Russia has deployed a suspicious satellite the United States says is part of Moscow's plans to attack orbiting satellites in a future conflict, a State Department official revealed in Geneva on Tuesday.
Yleem Poblete, assistant secretary of state for arms control, verification, and compliance, made the accusation in a speech declaring Moscow is promoting a draft treaty aimed at banning arms in space while advancing an array of space weaponry.
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Russia in October conducted tests of a "space apparatus inspector" that was detected by U.S. intelligence maneuvering and taking other unusual actions in space.
"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," Poblete stated during a session of the U.N. Conference on Disarmament.
"We are concerned with what appears to be very abnormal behavior by a declared ‘space apparatus inspector.'" She did not elaborate on the suspect activities.
U.S. intelligence agencies are uncertain about Moscow's intentions regarding the use of the suspicious satellite. But Poblete said the satellite is "obviously a very troubling development."
Recent comments by the commander of Russian aerospace forces, Col. Gen. Sergei Surovikin also have raised alarms. Surovikin stated that "assimilate[ing] new prototypes of weapons [into] space forces’ military units" is a "main task facing the Aerospace Forces Space Troops."
Disclosure of Russia's attack satellite capabilities comes as the Pentagon announced plans last week to create a new space force as a separate branch of the U.S. military.
The plans call for creating a space command in the coming years and the new space force by 2020. Few details have been disclosed about plans for U.S. space weapons and the warfighting doctrine of the new forces.
China, in addition to Russia, also has a well-developed space warfare capability that includes three types of ground-launched anti-satellite missiles, anti-satellite lasers, and maneuvering satellites.
U.S. intelligence agencies have observed small Chinese maneuvering satellites with robotic arms capable of grabbing and crushing satellites.
The Pentagon also has been testing a maneuverable spacecraft called the X-37B that has been conducting orbiting experiments for the past several years. Most of its activities are secret.
Regarding the Russian satellite, Moscow's Defense Ministry announced in August 2017 that the maneuvering inspection satellite was launched from the Plesetsk launch facility on June 23, 2017.
Describing the system as a "small space apparatus," the ministry said it will be used for "examining the condition of a Russian satellite."
It was the first time the Russian government confirmed it has space inspection satellites and the statement emphasizing plans to inspect a Russian satellite appeared designed to dampen concerns about its military capabilities.
"In the longer term, a research experiment will be carried out to use the space apparatus for examining the outward appearance of that satellite," the statement said, noting that it will be "a space platform capable of carrying different payloads."
Then in October, details of the satellite testing were disclosed, including its ability to maneuver close to orbiting satellites.
"In trials involving controlling the maneuvering defense satellite, ground, and orbital communication systems were tested, and methods involving ballistic estimates and new software were employed," the state-run Izvestia newspaper stated, citing the Defense Ministry.
"The space forces proved their ability to ensure the satellite's automatic undocking from the platform, the remote control of its flight, and the activation of the satellite payload, including surveillance hardware, data transfer to Earth, and data processing," the newspaper said.
According to the report, the satellite was coupled to a larger satellite, Kosmos-2519, and then conducted autonomous flight, a change in orbit, and a satellite inspection before returning to the base station.
Former Pentagon policymaker Mark Schneider said Russian generals have been discussing ASAT weapons for about a decade.
"Supposed Russian opposition to weapons in space is hypocrisy," he said. "The Russian air force has become the Aerospace Force.
Schneider noted that senior U.S. generals have voiced concerns about Russian ASAT development and are correct.
"Russia currently has a substantial advantage in heavy lift space-launch boosters which facilitates placing weapons in space. This is a very serious threat," he said.
Russia space weaponry includes a new anti-satellite missile fired from aircraft and a mobile attack anti-satellite system.
Russia's development of a future MiG-41 also will be capable of destroying targets in space.
Additionally, Russia recently announced that the space troops have been equipped with a mobile laser system that was touted in a speech last month by Russian President Vladimir Putin.
In November, Russian official Oleg Achasov, deputy head of Federal State Budgetary Institution 46th Central Scientific Research Institute, announced that Moscow is developing a the mobile anti-satellite strike system called Rudolf, along with a mobile anti-communications satellite electronic warfare system known as Tirada-2S. The latter system will be used to conduct radio-electronic attacks on satellites, he said.
In July, Russia revealed plans for an advanced aircraft called Porubshik-2 that is capable of blinding orbiting satellites with electronic strikes.
The electronic warfare system will be deployed in a modified IL-76 transport.
Russia's anti-satellite missile is known as the Nudol or PL-19 that has been tested at least six times since 2015.
The Nudol will utilize a high-speed interceptor missile that destroys satellite targets using kinetic energy of impact.
Poblete stated that Russia will likely deny that the spacecraft is intended for hostile purposes and noted that the Russian Defense Ministry has published a statement that the satellite in question will be used only for inspecting orbiting satellites.
The Russia denial is suspect because activity of the supposed inspection satellite is "not acting in a manner consistent with a satellite designed to conduct safe and responsible inspection operations."
Poblete questioned Russia's motives behind a proposal for a treaty banning space weapons. She said under a draft treaty proposed jointly by Russia and China, the Treaty on the Prevention of the Placement of Weapons in Outer Space, the Threat or Use of Force against Outer Space Objects, known as PPWT, traditional inspection are unable to determine if a satellite is designed for space warfare.
"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," she stated.
Poblete said the proposed Russian-Chinese treaty will not reduce the possibility of conflict extending into space.
Michael J. Listner, a space expert, Poblete's blunt statement makes clear the United States understands the Russian and Chinese efforts at the Geneva disarmament forum "are nothing more than pretense for lawfare and soft power maneuvering while concurrently developing their own counterspace capabilities."
"The United States also understands that until a verifiable legal test for a space weapon can be adopted the idea of any space weapons ban will be impracticable," said Listner head of the consulting firm Space Law and Policy Solutions.