‘Very Abnormal’ Russian Satellite Escalates Fears of Orbital Arms Race

Russia and China have been ramping up their military presence in space in order to keep up with American capabilities.
August 16, 2018, 4:54pm
Image: NASA

Fears of space warfare have spiked in recent months, in the wake of the Trump administration’s insistence on establishing a Space Force as the sixth branch of the US military. Security concerns were further escalated this week following a speech by Yleem Poblete, US assistant secretary for arms control, verification, and compliance, who singled out a Russian satellite for its “very abnormal behavior.”


“We don’t know for certain what it is and there is no way to verify it,” Poblete said on Tuesday at a UN disarmament conference in Geneva. “But Russian intentions with respect to this satellite are unclear and are obviously a very troubling development.”

The Russian Ministry of Defense describes the satellite as a “space apparatus inspector,” but Poblete claimed that its behavior “was inconsistent with anything seen before from on-orbit inspection or space situational-awareness capabilities, including other Russian inspection-satellite activities.”

Alexander Deyneko, a senior Russian diplomat also at the Geneva conference, described Poblete’s speech as “unfounded, slanderous accusations based on suspicions.”

Poblete did not reveal any specifics about the satellite’s maneuvers, so more information will be required to judge if it is benign or dangerous. But her comments speak to the wider issue of space militarization—especially dual-use technology.

“Dual-use” is the term for objects that may be officially deployed for normal reasons, such as on-orbit satellite repair, but could covertly carry out military operations, like tampering with the satellites of rival nations. For this reason, dual-use spacecraft are among the top concerns for space security experts, and are also one of the trickiest domains to police.

“The problem is that other countries—including the US—are doing things in space that are ‘troubling’ to other countries, often due to the dual-use nature of most space technology,” Joan Johnson-Freese, professor of national security affairs at the US Naval War College, told me in an email.


Johnson-Freese used the example of the US Air Force’s top secret X37-B spaceplane, which is a miniature uncrewed shuttle program with an unknown objective. Just as the US State Department is side-eyeing Russian and Chinese dual-use spacecraft, these nations are also mistrustful of US space military endeavors.

Read More: Mike Pence Says America's Space Force Will Seek Peace Through Strength

“Russia and China are clearly accelerating their military space programs, toward narrowing the previously significant gap between US military space capabilities and the rest of the world,” Johnson-Freese said. “Unfortunately, however, the US is now in a position of having a policy of ‘do as we say and not as we do’ as nobody is doing or developing anything not already done by the US.”

This is a central reason why President Trump’s Space Force concept has been difficult for his administration to justify. Certainly, the US faces real and frightening space security threats, ranging from cyberattacks to kinetic kills. Potentially suspicious satellites, like the one spotlighted by Poblete this week, should be carefully monitored.

But ultimately, resolving these tensions will require spacefaring nations—especially Russia, China, and the US—to come up with comprehensive treaties about arms control in space. Otherwise, the space community can expect to see more of these shady spacecraft deployed in the future, from every corner of the globe that can afford them.

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