On November 15, the Russian military successfully tested a dual-use missile-defense/anti-satellite interceptor to destroy in orbit an old, dysfunctional Tselina-D intelligence-gathering satellite dubbed “Kosmos-1408.” The “dead” target satellite was flying at some 500 kilometers above the ground and had been launched during the Cold War, in 1982. The hit disintegrated Kosmos-1408 into thousands of pieces of debris of differing sizes. According to estimates by the United States’ National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and the Pentagon, the Kosmos-1408 cloud of debris potentially threatened the cosmonauts and astronauts aboard the International Space Station (ISS), who were forced to take precautionary measures by boarding their docked escape spacecraft in case of a collision. The orbiting debris will apparently pose a long-lasting hazard to space operations. Washington was the first to report the incident, and US officials called the Russian behavior “reckless and dangerous,” emphasizing there was no prior test launch warning. In Moscow, the Russian space agency Roscosmos, did not comment, implying this was not its field of responsibility. A deputy chairperson of the State Duma Defense Committee, Chechen war veteran–turned politician Yuri Shvytkin, accused the US of spreading fake news to cover its own space-based military activities; Russia was surely innocent, he claimed, “because we do not militarize space” (Interfax, November 16).
A day or so after the incident, the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) officially disclosed it did hit the old Kosmos-1408 craft, with “astonishing precision,” according to Defense Minister General Sergei Shoigu. At the same time, the MoD pushed back, accusing the US of deliberately lying about a “nonexistent threat” to the ISS and insisting Kosmos-1408 was in orbit “some 40 to 60 km higher than the ISS” (Militarynews.ru, November 16). Moscow accused Washington of “militarizing space” and ignoring Russian proposals to sign a treaty to ban space weapons. It cited the secretive space flights of the Boeing X-37, a small mysterious reusable robotic spacecraft, as a demonstration of sinister US intentions; and it asserted that the United States’ newest military branch of service, the Space Force, created by the directive of former President Donald Trump in 2019, was established to ensure the domination of space by Washington. The Russian side dismissed any possible future threat or hazard posed by the debris of Kosmos-1408 as provocative nonsense, pointing out that China, India and the US had all previously performed similar tests of destroying satellites in orbit. The amount of space junk traveling around the Earth is already so large (and constantly growing) that even if, someday in the future, some chunk of Kosmos-1408 hits another satellite or even the ISS, Russia could plausibly deny responsibility—and it would be quite difficult for the aggrieved party to decisively prove otherwise (Interfax, November 16).
According to General (ret.) Vladimir Dvorkin (85), a military rocket scientist, the director of the Strategic Rocket Forces’ 4th Research Institute and an expert member of Moscow’s arms-control negotiating team, Russia was under no legal obligation to warn the United States about an anti-satellite interceptor launch test, unlike intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) launches, which are covered by START arms control treaties and must be reported. Dvorkin contended that a satellite like Kosmos-1408 is much easier to intercept and hit than an ICBM-carried nuclear warhead because satellites are often larger in size and follow stable and predictable orbits, unlike incoming warheads mounted on maneuverable reentry vehicles. Dvorkin downplayed Russia’s November 15 test but said it was unfortunate that the hit culminated in a field of debris that will slowly expand into countless different orbits. According to Dvorkin, the tumult caused by the test may give the Pentagon munition to lobby for additional defense procurement money (Interfax, November 16).
The decision to destroy Kosmos-1408 in this dramatic manner was apparently taken on November 1, in Sochi, at President Vladimir Putin’s seaside residence, during a meeting of top military and defense industry leaders. The Kremlin revealed that the agenda focused on further development of the Russian Aerospace Forces (Vozdushno-Kosmicheskiye Sily—VKS) and specifically their space components. In addition to deploying different new anti-aircraft missile systems, the VKS in preparing to deploy the S-500 Prometheus system. Putin told those present that VKS missiles and radars “must be able to track, intercept and destroy incoming ICBM warheads on all [segments] of their trajectory,” which includes space (Kremlin.ru, November 1). Soon after the Sochi meeting, Shoigu announced Russia is developing an S-550 missile system, which will be closely related to the S-500 but will specialize in missile anti-ICBM defense and anti-satellite space-attack capabilities; whereas, the sister S-500 will primarily be aimed at tracking and shooting down enemy aircraft (see EDM, November 15). Previously, Russian missile-defense interceptors relied on so-called indirect intercepts—the destruction of incoming targets by nuclear blasts or nearby conventional shrapnel explosions. The destruction of Kosmos-1408 was apparently a successful direct interceptor hit (“bullet hitting bullet”), which may explain the triumphalism coming from the Russian MoD. Reportedly, the S-550 missile-defense and anti-satellite system may go into deployment by 2025 (Izvestia, November 16).
Today’s US military heavily relies on satellites to run practically any operation. By deploying large numbers of dual-use missile-defense and anti-satellite ground-based interceptors, Moscow may claim it is not deploying weapons in space while still retaining the capability to swiftly knock out large numbers of essential US satellites, thus undermining or destroying real-time intelligence-gathering, GPS navigation, communications and networking—undermining or outright crippling the adversary’s precision-guided weapons, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV), cruise missiles and so on. Such a move would ostensibly level the playing field, erasing the United States’ technological superiority and drastically changing the overall balance of power between the two sides. And so Russia feels incentivized to hone those anti-satellite capabilities through tests like the November 15 pulverization, from the ground, of Kosmos-1408. That goal, as far as the Kremlin and Russian MoD are concerned, is far too important to allow oneself to grow squeamish about being branded a reckless space litterer by the international community.