Russia on Monday tested a major antisatellite weapon in outer space, U.S. officials said, creating more than 1,500 large pieces of debris and potentially endangering American and Russian astronauts aboard the International Space Station.
U.S. Space Command first confirmed the “debris-generating event,” and Biden administration officials later said that the test involved a direct-ascent antisatellite (DA-ASAT) missile that blew apart one of Russia‘s own satellites. In addition to the 1,500 pieces of trackable debris, officials said that hundreds of thousands of pieces of much smaller debris are now floating through space and will remain a threat for years, possibly decades.
Such DA-ASAT weapons are central components of Moscow’s broader effort to develop a new generation of space weapons as part of an arms race with the U.S. and China. Monday’s event signals that the era of war in space — which was mocked by some on the political left when former President Donald Trump first proposed the creation of the U.S. Space Force — may be arriving sooner than expected.
Indeed, top American military leaders said the test was not only reckless and dangerous but also signaled clearly that Moscow is developing a strategy to defeat the U.S. in space, a battlefield critical for the communications and surveillance systems on which modern armies and navies rely.
“Russia has demonstrated a deliberate disregard for the security, safety, stability, and long-term sustainability of the space domain for all nations. … Space activities underpin our way of life and this kind of behavior is simply irresponsible,” said Army Gen. James Dickinson, the head of U.S. Space Command.
“Russia is developing and deploying capabilities to actively deny access to and use of space by the United States and its allies and partners,” Gen. Dickinson said in a statement. “Russia‘s tests of direct-ascent anti-satellite weapons clearly demonstrate that Russia continues to pursue counterspace weapon systems that undermine strategic stability and pose a threat to all nations.”
Military officials said the debris created by Monday’s test could remain in orbit for decades. The dangers created by that debris may already be apparent.
The target, according to a report by the Russian Sputnik news website was reportedly a Soviet-era Kosmos-1408 that was launched in 1982. The satellite, the website said, has not been in use for decades.
Russia‘s TASS news agency, citing the country’s Roscosmos space agency, reported earlier Monday that the International Space Station had had to maneuver away from space debris while in orbit and the crew, which includes both Russian and American astronauts, were safely in “the green zone.”
Roscosmos officials said they had been warned of the potential debris danger from NASA’s Mission Control Center in Houston.
It appears the two incidents are directly related, though neither Roscosmos nor NASA has explicitly said so. Space.com reported Monday that American astronauts were forced to take shelter on return ships when the space station came close to floating debris.
Weighing a response
Pentagon officials said that the U.S. is working with other nations to ensure that satellites and other space assets aren’t threatened by the Russian debris. In the vastness of space, however, it’s virtually impossible to guarantee that a piece of debris doesn’t cause damage at some point in the future.
Meanwhile, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the U.S. will respond — though it’s unclear how.
“The long-lived debris created by this dangerous and irresponsible test will now threaten satellites and other space objects that are vital to all nations’ security, economic, and scientific interests for decades to come,” Mr. Blinken said in a statement late Monday. “The United States will work with our allies and partners as we seek to respond to this irresponsible act. We call upon all responsible space-faring nations to join us in efforts to develop norms of responsible behavior and to refrain from conducting dangerous and irresponsible destructive tests like those carried out by Russia.”
The test came just hours before President Biden was set to meet with Chinese President Xi Jinping for a widely anticipated virtual summit Monday evening. The timing may have been a not-so-subtle effort by the Kremlin to cast itself as a global power on equal footing with both the U.S. and China.
On Capitol Hill, key lawmakers warned that direct conflict in space between the U.S. and its rivals is no longer a distant notion borrowed from science fiction.
The surprise Russian test was “exactly why we stood up Space Command and created the Space Force. Space has already become a warfighting domain,” Alabama Rep. Mike Rogers, the ranking Republican on the House Armed Services Committee, said in a statement.
Other Republicans called on Mr. Biden to take a tough line against Russian President Vladimir Putin. They also touted the creation of Space Force, which was formally established in December 2019 as the first new military branch since 1947 and is viewed as a landmark achievement of the Trump administration.
“I’m grateful that U.S. Space Command is tracking the aftermath of this irresponsible test, but the Biden administration must make it clear to Putin, in no uncertain terms, that this is unacceptable,” Sen. James Inhofe, Oklahoma Republican and ranking member on the Senate Armed Services Committee, said in a statement. “It is precisely because of threats like these that I worked with then-President Trump to create the Space Force.”
Since Mr. Biden came to office, the White House has expressed its support for the Space Force. But a group of House Democrats has introduced legislation to abolish the service, casting it as wasteful.
“It’s time we turn our attention back to where it belongs: addressing urgent domestic and international priorities like battling COVID-19, climate change, and growing economic inequality. Our mission must be to support the American people, not spend billions on the militarization of space,” Rep. Jared Huffman, California Democrat, said in September when introducing his bill to eliminate Space Force.
That legislation has little chance of becoming law.