ISU - Summer 2024

#SpaceWatchGL Perspectives: Malcolm Davis On Russia’s Orbital Rendezvous With The United States

Digital representation of the rendezvous and proximity operations of Russia’s Cosmos 4542 with the U.S. reconnaissance satellite USA-245. Image courtesy of Michael Thompson.

One of the more notable space stories of the past few weeks is that of two Russian satellites allegedly ‘stalking’ a KH-11 reconnaissance satellite operated by the US National Reconnaissance Office (NRO). Given heightened geopolitical tensions between great powers and the increasing occurrence of Rendezvous and Proximity Operations (RPO) in Earth orbit, SpaceWatch.Global will publish expert perspectives on this unfolding story over the coming days and weeks.

Our second perspective comes from Dr. Malcolm Davis, one of Australia’s leading experts on national security space. 

1) How would you characterize the alleged maneuvers of the Russian satellites?

I’d say that the Russian satellites are certainly trailing the US satellite with the purpose of intelligence gathering. Based on the orbitology I nominate in that article, its hardly coincidental that the Russian satellites have ended up so close to the US satellite, and will approach again close to the satellite in coming days.

2) General John ‘Jay’ Raymond, Commander of the U.S. Space Force, has characterised the manuovers of the Russian satellites as “threatening” and “destabilizing.” Is this a fair characterization?

I think that terming such manoeuvres as ‘threatening’ and ‘destabilising’ on the one hand is appropriate because it highlights the same sorts of manoeuvres that a co-orbital ASAT would make prior to an attack, but on the other hand, the US and other countries have space-based space situational awareness (space domain awareness) capabilities. It comes down to whether ‘intelligence gathering’ is seen as threatening – and I guess that depends on how its carried out, and what the intelligence collection is collecting.

3) What can/should be done to mitigate/stop these kinds of incidences? How likely are we to see anything done at all?

In terms of how you respond, the US has moved USA-245 to prevent the immediate prospect of prolonged Russian intelligence gathering, and could move the satellite again, but really, in space, there is nothing that can be done to prevent the manoeuvre of an opponent’s satellites, short of evasive manoeuvres, or more active steps. Of course, in wartime, the latter might be a possibility, perhaps with soft-kill counterspace capabilities to disable an opponent’s satellite – but they can then do the same to us.

Dr. Malcolm Davis. Photograph courtesy of the author.

Dr. Malcolm Davis is a senior analyst at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) in Canberra, Australia.

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