General: Russian, Chinese Launches Demonstrate Growing Space Threat

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COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — Russia has launched two satellites in the last year, including one “a few weeks ago,” that are viewed as suspicious and potentially threatening, a senior U.S. Air Force officer said.

These launches, coupled with China’s launch in July of what U.S. military officials said was an antisatellite missile, are hard indicators that the threat to U.S. satellites is only increasing, said Lt. Gen. John “Jay” Raymond, commander of Air Force Space Command’s 14th Air Force and of Strategic Command’s Joint Functional Component Command for Space.

Speaking April 14 at a luncheon here at the 31st Space Symposium, Raymond said the growing threats revalidate several national imperatives including enhancing U.S. space domain awareness, more closely integrating U.S. military and intelligence space operations, and strengthening space-related ties with U.S. allies and commercial space operators.

In his speech, Raymond added some detail to some specific concerns raised by U.S. government officials over the last year about Chinese and Russian activity.

“China launched a successful nondestructive direct ascent antisatellite missile, placing satellites in low Earth orbit at risk,” Raymond said. “Russia in May quietly launched an experimental satellite that we’re keeping a close eye on. Just A few weeks ago they launched another one that they just recently announced.”

Last May’s launch deployed three Russian military communications satellites and also deployed an object designated 2014-28E. In a commentary submitted to SpaceNews in December, Joan Johnson-Freese, a professor of national security affairs at the Naval War College, and Michael Listner, an attorney and founder of a space policy think tank, said the object had performed “intricate” orbital maneuvers that might be consistent with the types of antisatellite weapons the Soviet Union tested during the Cold War.

Raymond reiterated a point he made earlier this year to Congress: “In the not too distant future, every satellite in every orbit will be able to be put at risk.”

Raymond also noted that space is becoming increasingly congested, especially with the explosion in applications for cubesats. Last year there were 92 space launches that deployed 229 satellites, 158 of which were cubesats, he said.

Cubesats are difficult to track and the fact that they can be launched in groups of 30 or so makes the job even more difficult, he said. The cubesat trend is expected to continue growing, Raymond added.