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Illustration by Security Management

Russia Blows Up Satellite in Latest Escalation of Space Militarization

In a widely condemned action, Russia fired a ground-based missile into space, exploding an obsolete Soviet-era satellite in a test of its capabilities.

The blast created a cloud of space debris that remains in orbit, which critics say presents a potential hazard for other equipment and people in earth’s orbit. The debris posed a possible threat to the International Space Station, forcing the astronauts living inside to shelter in vehicles that could bring them back to earth if needed.

The U.S. Space Command issued a statement saying “The test so far has generated more than 1,500 pieces of trackable orbital debris and will likely generate hundreds of thousands of pieces of smaller orbital debris. … the debris will remain in orbit for years and potentially for decades, posing a significant risk to the crew on the International Space Station and other human spaceflight activities, as well as multiple countries' satellites.”

The United States is not alone in criticizing the Russian action. UK Defense Minister Ben Wallace said it showed “a complete disregard for the security, safety, and sustainability of space.”

Russia’s defense minister, Sergei Shoigu, said the reactions were overblown: “The U.S. knows for certain that the resulting fragments, in terms of test time and orbital parameters, did not and will not pose a threat to orbital stations, spacecraft, and space activities.”

A report in The New York Times said the debris created by the blast is the largest such cloud created by such a test. Russia, however, is certainly not the only country that has conducted a ground-to-satellite missile test. A Chinese missile destroyed an old weather satellite in 2007, and India did so in 2019. The United States also destroyed a satellite using a ground-based missile in 2008, though it said it did so because the satellite was leaking fuel.

Space has been escalating as a battleground for decades. An essay from 2018 on the Global Policy Journal blog, “Weaponization and Outer Space Security,” discussed the state of space weaponization at the time. It highlighted the Outer Space Treaty of 1967 as the predominant international agreement on space.

“Recognizing the common interest of all mankind in the progress of the exploration and use of outer space for peaceful purposes,” reads the second line of the treaty.

The essay noted that this clause has been disregarded for as long as humankind has been the space exploration business.

“The treaty does not prohibit the stationing of weapons in space or ASAT weapons. In fact, the development of space technologies has always been linked to military strength, especially at the time when the Outer Space Treaty was signed.”

The Washington Post foreign affairs columnist David Ignatius expressed alarm at the Wild West nature of nation state use of and approach to space.

“The Russian test this past weekend underlines the need for better consultation about space—the equivalent of the 'hotline' that Russia and the United States adopted after the near disaster of the 1962 Cuban missile crisis. The idea of space as a contested domain, without common rules or communication, is chilling.”

If the Russian test displays the Wild West, we’ll-do-whatever-we-want side of space exploitation, an October article in Breaking Defense described the cat-and-mouse approaches of other nations. The article described an incident where the U.S. military launched what is known as an inspector satellite into orbit for the purpose of staying physically close to, and monitoring, a Chinese military satellite. It also described other maneuvers the countries have undertaken with the intention of gaining an upper hand in using space for tactical advantage.

The U.S. military, in particular, appears vulnerable to space wars.

“The military’s space-based systems underpin everything: communications, surveillance, guided munitions, nuclear command and control, and more,” journalist Rachel Riederer wrote in the November cover story of Harper’s. “Among the spacefaring nations, the United States is by far the most exposed, operating more than half of all active satellites circling the globe. Laura Grego, an astrophysicist with the Union of Concerned Scientists, told me that the Pentagon has been nervous about this vulnerability for a long time.”

In the article she describes two primary satellite zones: the near-earth orbit zone, which is where Russia exploded its missile, and the geosynchronous orbit zone, which is much higher up. Both zones are vulnerable, Riederer said, and both are becoming increasingly crowded.

Of course, military technology is not the only vulnerability for space conflict. Conflict in space could cripple all industrialized societies, and it may not even be caused by a human conflict. Recent analysis found that natural phenomena like solar flares could be even more impactful.