30 April 2020
Don't panic about Russia's recent anti-satellite test, experts say

By Mike Wall


Plesetsk Cosmodrome in northern Russia, the launch site for an anti-satellite test on April 15, 2020. (Image: Roscosmos)

Russia's recent anti-satellite (ASAT) test wasn't as big of a deal as you may think.

On April 15, Russia conducted a trial of its Nudol interceptor, a mobile rocket system that's designed to take out satellites in Earth orbit. The event generated buzz in national-security circles and in the mainstream media, but it's not cause for too much alarm, experts said.

For starters, this was not a contact test. Unlike China's infamous 2007 ASAT trial or the one performed by India in March 2019, the Nudol did not hit anything on April 15. It therefore didn't generate a new swarm of orbital debris that could complicate life for the entire space community.

In addition, though Russia has now tested the Nudol 10 times or so, the system does not appear to be ready for action.

"As far as we can tell, it's not operational," Brian Weeden said on April 24 during a webinar about the Russian ASAT test. Weeden is director of program planning for the Secure World Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to space sustainability, which hosted the webinar.

"That is probably at least a few years away," Weeden added.

Then there's the matter of the Nudol's limited reach: The system apparently can target satellites only in low Earth orbit (LEO), Weeden said. LEO tops out around 1,240 miles (2,000 kilometers) above the planet's surface. That's far lower than the United States' most capable reconnaissance and military communications satellites, which tend to reside in geostationary orbit, about 22,200 miles (35,730 km) up.

Finally, it's not clear that ASAT technology in general is terribly useful, said analyst Pavel Podvig, director of the Russian Nuclear Forces Project and a senior research fellow at the United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research.

"Basically, with this kind of ASAT, or even with a more kind of advanced ASAT," Podvig said during the April 24 webinar, "it's hard to imagine a military mission in which this capability would be useful."

That's because any nation whose security could be significantly compromised by ASAT tech will naturally take steps to reduce its vulnerability to such attacks, he explained.

"There are clear ways of doing that. You go to distributed capability, you go to smaller satellites, you go to redundancy. And in the end, you can shoot down a satellite, but so what?" he said. "In that sense, I'm an optimist. I do believe that these capabilities will not be used, just because I do believe that they don't give you much in terms of military capability."

Podvig cited some historical precedent for this view. Officials in both the U.S. and the Soviet Union came to this same basic conclusion during the Cold War, cooling off considerably on the potential of ASAT weapons after some initial excitement, he said. (That said, both nations didn't totally give up on the tech. Russia just tested the Nudol, after all, and the U.S. blasted one of its own dead and rapidly descending spy satellites out of the sky with an SM-3 missile in February 2008.)

Weeden said he generally agrees with Podvig's assessment. However, he did offer a caveat: Bureaucratic and other barriers can make it tough for a nation to safeguard its space assets.

"The U.S. has been trying to do that for a decade, and so far has not really made any progress in making their system more resilient," Weeden said.

U.S. military officials have repeatedly stressed over the past few years that the nation's long-held space dominance is at serious risk, saying that both China and Russia have big ambitions in the final frontier. And the Nudol, while not particularly threatening in itself, is indeed part of a broad Russian "counterspace" portfolio, Weeden said.

That portfolio, he added, includes electronic warfare, which Russia is already using operationally, and directed energy (laser) weapons, which the country is researching.

"Finally, Russia has a pretty advanced space situational awareness capability, which is what one would need to be able to target other satellites," Weeden said.

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