Russia Tests ‘Nesting Doll’ Anti-Satellite Weapon, Space Command Says

July 23, 2020 Updated: July 30, 2020

U.S. Space Command says Russia has carried out a test of a “nesting doll” anti-satellite weapon in space, using the same system that stalked a U.S. reconnaissance satellite earlier this year.

What Russia claims to be an inspector satellite injected another object into orbit alongside another Russian satellite on July 15, according to Space Command, which described the test as “non-destructive.”

“The Russian satellite system used to conduct this on-orbit weapons test is the same satellite system that we raised concerns about earlier this year, when Russia maneuvered near a U.S. government satellite,” Gen. John Raymond, Commander of U.S. Space Command and U.S. Space Force Chief of Space Operations, said in a statement.

“This is further evidence of Russia’s continuing efforts to develop and test space-based systems, and consistent with the Kremlin’s published military doctrine to employ weapons that hold U.S. and allied space assets at risk.”

The launch was similar to on-orbit activity conducted by Russia in 2017, Space Command said.

U.S. officials have previously stated that Russia in 2017 deployed a high-speed projectile from a satellite that itself was launched from inside another satellite —a trick dubbed as “Russian nesting doll satellites.”

“The U.S. State Department raised concerns in 2018, and again this year, that Russian satellite behaviors were inconsistent with their stated mission and that these satellites displayed characteristics of a space-based weapon,” Space Command said in the statement.

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Gen. John Raymond testifies before the Senate Armed Services Committee in Washington on June 4, 2019. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Tracking information on the incident can be found on Space-Track.org, according to Space Command.

“This event highlights Russia’s hypocritical advocacy of outer space arms control, with which Moscow aims to restrict the capabilities of the United States while clearly having no intention of halting its own counter-space program—both ground-based anti-satellite capabilities and what would appear to be actual in-orbit anti-satellite weaponry,” said Christopher Ford, the U.S. assistant secretary of state currently performing the duties of the under secretary for arms control and international security.

Ford in April picked out Russia’s nesting doll system as an example of space weapons, describing a space object identified as Kosmos 2519, which Russia said was a “space apparatus inspector.”

“The behavior of Kosmos 2519, however, was notably unusual, and inconsistent with anything seen before for on-orbit inspection or space situational awareness—and inconsistent, in fact, with any sort of device except an ASAT [anti-satellite] weapon,” Ford said.

“Once in orbit, Kosmos 2519 deployed a sub-satellite, Kosmos 2521, that displayed the ability to maneuver around another satellite in space,” he said. “But what happened next is the disturbing part: the sub-satellite Kosmos 2521 itself launched an additional object into space, Kosmos 2523—at the high relative speed of about 250 kilometers per hour, straight off into space. Not to put too fine a point on it, but Kosmos 2521 demonstrated the ability to position itself near another satellite and fire a projectile.”

Space Command said that the latest incident highlights the necessity of the newly created Space Force.

The Space Force was officially established last year,  joining the Army, Navy, Air Force, Coast Guard, and Marine Corps as a distinct fighting force—the first time a new military service has been created in more than 60 years.

The creation of the Space Force pulls space defense together under one organizational umbrella, as the United States picks up the pace in what is essentially a new space race with Russia and China.

For now, space warfare might be crudely understood as predominantly satellite warfare. That is, the protection, weaponization, and neutralization of the all-seeing, all-knowing information architecture that holds up the military and modern society.

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The Space Force logo (Space Force)

The Space Force laid out its goals in the Defense Space Strategy published in June.

“China and Russia each have weaponized space as a means to reduce U.S. and allied military effectiveness and challenge our freedom of operation in space,” according to the unclassified version of the Space Strategy document, published on June 17 (pdf).

The document lays out the structure that is needed to achieve a “comprehensive military advantage” in space within 10 years.

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