WASHINGTON — U.S. Space Force officials Nov. 17 condemned Russia’s missile strike that destroyed a defunct satellite in low Earth orbit. The anti-satellite missile test, these officials said, sends an ominous message that Russia is intent on advancing its arsenal of space weapons.
Lt. Gen. John Shaw, deputy commander of U.S. Space Command, said Russia conducted similar tests before the Nov. 15 event, including one in December that drew a statement of concern from Space Command. That test, however, didn’t intercept a satellite but this latest one did.
“So they’re continuing to develop counterspace capabilities, and continuing to show a disregard for the sustainability of space,” Shaw said at the ASCEND conference organized by the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics.
Lt. Gen. Nina Armagno, director of staff of the U.S. Space Force, said the Russians “are demonstrating that they can destroy a satellite in low Earth orbit. And if they can destroy a Russian satellite, you can bet that they can destroy an American satellite, a military or commercial satellite.”
Shaw said U.S. Space Command analysts are still “characterizing this event” and the current estimate that the broken satellite created 1,500 debris objects is still evolving. “We expect the debris will grow over time. The debris cloud will begin to disperse as the various pieces get subjected to their own atmospheric drag and other influences.”
This large cloud of debris “will become a threat that we will have to deal with,” said Shaw. “It’s going to cause a lot of problems for any spacefaring nation in low Earth orbit for years.”
Shaw noted that just a week ago the International Space Station had to maneuver to avoid a potential collision with a piece of debris from the Chinese 2007 ASAT test. That anti-satellite missile strike occurred at a much higher orbit than either this latest Russian intercept or where the ISS is today, which suggests the consequences of the Nov. 15 test could be felt even more dramatically.
“Here we go again,” said Shaw. “Now we’ve got an entire new event that we’re going to have to characterize … The same way many of us have been looking back at 2007 as sort of a an event that was of considerable concern to us in the space domain, now we have 2021 to look at in the same way. And we’ll be talking about it for years.”
Maj. Gen. Leah Lauderback, Space Force director of intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, agreed with Shaw that the recent ASAT test is “a continuation of a program of counterspace capabilities that both China and Russia are intending to put either on orbit or terrestrially to take out our capabilities.”
This test also is part of a deterrence strategy, she said. Russia is showing its intent to “degrade our capabilities at some point or to deter us from using our space capabilities.”