A top State Department official warned Tuesday that Russian “space apparatus inspector” satellites are behaving unlike anything seen before, and that current international inspection protocol makes it virtually impossible to know for sure whether they could actually be space-weapon prototypes.
Speaking in Geneva, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Arms Control, Verification, and Compliance Yleem D.S. Poblete said Moscow has made clear that it wants to test and deploy weapons in space, and that the United Nations and other global bodies must enact stricter measures for what is and isn’t allowed to be placed in orbit.
She said that Russian satellites — which Moscow insists are not hostile — launched last fall continue to behave in unusual ways, raising serious questions about whether the Russian government has begun deploying weapons to space.
“Its behavior on orbit was inconsistent with anything seen before from on-orbit inspection or space situational awareness capabilities, including other Russian inspection satellite activities. We are concerned with what appears to be very abnormal behavior by a declared ‘space apparatus inspector.’ We don’t know for certain what it is and there is no way to verify it,” Ms. Poblete said during a speech at a U.N. Conference on Disarmament meeting.
“Now, I can tell you that our Russian colleagues will deny that its systems are meant to be hostile. The Russian Ministry of Defense has put out a press release stating these are simply inspector satellites,” she continued. “So the question before this body is: How do we verify what countries say their spacecraft are doing? What would be enough information to prove what the purpose of an object is? We have pointed out Russian satellite behavior that is inconsistent with what Russia claims it is — a so-called inspector satellite not acting in a manner consistent with a satellite designed to conduct safe and responsible inspection operations.”
Her comments come just days after the White House and Pentagon announced a formal plan to create the U.S. “Space Force” as the sixth branch of the military, with a chief mission of guarding against any hostile action in space and coordinating a sweeping cross-military effort to prepare for any future space conflicts.
The U.S. intelligence community has said that Russia, China and even less advanced nations such as North Korea are eyeing space weapons, ranging from missile capabilities to cyberwarfare against space-based U.S. communications systems.
Ms. Poblete urged the U.N. to adopt a much stricter version of the “Treaty on the Prevention of the Placement of Weapons in Outer Space,” a document currently under review at the U.N. and designed to prevent any weapons systems from being deployed to space.
But Ms. Poblete said the current version of that treaty wouldn’t allow the U.S. or international inspectors to determine exactly what the Russian “inspector satellite” is designed to do.
“Based on the drafting of the treaty language by Russia, there is nothing in the proposed [treaty] that would prohibit this sort of activity or the developing, testing, or stockpiling of anti-satellite weapons capabilities, so long as it doesn’t damage another object in space,” she said. “The only certainty we have is that this system has been ‘placed in orbit.’ The rest of its demonstrated behavior is unexpected and unclear to us.”
Russia and China are pushing the draft treaty, commonly known as the PPWT, inside the U.N. despite serious concerns from the U.S.