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Pentagon scrambles to defend ‘juicy targets’ after rivals’ space tests

Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III during a virtual meeting with 26 different military and veteran service organizations the Pentagon, May 5, 2021 (DoD photo by Chad J. McNeeley)

Russia’s direct ascent anti-satellite launch Monday is adding urgency to the U.S. Space Force’s efforts to better defend U.S. space assets, and has left the Pentagon questioning the implications of Russia’s decision to launch, even when it put its own cosmonauts in danger.

“What we’re seeing Russia demonstrate is a weapon. If they can destroy a Russian satellite, they can destroy an American satellite,” U.S. Space Force Lt. Gen. Nina M. Armagno said Wednesday at the Ascend space conference in Las Vegas. “It’s not just Russia, it’s China as well.”

Monday’s ASAT test and China’s July test of a hypersonic missile that entered space and orbited the globe has the Pentagon working quickly to develop countermeasures, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin told reporters Wednesday.

“We are concerned about the weaponization of space,” Austin said. “We’re working as hard as we can to ensure that we can defend ourselves against a range of threats going forward.”

For the Space Force, that means finding ways to make space assets “more difficult to find or less juicy,” Armagno said.

“We’re doing this mission area by mission area. We need to take our missile-warning assets, we need to add layers of orbits, hybrid capabilities, smaller satellites, and commercially provided capabilities,” Armagno said. “That will all complicate Russia targeting our prime missile-warning capabilities.”

Austin questioned why Russia would put its own people aboard the ISS at risk; two Russian cosmonauts were among the seven International Space Station crew who had to seek emergency shelter in their spacecraft from the debris field Monday.

“They have the ability, they know exactly what kind of debris field they’re going to create,” Austin said. “So we wonder why they would move to do such a thing.”

It’s likely signalling to the United States, said Maj. Gen. Leah Lauderback, Space Force’s director of Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance.

“It’s probably from a deterrence perspective,” Lauderback said at the Ascend conference. “This is a continuation of their intent to degrade and deter us from using our space capabilities.”

Russia’s test Monday was the fourth direct ascent ASAT launch to destroy a satellite. According to U.S. Space Command:

  • In 2007, China hit its Fenyun 1C satellite. Some 3,013 of its 3,679 trackable pieces of debris are still in orbit.
  • In 2008, the U.S. conducted Operation Burnt Frost to destroy an NRO satellite that was failing. None of the 173 pieces of debris remain in orbit;
  • In 2018, an Indian direct ascent launch destroyed Microsat-R. One of its 168 trackable pieces of debris is left in orbit.
  • On Nov. 15, 2021, Russia destroyed its COSMOS 1408 in 2021, generating at least 1,500 pieces of debris that are trackable, meaning they measure 10 cm across or more.

Tens of thousands of smaller pieces of COSMOS 1408 are believed to remain in orbit, but it will take “weeks to months” before the 18th Space Command Squadron is able to fully track the whole debris field generated by the launch, U.S. Space Command said in a statement to Defense One.

Monday’s test is reminiscent of China’s 2007 launch, U.S. Space Command deputy commander Lt. Gen. John Shaw said at the space conference. Just days before Monday’s event, the International Space Station had to maneuver to avoid a collision with debris from Fenyun 1C.

The debris from Russia’s launch Monday “will be a threat for years to come,” Shaw said. ” We’ll be talking about this for years. It’s simply irresponsible and it will cause so many problems. This isn’t the beginning of activity by Russia. They continue to show disregard for the stability of space.”

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