The Secure World Foundation released a report suggesting that Russia is testing new Anti-Satellite (ASAT) and Direct Ascent Anti-Satellite (DA-ASAT) technologies that could threaten spacecraft in Low-Earth Orbit (LEO), and eventually, Geostationary Orbit (GEO).
In the April 2021 report, “Global Counterspace Capabilities: An Open Source Assessment,” co-authors Brian Weeden and Victoria Samson wrote that Russia is recapitalizing ASAT capabilities they had during the Cold War and testing Rendezvous and Proximity Operations (RPO) technologies in both LEO and GEO.
“…Some of those efforts have links to a Cold War-era LEO co-orbital ASAT program,” Weeden and Samson wrote. “Additional evidence suggests Russia may have started a new co-orbital ASAT program called Burevestnik, potentially supported by a surveillance and tracking program called Nivelir. … While Russia is actively testing what appears to be a new DA-ASAT capability in their Nudol system, it is not yet operational and does not appear to have the capability to threaten targets beyond LEO.”
The report acknowledges the possibility that these technologies could also be used for non-aggressive surveillance of foreign satellites and notes that most of Russia’s on-orbit RPO activities seem to fit that scenario so far. “However, Russia has deployed two ‘sub-satellites’ at high-velocity, which suggests at least some of their LEO RPO activities are of a weapons nature,” the report said.
In April of last year, CNBC and other news outlets reported that U.S. Space Force generals believed that Russia successfully tested a missile capable of destroying a LEO satellite. Military officials called the test “unusual and disturbing.”
The Secure World Foundation report also studied development of militarized space capabilities in China and the United States. The report noted that China has conducted multiple tests of RPO technologies in both LEO and GEO, which could lead to co-orbital ASAT capabilities. “However, as of yet, the public evidence indicates [China] has not conducted an actual destructive co-orbital intercept of a target, and there is no public proof that these RPO technologies are definitively being developed for counterspace use as opposed to intelligence gathering or other purposes,” said Weeden and Samson.
In regard to the United States’ anti-satellite technologies, Secure World Foundation said that the U.S. military, like China, has conducted multiple RPO tests in both LEO and GEO that could lead to a co-orbital ASAT capability, but that there is no evidence of an operational system.
Interestingly, the report notes that the United States has conducted significant research and development on the use of ground-based high energy lasers for potential counterspace purposes. “We assess that there are no technological roadblocks to the U.S. operationalizing [lasers] for counterspace applications. With its SLR [Satellite Laser Ranging] sites and defense research facilities, the United States possesses low power laser systems with the capability to dazzle, and possibly blind, EO imaging satellites.”
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