U.S. Expresses Concerns About Russian “Inspector” Satellite, Space Lasers & ASATs

Soyuz-2.1v on launch pad (Credit: Russian Ministry of Defence)

The United States said this week that a Russian satellite launched last year is exhibiting “very abnormal behavior” in orbit, suggesting that it is a weapons system rather than a “space apparatus inspector” as claimed by the Russian Ministry of Defense.

“In October of last year the Russian Ministry of Defense deployed a space object they claimed was a ‘space apparatus inspector,'” said Yleem D.S. Poblete, assistant secretary at the U.S. Bureau of Arms Control, Verification and Compliance. “But its behavior on-orbit was inconsistent with anything seen before from on-orbit inspection or space situational awareness capabilities, including other Russian inspection satellite activities.”

She added the activities of the satellite were “a very troubling development – particularly, when considered in concert with statements by Russia’s Space Force Commander who highlighted that ‘assimilate[ing] new prototypes of weapons [into] Space Forces’ military units’ is a ‘main task facing the Aerospace Forces Space Troops.’”

Poblete made the remarks on Tuesday at the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva, Switzerland. Her remarks came in the context of discussions over the Russia- and China-based draft Treaty on the Prevention of the Placement of Weapons in Outer Space, the Threat or Use of Force against Outer Space Objects.

Poblete said the satellite and other actions “appear contrary to the provisions of its own draft PPWT, and the Russian political commitment not to be the first to place weapons in outer space, or the ‘No First Placement’ initiative.

“These recent activities by the Russian satellites underscore critical fallacies in the logic and language of the proposed PPWT and raise questions about the transparency of Russian space operations and programs. For the United States, this information strengthens our belief that the proposed PPWT has major flaws that make it unviable and demonstrates that any space arms control agreement is unverifiable at this time,” she added.

On June 23, 2017, a Russian Soyuz-2.1v booster orbited the Kosmos 2519 military satellite from the Plesetsk Cosmodrome. According to Russian media reports, a small sub-satellite later separated from the main spacecraft, flew around the larger vehicle, and changed its orbit before docking back at its original position.

The Russian Defense Ministry denied the spacecraft is a weapon. Instead, it was designed to test the ability to inspect the condition of other satellites in orbit and to test automated docking procedures, the ministry said.

Problete stated Russia has been pursuing anti-satellite weapons development since at least 2009.

“And as recently as February 2017, a Russian Air Force Squadron Commander stated that Russia is developing new missiles with the express intent of destroying satellites. Furthermore, we have read statements from the Russian Ministry of Defense that it is working on creating ‘a mobile attack anti-satellite system,’” she said.

“The Russian Ministry of Defense recently announced that its Space Troops have received a mobile laser system, which Vladimir Putin announced to the world on March 1 of this year. Russia’s leader has himself alluded to space weapons being more ‘acceptable in the political and military respect,'” Problete added.

Problete’s full remarks follow.

Remarks on Recent Russian Space Activities of Concern

Yleem D.S. Poblete
Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Arms Control, Verification and Compliance
Conference on Disarmament
Geneva, Switzerland
August 14, 2018

Thank you, Mr. President. Thank you, all.

Mr. President, I would like to bring to the attention of this body a matter related to outer space that is of great concern to my government and that relates to space security.

Outer space is a frontier that inspires us and unites us more than anything else. Photographs of faraway galaxies inspire us to dream big. New discoveries about the planets in our solar system that help us unlock mysteries here on Earth stretch our minds beyond the limits of our Earth-bound existence. And every rocket that we launch proves that the sky is not the limit.

What we choose to do in space, like every frontier, plays a vital role in the lives of our people and the future of our nations here on Earth. It accelerates scientific discovery, spurs groundbreaking innovations, fuels our economies, and quite literally creates the jobs of the future.

In the United States, in the Mojave Desert, there is a company that will carry the first generation of space tourists to the edge of the Earth’s atmosphere to peer into the cosmic expanse. And as we continue to push further into our own solar system, new businesses and entire enterprises will be built to seize the infinite possibilities before us.

However, at the same time, Earth’s most valuable orbits are becoming increasingly congested. The sheer number of space objects in these orbits increases the possibility of unintentional accidents and magnifies the risks to all our nations’ capabilities. Add to these concerns the possibility of intentional acts of aggression in space and we are faced with a very serious situation indeed.

Like many here, the United States would prefer that the space domain remain free of conflict. We remain concerned about the challenges of irresponsible behavior – behavior that may result in dangerous misinterpretations and miscalculations and could be seen as destabilizing and escalatory in a crisis or conflict. The United States’ new National Strategy for Space calls for protecting our vital interests in space and strengthening the safety, the stability, and sustainability of our space activities. On June 18 of this year, President Donald Trump directed the U.S. Department of Defense “to immediately begin the process necessary to establish a Space Force as the sixth branch of the U.S. armed forces.”

Why? As Vice President Pence said last week, “Other nations increasingly possess the capability to operate in space, not all of them, however, share our commitment to freedom, to private property, and the rule of law. So as we continue to carry American leadership in space, so also will we carry America’s commitment to freedom in this new frontier.” As the Vice President also said, “Our adversaries have transformed space into a warfighting domain already. And the United States will not shrink from this challenge. Under President Trump’s leadership, we will meet it head on to defend our nation…. America will always seek peace in space as on Earth. But history has proven that peace only comes through strength. And in the realm of outer space, the United States Space Force will be that strength in the years ahead.”

Mr. President, as this body well knows, the United States has raised concerns over many years that the Russian Federation is actively pursuing the development and deployment of anti-satellite weapons. Since 2009, the Russian Ministry of Defense officials have repeatedly and publicly confirmed that anti-satellite weapons development is being conducted in Russia. And as recently as February 2017, a Russian Air Force Squadron Commander stated that Russia is developing new missiles with the express intent of destroying satellites. Furthermore, we have read statements from the Russian Ministry of Defense that it is working on creating “a mobile attack anti-satellite system.” The Russian Ministry of Defense recently announced that its Space Troops have received a mobile laser system, which Vladimir Putin announced to the world on March 1 of this year. Russia’s leader has himself alluded to space weapons being more “acceptable in the political and military respect.”

During Mr. Putin’s March 1, 2018 State of the Nation speech, he unveiled no less than six new major offensive weapon systems. And who can forget Russia’s months of denials about a nuclear-powered torpedo, only to have Mr. Putin then officially acknowledge the development of a nuclear-powered underwater vehicle, along with other weapons such as laser systems? The Russian pursuit of counterspace capabilities is consistent with these other activities and is disturbing given the recent pattern of Russian malign behavior.

This behavior continues despite the Russian Federation stating many times that it places a high priority on the promotion of the draft “Treaty on the Prevention of the Placement of Weapons in Outer Space, the Threat or Use of Force against Outer Space Objects,” or PPWT, and has, with its partner China, sought to start negotiations on the PPWT in this very body. As recently as this past February, Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergey Lavrov announced to this body that the “prevention of an arms race in outer space” remains a priority for Russia.

The United States has clearly articulated the many flaws of this draft treaty. We also note that, understanding unusual, even potentially threatening behavior, where a satellite is observed doing something that is contrary to what its owners claim it is intended to do, is of great concern to us. This is important because not only do these actions create uncertainty for other satellite operations, but they also create uncertainty concerning the intentions of the satellite’s owners or operators. What Russia tells us diplomatically and publicly may be the opposite of what it intends to do with that satellite. And this is why transparency and clarity of intentions are so important to fostering trust and confidence in situations in which the time to respond may be very short.

In this context, the U.S. delegation would like to bring to your attention recent outer space activities by the Russian Ministry of Defense that appear contrary to the provisions of its own draft PPWT, and the Russian political commitment not to be the first to place weapons in outer space, or the “No First Placement” initiative. These recent activities by the Russian satellites underscore critical fallacies in the logic and language of the proposed PPWT and raise questions about the transparency of Russian space operations and programs. For the United States, this information strengthens our belief that the proposed PPWT has major flaws that make it unviable and demonstrates that any space arms control agreement is unverifiable at this time.

Mr. President, in October of last year the Russian Ministry of Defense deployed a space object they claimed was a “space apparatus inspector.” But its behavior on-orbit was inconsistent with anything seen before from on-orbit inspection or space situational awareness capabilities, including other Russian inspection satellite activities. We are concerned with what appears to be very abnormal behavior by a declared “space apparatus inspector.” We don’t know for certain what it is and there is no way to verify it. But Russian intentions with respect to this satellite are unclear and are obviously a very troubling development – particularly, when considered in concert with statements by Russia’s Space Force Commander who highlighted that “assimilate[ing] new prototypes of weapons [into] Space Forces’ military units” is a “main task facing the Aerospace Forces Space Troops.”

Now I can tell you that our Russian colleagues will deny that its systems are meant to be hostile. The Russian Ministry of Defense has put out a press release stating these are simply inspector satellites.

So the question before this body is: how do we verify what countries say their spacecraft are doing? What would be enough information to prove what the purpose of an object is? We have pointed out Russian satellite behavior that is inconsistent with what Russia claims it is – a so-called inspector satellite not acting in a manner consistent with a satellite designed to conduct safe and responsible inspection operations.

But it is difficult to determine an object’s true purpose simply by observing it on orbit – unlike inspection for a traditional arms control agreement. Based on the drafting of the treaty language by Russia, there is nothing in the proposed PPWT that would prohibit this sort of activity or the developing, testing, or stockpiling of anti-satellite weapons capabilities, so long as it doesn’t damage another object in space.

The only certainty we have is that this system has been “placed in orbit.” The rest of its demonstrated behavior is unexpected and unclear to us.

So that leads to the question: is this, again, enough information to verify and assess whether a weapon has or has not been tested in orbit? The United States does not believe it is. Because we have no means of differentiating many objects’ behaviors from that of a weapon, outer space arms control is unverifiable.

Regardless of whether you share the concerns of the United States or believe Russia’s stated purpose for these satellites, this example raises fundamental, concrete questions concerning our ability to discern the intentions behind one country’s actions in space. To the United States this is yet further proof that the Russian actions do not match their words – that the PPWT’s proponents, through very careful parsing of treaty language, would allow the very activities they claim to seek to prohibit.

So, how does the proposed PPWT reduce the potential for conflict from extending into outer space or prevent destabilizing activities? The short answer: it does not. In view of Russian noncompliance with its arms control commitments, such as the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, the Chemical Weapons Convention, and the Conventional Forces in Europe Treaty, all of which are easier to verify than counterspace weapons development and/or deployment, is this inconsistent behavior I have noted what we might expect in the future if the draft PPWT were negotiated and entered into force?

This is why responsible nations should be considering the practical implementation of voluntary transparency and confidence building measures and developing norms of responsible behavior for outer space activities, rather than pursuing a protracted and contentious legally binding treaty.

Mr. President, the United States has serious concerns about the activities of the Russian government in developing anti-satellite weapons, which we have shared many times in this forum. Suffice it to say, my remarks today touched on just one of many similarly questionable actions we have seen over the years.

Dear colleagues, we must take concrete steps to strengthen the safety, stability, and sustainability of space. Hollow and hypocritical efforts are not the answer. The draft PPWT is not the right mechanism for accomplishing that. It is a flawed document, proposed by a country that has routinely violated its international commitments.

The United States looks forward to continuing to engage constructively and pragmatically with other UN Member States in order to strengthen the safety, the stability, and, again, the sustainability of outer space activities.

Thank you, all. Thank you, Mr. President.

  • Arthur Hamilton

    Of course they are testing anti-satellite weapons capability in space. This is the country that formed the USSR.