by Arne Sönnichsen, University of Duisburg-Essen and SichTRaum network
On 15 November 2021, a Russian ground-based DA-ASAT (direct ascent anti-satellite) interceptor, ‘Nudol’, hit defunct Russian spy satellite Cosmos 1408, built and launched in the 1980s, at an altitude of 480 km. The destruction caused a cloud of debris of about 1500 pieces and forced the crew of the ISS, four Americans, two Russians, and a German, to evacuate the station and seek shelter in their space craft for several hours. The stunt did not only receive a negative echo by experts and the international community but created a recurring issue for future space operations since the cloud of debris will continue to circle Earth for some time.
Why do states test DA-ASAT?
There are different explanations floating around what drove the Russian military – ostensibly without consulting with the Russian space agency Roscosmos, jeopardizing the ISS and the life of their cosmonauts – to test their ASAT. Before we dive into these, there are three social dynamics that might explain why states pursue space technology and which might explain the recent ASAT test.
The first one is ‘space superiority’, indicating that states pursue military space technology to counter and deny the use of space by other countries in an offensive way, often indicating their ambitions for geopolitical leadership.
The second one is a ‘security dilemma’, in which states perceive threats emanating from other countries which force the threatened state to ramp up their military capabilities in order to boost their defense and deter their rivals.
Third, states pursue space technology to show their capabilities and indicate that they belong to what Deganit Paikowsky calls the ‘space club’. In this logic, states would test their ASAT to show the world that they possess the technology. Thus, they need to be included in talks concerning said technology – for instance, regarding arms control – or, quite bizarrely, they could use the test as opportunity to declare themselves a responsible user of space.
These three dynamics are overlapping. For instance, one could argue that the Chinese ASAT test of 2007 follows a space superiority and a space club argument. The Indian ASAT test of 2019 could be understood as response to a security dilemma emerging in Asia and the wish to be recognized as a member of the space club.
Explaining the Russian ASAT
The Soviet Union was rumored to possess ASAT capabilities since the 1980s and being the first that test a co-orbital system (Cosmos 2543, seemingly tested in 2020). However, it was only the fourth that actually used a DA-ASAT to destroy a satellite in Earth orbit, the others were the USA (1982 and 2008), China (2007), and India (2019). While Russia plays its cards close to the vest, it can only be speculated what the purpose of the test was.
One possible argument is that Russia wants to secure a seat at the table of possible ASAT arms control discussions. But other than the case with India, whose ASAT test came as a surprise to experts and practitioners, Russia already had a history in ASAT technology and was widely suspected to develop an ASAT system. While India needed to signal to the world that it is a space great power, whose space program was not singularly devoted to socioeconomic benefits of the country and was equally fast to declare itself a responsible actor, this does not hold true for Russia. Russia has already shown both a civilian and a military use of space, participated in every major negotiation on space governance. Russia declared its intention to ramp up its space defenses and destroyed the satellite at an altitude of 480 km rather than in a lower orbit (India’s test was at 300 km). In this orbit, debris fragments will remain for years, or even decades. The explanation that Russia did the test because of a ‘space club’ dynamic thus seem unlikely.
Another argument is that Russia wanted to display its ASAT capability in response to geopolitical tensions with the West in the case of Ukraine. Earlier tests of co-orbital technologies, as in the case of Cosmos 2543, were widely known and even Russian DA-ASAT technologies were rumored to have been finalized in their development. A desire to display DA-ASAT capabilities on the part of Russia for reasons of deterrence do not seem to be a plausible explanation due to its lack of necessity – the tensions and perceived threat by Russia have existed and continue to persist independent of ASAT development. In short, a security dilemma explanation can also be discarded.
A final argument would be that Russia wants to hamper space commercialization – particularly by creating a ‘minefield’ of space debris between parking orbits and target orbits of, i.e., Starlink constellation satellites and torpedo serious efforts to create a norm-based space governance. The available facts do support the argument that Russia played the superiority card. Space commercialization has been an annoying experience for Russia, which for a long time had a major stake in space launch. The emergence of New Space actors, who might be heavily impeded by the recent ASAT test, have eroded that market. That Russia conducted the test at 480 km is equally interesting, as it can hardly claim that it did not know about the importance of debris avoidance and removal in outer space governance, much less debates about debris following the Chinese and the Indian ASAT tests. Much more, the test is a setback for resolutions linked to PAROS, adopted on November 1st in the UN General Assembly, indicating a shift from negotiating technological specifications to norms and behaviors of space actors – a process Russia and China fought against for a long time. With the test, Russia showed itself once more as an unpredictable international actor, its motives shrouded in secrecy, and it signaled the world that Russia is still a powerful military space actor which cannot be ignored.
A Way Forward
We cannot and might never discern what the real purpose of the test has been, whether it aimed at obstructing space commercialization, whether the test was a display of power, or whether there was a reason that has not been tackled in this comment – such as organizational quarrels between different agencies within the Russian state. However, the case carries the most profound support for a space-superiority dynamic, implying that Russia wants to be taken seriously as a military space actor. Strong reactions as seen in the aftermath of the test by countries’ officials are important, but equally important is to keep communication channels open, trying to create mechanisms such as trust and confidence building measures, and working toward rules for responsible use of space – including the responsible use of militarized space technology. Otherwise, not only the sustainable use of space but the general use of space is heavily jeopardized.
Arne Sönnichsen, M.A., is research assistant and PhD candidate at the Chair of International Relations and Development Policy at the University of Duisburg-Essen. In his research he traces the impact of technological innovations on ordering processes in outer space governance, including the emergence of private space launch capabilities, the impact of technologies utilized for military purposes and discussions surrounding a space traffic management. Other interests of his are popular culture and politics, particular the depiction of International Politics in the TV franchise Star Trek. Together with Daniel Lambach he is coordinator of the DSF funded SichTRaum network dealing with issues of security and technology in outer space.