Russia’s Lego Approach to Space Warfare

Russia has been acquiring and demonstrating anti-satellite and counter-space at a rapid clip. What drives all these Russian efforts? Jaganath Sankaran shows in a recent article that Russians believe they need to respond to the unbridled American weaponization of space and that high-precision aerospace weapons will be a decisive factor in future conflicts.

In November 2021, the Russians conducted a hit-to-kill direct-ascent anti-satellite (ASAT) missile test, striking a defunct Tselina-D satellite and creating more than 1,500 pieces of space debris. Gen. James Dickinson, head of U.S. Space Command, called the Russian ASAT test an attempt to “deny access to and use of space” to the United States and undermine strategic stability. Russians quickly retorted that it was America that sought comprehensive military superiority. Russians cast the test as a proportionate and defensive attempt to restore deterrence against the United States. They accuse the U.S. of being duplicitous and silent about its ASAT efforts. They dismiss all criticisms of their ASAT efforts as “propagandistic information attacks.”

Russia has been acquiring and demonstrating anti-satellite and counter-space at a rapid clip. For example, in January 2020, Russia’s Kosmos-2542 and Kosmos-2543 satellites performed complex coordinated maneuvers in the vicinity of a military reconnaissance satellite, the KH-11. Six months later, in July 2020, the Kosmos-2543 satellite fired a high-velocity projectile showcasing a potential weapon designed to bombard another satellite and incapacitate it quickly. In 2017, three Russian “nesting doll” satellites—Kosmos-2519, Kosmos-2521, and Kosmos-2523—engaged in high-velocity orbital maneuvers. The Russian have also developed ground-based laser and jamming weaponry to target satellite systems.

What drives all these Russian efforts? Russian military literature reveals two primary motivations behind its anti-satellite and counter-space programs. First, Russians believe they need to respond to the unbridled American weaponization of space. They assert that the “U.S. keeps on conducting the full range of research” that will eventually lead to the deployment of “real space weapons within the shortest time frame.” Russia believes it has to do the same to keep up with American technological advancements.

Second, Russian analysts suggest that state-of-the-art U.S. and NATO high-precision aerospace weapons, supported with satellite-based targeting and navigation, will be a decisive factor in future conflicts. Russians offer recent NATO operations against Yugoslavia, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya as evidence that political-military operations can now be conducted without engaging the adversary’s army. Russian military leaders speculate that such campaigns, executed using high-precision weapons, may have made it possible to strike a fatal blow to Russia. The argument goes that Russian anti-satellite and other counter-space weapons will “deter aggression” by the U.S. and its allies “reliant upon space” to execute an aerospace strike against Russia. And if such a deterrent fails to hold, these weapons might offer Russian leaders the ability to target critical military satellites. Irrespective of the accuracy of these Russian assertions, the vast majority of Russian analysts continue to display a severe “fear of Western technological superiority.”  While these fears may reflect a worst-case scenario, they influence Russia’s space weapons and arms-control policies.

The U.S. and its allies will need to manage these Russian fears and the consequences. Managing space security will require a prudent combination of unilateral defensive and multilateral cooperative measures. Unilateral measures that reduce the vulnerability of satellites and increase their resiliency are vital. An immediate priority is to avoid the continued acquisition of legacy and expensive satellite systems that present “large, big, fat, juicy targets.” Instead, cheaper and more distributed satellite constellations enable both dispersions of critical space assets and rapid reconstitution in an adversary attack. The Space Development Agency (SDA), established in 2019, is developing cheaper satellites that would be more resilient to disruptions or attacks. These SDA satellites can complicate an adversary’s anti-satellite efforts.

Additionally, dialogue with Russia to institute cooperative behavioral norms and arms control arrangements is essential. In a welcome move, the Biden administration has unilaterally committed not to conduct “destructive, direct-ascent anti-satellite (ASAT) missile testing.” The commitment was justified in explicit terms of establishing norms. The White House Fact Sheet notes: “the United States seeks to establish this as a new international norm for responsible behavior in space…[and] called on other nations to make similar commitments and to work together in establishing this as a norm, making the case that such efforts benefit all nations.” Now, the focus should be on gaining such commitments from Russia, China, and other states.

Finally, when geopolitical conditions permit, policymakers in the U.S., Russia, and China need to explore arrangements to restrict advanced aerospace weaponry, possibly with an instrument similar to the INF Treaty. Achieving meaningful future restrictions on these weapons will be the challenge that needs to be faced to achieve space security and strategic stability.

Jaganath Sankaran is the author of “Russia’s anti-satellite weapons: A hedging and offsetting strategy to deter Western aerospace forces”, Contemporary Security Policy, which is available here.

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