Apr 6, 2021 - Science

Russia is dialing up its military space ambitions

Illustration of St. Basil's Cathedral with one of the dome's launching as if it were a rocket.

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Russia is staging shows of military might in orbit as its civil and commercial space sector loses its longstanding edge.

Why it matters: These demonstrations threaten to undermine responsible behavior in space, and could put U.S. military — and possibly commercial — assets in orbit at risk.

  • The U.S. in particular relies on space-based tools for situational awareness, communications, intelligence gathering and other key aspects of warfighting.

Driving the news: Russia has steadily been building its military capabilities in orbit, according to a pair of reports about space weapons released last week.

  • According to the reports — from the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) and the Secure World Foundation — Russia performed multiple tests of anti-satellite weapons in 2020.
  • One of the most notable was the nation's use of a satellite that appeared to fly close to a U.S. spy satellite before moving away and firing a projectile not far from another, unrelated Russian satellite.
  • Other nations, like China and India, have also tested their own military capabilities in orbit in past years, including developing jamming technologies and anti-satellite missiles.

The big picture: Russia's capabilities aren't necessarily new, but the nation's most recent testing of its space weapons has some experts concerned that these types of tests will just inflame tensions in orbit.

  • "If you look at what's actually happening, the Russians have been extremely active, and much more so than I think even the Chinese have been," Victoria Samson of the Secure World Foundation told Axios.
  • Russia also seemingly has less to lose in space if these types of tests become the norm by comparison to a nation like the U.S., which relies more than any other country on expensive assets in orbit for warfighting.

The intrigue: Russia's space industry and civil space program have faced headwinds in recent years, from budget shortfalls to launch failures to competition from SpaceX and others.

  • And with the International Space Station program coming to an end in the coming years, Russia's close ties in space with the U.S. are fraying.

Military space operations appear to be the area where Russia is hoping to maintain its prestige, Samson added.

  • The nation is focusing many of its military efforts — including inspecting that U.S. spy satellite — in low-Earth orbit (LEO), the part of space where many commercial satellite constellations function.
  • "This kind of unusual behavior is more concerning, especially as the United States commercial industry looks to really invest and grow its presence in LEO," Kaitlyn Johnson of CSIS told Axios.

Yes, but: No nation has used destructive capabilities against their enemies in orbit, instead opting to test kinetic weapons on their own defunct satellites or in empty parts of space.

  • Countries likely won't use those capabilities unless they're at war and conflicts have escalated, instead opting for electronic means of jamming satellites or intercepting signals from enemy spacecraft, according to experts in space security.
  • The concern isn't necessarily that Russia or other nations will use its military capabilities in orbit to start wars, but that these tools could be used once conflicts have already broken out on the ground.
  • "What happens in space reflects what's going on on the ground," Samson said. "So if there's increased potential for conflict in space, that wouldn't be happening independent of increased head-butting on the ground."
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