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U.S. Space Force Accuses Russia Of In-Orbit Testing Of Anti-Satellite Weapon

Gen. John "Jay" Raymond, with President Trump and Defense Secretary Mark Esper during a ceremony to establish the U.S. Space Command last summer.
Gen. John "Jay" Raymond, with President Trump and Defense Secretary Mark Esper during a ceremony to establish the U.S. Space Command last summer.

The recently created U.S. Space Force accused Russia on Thursday of testing an anti-satellite weapon from one of its satellites in orbit.

"On July 15, Russia injected a new object into orbit from Cosmos 2543," the eight-month-old agency says in a statement. "Russia released this object in proximity to another Russian satellite, which is similar to on-orbit activity conducted by Russia in 2017, and inconsistent with the system's stated mission as an inspector satellite."

In a sign outer space could be turning into a theater of war for terrestrial adversaries, it marked the first time the U.S. military has publicly charged Moscow with carrying out a space-based weapons test.

According to Gen. John "Jay" Raymond, who in addition to being the Space Force's chief of space operations also commands the U.S. Space Command, the Russian satellite system used in the test is the same one that prompted U.S. protests earlier this year after it allegedly sidled up close to a U.S. spy satellite.

"This is further evidence of Russia's continuing efforts to develop and test space-based systems," Raymond charges in the official statement, "and consistent with the Kremlin's published military doctrine to employ weapons that hold U.S. and allied space assets at risk."

According to Time magazine, the Russian satellite that fired the projectile had itself hatched from another satellite that was launched by Moscow in November. The newsweekly says both satellites in January moved into close range with a powerful U.S. spy satellite named KH-11, a move that was formally protested by the U.S. State Department.

Russia's alleged testing of a weapon that the U.S. says aims to destroy satellites drew additional condemnation.

"This event highlights Russia's hypocritical advocacy of outer space arms control, with which Moscow aims to restrict the capabilities of the United States," says Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Ford in the Space Command statement, "while clearly having no intention of halting its own counterspace program — both ground-based anti-satellite capabilities and what would appear to be actual in-orbit anti-satellite weaponry."

The space weaponry test allegedly carried out last week by Russia is cited by the Pentagon's newest service branch as underscoring the importance of its recent creation, as well as "another example that the threats to U.S. and Allied space systems are real, serious and increasing."

The head of the United Kingdom's Space Directorate also expressed concern over what he described as Russia testing one of its satellites "by launching a projectile with the characteristics of a weapon."

"Actions of this kind threaten the peaceful use of space and risk causing debris that could pose a threat to satellites and the space systems on which the world depends," saidAir Vice-Marshal Harvey Smyth. "We call on Russia to avoid any further such testing."

Moscow's Ministry of Defense, for its part, downplayed the significance of what took place on July 15. According to the Associated Press, the ministry said the event involved "a small space vehicle" that "inspected one of the national satellites from a close distance using special equipment."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

David Welna is NPR's national security correspondent.