anti-satellite weapon (ASAT) is a weapon designed explicitly to ruin a satellite for strategic military goals. So far, four countries have achieved possession of such a weapon: China, Russia, the US, and India—which tested its first ASAT missile in 2019.

The US conducted its first trial of ASAT weapon in 1959 when that type of technology was still rare. The US used the missile named Bold Orion, a recycled nuclear-powered ballistic missile.

The then-Soviet Union followed suit in 1960 and the 1970s when the missile reached the orbit and destroyed a satellite with explosive material.

The US tested another ASAT missile in 1985, launched from its F-15 fighter jet. In 2008, the US launched an ASAT test using the SM-3 rocket from a warship. 

In 2007, China entered the arms race by shooting its weather satellite. The mainland’s test was considered the most destructive, with over 3,000 pieces of debris produced during the activity. The object destroyed at that time was at the altitude of more than 300 kilometers.

China and Russia Pose a Space Threat to the US

The Pentagon last June released the latest report on a new space defense strategy to maintain its military excellence, adding that the US is facing challenges from Russia and China. The report came following China’s decision to postpone the BeiDou-3 satellite launch due to technical problems.

US President Donald Trump, in 2019, announced that outer space is a new war domain to boost global dominance. The POTUS signed the 2020 National Defense Authorization Act to form Space Force in 2020, which is a branch of the US Air Force.

“It was nearly half a century from Kitty Hawk to the creation of the Air Force. And now it’s 50 years after Apollo 11 that we create the Space Force,” the real estate mogul said during the signing ceremonies in Maryland in December 2019.

Not the First Time Washington Has Accused Moscow of Similar Testing

In 2018, Russia tested the PL-19 Nudol missile, also called “the satellite killer.” The test was the eighth since 2014. The first two tests were considered to have failed before the six successful ones, Secure World Foundation’s Global Counterspace Report stated.

On April 15, Russia also conducted a direct-ascent anti-satellite (DA-ASAT), designed to destroy a low Earth orbit satellite.

“Russia’s DA-ASAT test provides yet another example that the threats to US and allied space systems are real, serious and growing,” Space Force commander Gen. John “Jay” Raymond stated, cited in Space.

Such Tests Can Produce Space Debris

Those countries may claim that their tests will provide minimal space debris. For example, India’s anti-satellite weapon test in 2019 claimed to have created a minimum level of debris.

“Whatever debris generated will decay and fall back onto the earth within weeks,” India’s Ministry of External Affairs’ statement said.

However, the astrophysicist Jonathan McDowell explained that the launch’s impact was more than just explosive materials.

The launched missile “doesn’t carry any explosive, but just puts itself in the path of the satellite. The satellite is traveling at 18,000 mph (29,000 km/h),” McDowell said. “The kinetic energy of that impact is much more than any high explosive you could carry, so no point in putting a bomb on it.”