The latest test launch of the anti-satellite missile took place in central Russia on Dec. 16, according to The Washington Free Beacon. It was the third successful test out of five carried out so far, with other tests taking place in May and November of 2015.
Specifics on how successful the test was were not readily available, and we don’t even know if it managed to hit an orbital target, sub-orbital target, or anything at all. But the test does give us insight into Russia’s efforts to attack America’s military satellites. The U.S. military relies heavily on its space satellites to conduct its operations, so any attacks against them could cause devastating security risks. Space satellites are often used to gather intelligence, navigation and targeting, and even for small tasks you wouldn’t normally consider when you hear the word “military.”
The U.S. National Reconnaissance Office, for example, recently launched USA-264, which is reportedly part of the Naval Ocean Surveillance System, or NOSS. NOSS is said to be operated by the U.S. Navy, and is used to track global naval assets.
So, just imagine one these satellites being taken out by a Russian Nudol. In a potential future military conflict with Russia (which hopefully won’t happen), the Nudol could possibly destroy the NOSS or any of America’s other satellites, putting wartime targeting and navigation in disarray.
It’s also important to note that Russia has been testing ASATs and missile defense systems since the early 1960s and so has the United States. The United States and China, though, have had more success, historically, in its ASAT programs than Russia. Anti-satellite capability was technically available as early as the 1960s, when the United States and the Soviet Union started detonating nuclear weapons in outer space. But more direct methods didn’t exist until the mid-1970s, when the Soviet Union put a cannon (a cannon!) on an orbiting space station, though that never fired. A more realistic approach finally emerged in the 1980s, when the U.S. Air Force shot down a failing American satellite in low-Earth orbit with an ASM-135 anti-satellite missile mounted on an F-15 fighter jet, though the ASM-135 was never put into operational service.
After the initial ASM-135 tests, anti-satellite operations remained relatively fallow for a while. But in 2007, China used a mid-range ballistic missile to destroy one its weather satellites 535 miles above Earth. Shortly after that, the U.S. Navy followed up with a shootdown of another failing satellite, this time using a ship-mounted SM-3 Standard Missile. And even now, it’s thought that Russia may be developing anti-satellite, well, satellites.
All three nations have long invested heavily in low-orbit satellites that assist warships and ground installations in hitting enemy targets. U.S. agencies and companies have at least 500 satellites in space, more than the rest of the world combined, according to Reuters; 100 of them are used primarily for military purposes.
Without these satellites to assist in long-range warfare operations, the U.S. military’s ability to precisely target long-range ballistic missile strikes will be severely compromised. Russia and China are well-aware of this and are actively developing “directed energy” capabilities that can potentially blind the lens of U.S. satellites without destroying them via a missile strike. These satellites are, as Scientific American points out, “sitting ducks” because they sit in one location above earth.
Michael Krepon, an arms-control expert, told the magazine one reason why Russia and the U.S. haven’t gone after each other’s satellites is because it would set off a military conflict on Earth.
“Neither one of us signed a treaty about this,” Krepon said. “We just independently came to the conclusion that our security would be worse off if we went after those satellites, because if one of us did it, then the other guy would, too.”
That said, America still dominates the space war territory and is much further ahead in its ASAT program. Moreover, Russia doesn’t have the money to invest the necessary billions into developing the technology needed to go toe-to-toe in a space war against the United States. As Foxtrot Alpha previously reported, Russia has been forced to curb its defense spending in light of falling energy prices and U.S. sanctions over its invasion of Ukraine.
The Nudol is not officially in operation, yet. It’s still in testing mode.
However, the fact remains that U.S. officials are concerned about Moscow’s growing anti-satellite capabilities, and Putin’s persistence to undermine the U.S. military should never be underestimated.