Outcry grows over Russian missile test that hit satellite

Russia’s missile test that struck a defunct space satellite has U.S. officials and lawmakers rattled over fears Moscow seeks to further militarize space, with calls to hold the Kremlin accountable.

The satellite explosion created at least 1,500 pieces of trackable space debris and hundreds of thousands of smaller pieces, which officials say could threaten astronauts and other satellites. It also comes on the heels of an aggressive Russian military buildup near its border with Ukraine. 

Russia on Tuesday confirmed it was behind the test but dismissed U.S. concerns, spurring lawmakers to call on the Biden administration and allies for action.

“Yesterday’s anti-satellite test by the Russian military makes it clear that Moscow is willing to threaten the peaceful use of outer space, further militarize this domain, and disregard any consequences for all nations,” House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith (D-Wash.) said in a statement Tuesday.

“The American people deserve a responsible assessment and response to this event, and we must hold Russia accountable with the support of our allies and partners,” Smith added. 

U.S. officials and lawmakers worry that the ground-launched missile, which hit a Soviet satellite sent up in 1982, is indicative of ramped-up Russian efforts to develop and test space-based systems and weapons.

The Kremlin in recent years has sought to outpace the U.S. in the hotly contested space domain — often referred to as the new “Wild West” — testing several anti-satellite weapons, lasers and other armaments that could prevent the effective use of American and allied satellites. 

In a report released earlier this year, the nonprofit Secure World Foundation assessed that Russia is “highly motivated to continue development efforts” on its anti-satellite weapons program.

Those efforts were on full display in July 2020, when U.S. Space Command accused Russia of holding a “non-destructive test of a space-based anti-satellite weapon.”

Gen. John Raymond, the head of Space Command, said at the time that the test was “further evidence of Russia’s continuing efforts to develop and test space-based systems” and an “example that the threats to U.S. and Allied space systems are real, serious and increasing.”

Monday’s test furthered those fears, with State Department spokesman Ned Price telling reporters that Russia’s “dangerous and irresponsible behavior jeopardizes the long-term sustainability of our outer space.”

Pentagon spokesman John Kirby, meanwhile, said Monday the U.S. is closely watching Russia’s capabilities, as they could “pose a threat not just to our national security interests but the security interests of other space-faring nations.”

Criticism also came from across the Atlantic, with NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg calling the test a “reckless act” that could threaten the International Space Station, built primarily by NASA and Russian space agency Roscosmos.

While the United States and its allies have condemned the missile test, it is unclear what more they can do to respond to the move. There are no universal norms, rules or principles of responsible behaviors relating to threats by nation states to others’ space systems.

Russia earlier this month opposed a United Nations resolution that would move to set up such guidelines. The measure, which would establish a working group to make recommendations, was approved by the U.N.’s First Committee in a 163-8 vote but rejected by Russia, China, Cuba, Iran, Nicaragua, North Korea, Syria and Venezuela.

Russia’s defense ministry in a Tuesday statement defended its military moves, asserting that it was building its defense capabilities due to the establishment of the U.S. Space Force last year and Washington’s own weapons tests. The U.S. last carried out a major anti-satellite missile test in 2008, though at a much lower altitude than that of Moscow’s. 

Still, lawmakers want to see some action, and fast, with Senate Armed Services Committee ranking member Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) demanding that the Biden administration “make it clear to [Russian President Vladimir Putin], in no uncertain terms, that this is unacceptable.”

The State Department’s top spokesman said Washington will work with allies and partners to respond, but as of Tuesday it was widely unknown if the administration had yet reached out to other countries on the matter. 

Asked what options the U.S. has, Price said he didn’t want “to get ahead of where we are” and didn’t want to “telegraph specific measures.”

When asked if the agency had reached out to Russia or other countries, a State Department spokesperson told The Hill that as a general rule “we do not comment on private diplomatic conversations or correspondence.”

Kirby also said Tuesday he had “no communications to speak of and no additional context to offer” regarding the Russian test.

Tags Adam Smith Jim Inhofe John Kirby Russia Vladimir Putin

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