Why Russia Tested Its Anti-Satellite Weapon




On Nov. 15, Russia tested and demonstrated an anti-satellite weapon (ASAT) system by destroying one of its inactive satellites at an altitude of about 300 miles above the earth’s surface. At this altitude, the satellite’s debris will orbit the Earth for a long time. The United States has identified more than 1,500 pieces.

The United States, United Kingdom, France, Germany, Japan, and South Korea have made harsh allegations against Russia, accusing Moscow of being irresponsible and endangering active satellites, including the International Space Station (and its astronauts) and the Chinese space station, which is under construction. Additionally, they criticized Russia for destabilizing the world order. This raises the question of why Russia chose to test and demonstrate an ASAT capability now.

Russia may have calculated that in the context of rising great-power rivalry, especially between the United States and China, the growing trend of space weaponization is the future of warfare. At the same time, this trend of weaponization opens the door to stringent space regulations that will limit the development and use of these capabilities. Displaying technological capability before new international regulations are created can be valuable for both national security and political reasons.

On Nov. 15, Russia tested and demonstrated an anti-satellite weapon (ASAT) system by destroying one of its inactive satellites at an altitude of about 300 miles above the earth’s surface. At this altitude, the satellite’s debris will orbit the Earth for a long time. The United States has identified more than 1,500 pieces.

The United States, United Kingdom, France, Germany, Japan, and South Korea have made harsh allegations against Russia, accusing Moscow of being irresponsible and endangering active satellites, including the International Space Station (and its astronauts) and the Chinese space station, which is under construction. Additionally, they criticized Russia for destabilizing the world order. This raises the question of why Russia chose to test and demonstrate an ASAT capability now.

Russia may have calculated that in the context of rising great-power rivalry, especially between the United States and China, the growing trend of space weaponization is the future of warfare. At the same time, this trend of weaponization opens the door to stringent space regulations that will limit the development and use of these capabilities. Displaying technological capability before new international regulations are created can be valuable for both national security and political reasons.

By destroying its satellite in space, Russia achieved two objectives. It enhanced its defense and deterrence capabilities, and also projected its power before testing, demonstrating, and using ASAT capabilities could be prohibited or significantly restricted by international mechanisms. Additionally, Russia has ensured that it will be a significant party in any major international regulatory process by publicly possessing such a capability.

Since the Cold War, expertise in space has been a significant indicator of being a great power. In earlier years, the superpowers promoted technological achievements in space for peaceful uses as a means of power and competence. In recent years, mastering military space technology has also become a key interest for emerging powers and medium-sized powers.

Many of them have taken steps toward the weaponization of space. In 2007, China conducted an ASAT test, destroying an inactive Chinese satellite. China became third in the world to demonstrate ASAT capability after superpowers like the United States and the Soviet Union developed such capabilities in the Cold War.

In March 2019, India conducted an ASAT test by destroying one of its satellites at an altitude of approximately 180 miles above the earth’s surface. International reactions to India’s test were moderate and focused on the need to enhance space security and especially monitor the issue of debris.

Medium-sized powers have also adopted active defense policies to develop indigenous counter-space capabilities—technologies intended to create permanent or temporary, reversible damage to space objects and their ground support systems. For example, France issued a Space Defense Strategy to focus more clearly on military space activity that affects French commercial, industrial, and geostrategic interests.

Among the proposed policies was the development of active and passive measures to protect satellites, including a genuine capability for action in space. The U.K. has also begun to restructure its space organization and capabilities. Although the British government did not explicitly endorse the development of counter-space capability, it acknowledged space as an important domain with the July establishment of the Space Command. Japan’s government passed a bill to establish a new military organization to protect Japan’s satellites, called the Space Domain Mission Unit within the Air Self-Defense Force.


The growing trend toward space weaponization raises serious concerns about the sustainability and safety of space. The extensive commercialization of the space market, especially the increasing tendency to launch commercial multi-satellite constellations, adds to the fear of the implications of the large quantity of space debris on orbits crowded with satellites. Therefore, the space environment’s sustainability, safety, and security are essential to governments and corporations alike.

The 2007 Chinese ASAT test and demonstration at an altitude of about 500 miles raised global awareness of the debris problem. In December 2007, the United Nations General Assembly, in its Resolution 62/217, approved the Space Debris Mitigation Guidelines of the Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space. In December 2008, a few months after the United States destroyed a malfunctioning U.S. satellite at a much lower altitude, the EU suggested an international space code of conduct. The code was discussed for several years, but the process was not completed.

Nevertheless, a notable outcome of this international process was a norm to refrain from leaving unnecessary debris in space. Other international initiatives to manage global space activities followed, resulting in the U.N. Guidelines for the Long-term Sustainability of Space Activities. The guidelines were adopted in 2019.

But the legal status of ASATs remains undefined. The legal discussion regarding the weaponization of space dates to the Cold War. According to the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, the activity and use of space are for peaceful purposes—but the treaty does not define peaceful purposes.

While the treaty explicitly prohibits the use of weapons of mass destruction, such as nuclear weapons, in space and prohibits the placement of weapons on celestial bodies, it does not prohibit the militarization of space. The use of satellites for military activities, such as intelligence, is perceived by many countries as a stabilizing and non-threatening activity because it provides essential information for monitoring and controlling what is happening on Earth. The treaty does not prohibit experiments and demonstrations like the one carried out by Russia last month.

For years, Russia and China opposed the possible deployment of space-based weapons, including ballistic-missile interceptors by the United States—especially after the latter’s withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty in 2002. In this context, Russia and China have tried to advance different initiatives under the U.N. Committee on Disarmament in Geneva to reach an arms control treaty to supplement the Outer Space Treaty and prevent the weaponization of outer space.

For example, in 2008, they presented a draft of a treaty on the Prevention of the Placement of Weapons in Outer Space, which was ambiguous when it came to ASATs. Later, it was made clear that the suggested treaty focused only on space-based weapons; ASATs and other earth-based systems were not included.

These initiatives did not materialize for several reasons. First, many countries perceived them as attempts to continue the development and use of ASATs and earth-based weapons. Second, the strategic tensions between the United States, China, Russia, and other less powerful countries made an international agreement on this issue only a distant possibility.

In official announcements, which came out after Russia’s ASAT demonstration this year, Moscow emphasized that its move was designed to strengthen its defense capabilities. Moreover, Russian officials stated that the United States, China, and India have also demonstrated similar capabilities in the past. Russia also argued that the U.S. government refuses to cooperate and advance Russia’s and China’s proposals for arms control agreements in space.

In 2017, the U.N. General Assembly established a Group of Governmental Experts, with representatives from 25 countries, that was tasked to prevent an arms race in outer space, including by avoiding the placement of weapons in space. In March 2019, India conducted its ASAT test during the second round of the group’s talks. The talks ended without consensus. The United States and Russia expressed concern over India’s test, but each continued and even strengthened cooperation with India.


The recent Russian ASAT test and the extensive negative response it has received from Washington and its allies reinforce the importance that the great powers attach to space activity in the context of their intensifying rivalry over world leadership and technological superiority.

Historically, times of intense great-power rivalry have provided fertile soil for advancing international regulation. On Nov. 1, the U.N. adopted a British initiative, backed by the United States, to set up an Open-Ended Working Group to discuss these issues and perhaps even formulate a binding legal agreement. The initiative passed the U.N. General Assembly First Committee, which deals with disarmament and international security threats, with 163 yes votes.

China and Russia voted against the initiative but did not rule out their possible participation in the working group. The General Assembly needs to approve the working group in its December session. If approved, the group will meet for the first time in 2022 and again in 2023.

This time, it is more likely that the international community will develop and approve more stringent regulations of space weapons. The genuine concern about a worsening space debris problem due to similar actions by other countries—in addition to an increase in the use of space for defense, civil, and commercial activities—is likely to push the great powers to ban actions and experiments of the type carried out by Russia last month.

As a leading spacefaring nation and an active player in the international discussion over arms control in space, Russia was clearly aware of the environmental damage that an ASAT test at high altitude would cause by producing significant debris. Russia probably took this into consideration and expected international condemnation.

Indeed, it had an interest in international attention. One outcome of binding regulations banning the testing and use of ASATs is that such rules may prevent others from catching up to the Kremlin—while sustaining the leading role of current space powers, including Russia.



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