Much ado has been made in recent weeks of a mysterious object that was launched last May along with three Russian military communications satellites. The object, designated 2014-28E and tracked by the North American Aerospace Defense Command as 39765, recently has performed intricate orbital maneuvers that suggest it is more than debris from the launch of the satellite. Even more so, the behavior of 2014-28E has brought into question whether it is a prototype of a new co-orbital anti-satellite (ASAT) weapon. The suggestion that it might be such is not unreasonable considering that the Soviet Union performed numerous co-orbital ASAT tests that led to the deployment of the Istrebitel Sputnikov or co-orbital “satellite-killer” during the Cold War until it was taken out of operational service after the fall of the Soviet Union.
Whether 2014-28E is indeed a resurgence of ASAT development or a benign outer space activity is difficult to tell given the dual-use nature of space technology, the national security nature of the launch and the resultant blackout of information. The vast majority of space technology, including satellites, is dual use: having civilian and military purposes. Object 2014-28E appears to be a maneuverable satellite, capable of both rendezvous and proximity operations (RPO), such as inspecting a damaged satellite, or performing the role of a co-orbital ASAT.
The United States has demonstrated similar technology with the XSS-11 developed by the Air Force Research Laboratory and NASA’s Demonstration of Autonomous Rendezvous Technology, or DART, spacecraft. More intriguing was the revelation by the U.S. Air Force of the pair of Micro-satellite Technology Experiment, or MiTex, satellites roaming the geosynchronous belt since 2006. In all these cases concern was raised by other nations about the potential threat posed by the technology, but as with all dual-use technology the intent of the technology and hence its use or potential use is difficult or impossible to determine from the technology and its capabilities alone.
This is the conundrum preventing a verifiable legal definition of what constitutes a space weapon. Most often, intent is revealed only by eventual actions. Beyond that, analysts are left to speculation. In that regard, there are (at least) three reasonable possibilities of Object 2014-28E’s actual intent.
The first is that the Russian spacecraft is intended as a technology demonstrator to test an RPO capability for satellite inspection, refueling or on-orbit repair. This is not outside the realm of possibility as it is, in fact, the rationale given for U.S. spacecraft such as the XSS-11 and DART, though given its dual-use nature some other countries have speculated more nefarious intent. There is, however, a pragmatic need for RPO capable spacecraft and it is logical that states other than the United States would want to develop this capability to facilitate their own outer space activities and assets.
Another potential intention is that Object 2014-28E is the test of a co-orbital ASAT or at least meant to appear as the test of an ASAT. This possibility would be consistent with increasing tensions between Russia and the United States and its allies. Russia has taken provocative military actions in the Ukraine, which has strained relations with the West. In response, the Kremlin has issued inflammatory warnings and backed it up with increased military activity using its air, land and sea assets. That it would use Object 2014-28E as a means to give the appearance that it has the capability to threaten outer space assets would be a logical escalation of this show of strength and would allow President Vladimir Putin to chest thump after decades of perceived humiliation and show that Russia is still a dominant player in the outer space arena.
Building on this is the prospect that Russia sees Object 2014-28E as a means to encumber foreign intelligence and space situational awareness assets. That Russia chooses to be opaque about Object 2014-28E is in character with the recent Russian belligerent and antagonizing foreign policy, but the lack of transparency also serves to keep foreign intelligence services guessing as to the true purpose of the spacecraft, and that requires the expenditure of resources to monitor and analyze the spacecraft’s movements. Keeping an adversary guessing and making strategic decisions based on those guesses is part of Cold War brinkmanship.
The U.S. Air Force may be taking a similar tack with the controversy surrounding the X-37B program. While the unmanned spaceplane is publicly acknowledged by the Air Force as a technology demonstrator, much of the program, including its potential mission, or multiple missions, remains classified.
There are certainly reasons to do so, but the opaqueness of the program also serves the purpose of forcing a geopolitical rival to expend resources to discover the craft’s mission and make a strategic decision on whether to duplicate or counter the perceived capability. This form of deception, whether intentional or not, often will force a geopolitical adversary to expend substantial resources to either duplicate the perceived capability or develop a countermeasure.
One illustration of this was the U.S. space shuttle and the Soviet perceptions of the program. From the viewpoint of the Soviet military leadership the space shuttle represented a means to strategically bomb the Soviet Union from orbit, and as a potential ASAT because of the shuttle’s robotic arm. These perceptions were an impetus for the Soviet space program to develop its own shuttle and ancillary infrastructure, which required a substantial expenditure of resources for a shuttle that made one unmanned flight.
However, if the Kremlin’s endgame for Object 2014-28E is to create a co-orbital ASAT or at least give the appearance of it, that effort could effectively backfire and cost Russia some much-needed soft power support in the United Nations, especially among Third World nations. Russia is a co-sponsor of the Treaty on Prevention of the Placement of Weapons in Outer Space, the Threat or Use of Force Against Outer Space Objects (PPWT) in the Conference of Disarmament. If Russia intends Object 2014-28E as the precursor to a co-orbital ASAT capability or intends to give that appearance, nations that would otherwise support a measure such as the PPWT may see Russia as hypocritical and be hesitant to ascribe their support. While the PPWT is unlikely to become binding international law in the current geopolitical environment, any backlash over Object 2014-28E could spill over and erode the level of soft power support — indeed, the moral high ground — Russia currently enjoys in the U.N. regarding a ban on space weapons.
Ultimately, the true purpose of Object 2014-28E will remain unknown until more information about the craft becomes available and is analyzed, or until Russia chooses to remove ambiguity through actions. In the meantime, the United States should of course be prudent in watching the capabilities of Object 2014-28E, and the international community should be vocal in its condemnation of the opacity of Russian space activities. Until then political, media and public hysteria over Object 2014-28E only serves to further Russian purposes, whatever they may be.
Michael Listner is an attorney and the founder and principal of Space Law & Policy Solutions, a legal and policy think tank that identifies issues and offers practical solutions on matters related to outer space security, national security and outer space development.
Joan Johnson-Freese is a professor of national security affairs at the Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island. Her views do not represent those of the Naval War College, the Department of Defense or the U.S. government.