Russian Anti-Satellite Missile Test: How Much of a Threat?

November 17, 2021 Topic: Russia Region: Eurasia Blog Brand: The Buzz Tags: RussiaSatellitesNATODebrisTest

Russian Anti-Satellite Missile Test: How Much of a Threat?

The Biden administration has condemned the test.

Russia has tested an earth-based anti-satellite missile, prompting alarm from Washington. The test comes amid mounting military tensions between Russia and members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

“On November 15, the Defense Ministry of Russia successfully conducted a test, in which the Russian defunct Tselina-D satellite in orbit since 1982 was struck,” according to a statement issued by Russia’s Defense Ministry. “It is true that we have successfully tested a cutting-edge system of the future. It hit an old satellite with precision worthy of a goldsmith,” added Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu.

The launch marks the first time that Russia’s military demonstrated the ability to strike a space satellite with a ground-based missile. “Historically, Russia has been interested in developing anti-satellite weapons to be able to take out American space capabilities in the event of a conflict and also to be able to take out potential space-based missile defenses which could threaten the Russian nuclear deterrent,” Brian Weeden, the director of program planning at the Secure World Foundation, told The Washington Post. Weeden noted that Russia has conducted anti-satellite tests in recent years, but these instances involved satellites striking other satellites and did not produce a significant amount of debris.  

The test drew sharp condemnation from the Biden administration.

“Earlier today, the Russian Federation recklessly conducted a destructive . . . test of a direct ascent anti-satellite missile against one of its own satellites,” said State Department spokesman Ned Price. “The test has so far generated over 1,500 pieces of trackable orbital debris and hundreds of thousands of pieces of smaller orbital debris that now threaten the interests of all nations.”

The test “clearly demonstrates that Russia’s claims of opposing the weaponization of space are disingenuous,” Price added. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration said that the test endangered the International Space Station and will pose a hazard to space activities for years to come. Meanwhile, Moscow has dismissed U.S. concerns over the satellite strike. 

“The United States knows for certain that the emerging fragments at the time of the test and in terms of the orbit’s parameters did not and will not pose any threat to orbital stations, satellites and space activity,” Russia’s Defense Ministry said in a statement. Additionally, Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov rejected U.S. criticisms during a press conference on Tuesday. “We would prefer that the United States should sit down at the negotiating table at last, instead of making groundless accusations, and discuss its concerns with regard to the treaty, which Russia and China are proposing to prevent this arms race and which the U.S. cannot accept,” Lavrov said. 

Mark Episkopos is a national security reporter for the National Interest. 

Image: Reuters