US assesses Russia likely launched a counter space weapon last week

The US has assessed that Russia likely launched a counter space weapon last week that is close to, and capable of attacking, a US government satellite orbiting nearby, US Ambassador Robert Wood said at the UN on Monday.

It is not the first time Russia has launched a counter space weapon, which is designed to incapacitate or destroy satellites. But the last time it did so was in 2022, said Wood, who serves as the US alternative representative for Special Political Affairs at the UN.

The launch comes at a time the US and its allies are increasingly concerned about Russia’s efforts to develop a nuclear space weapon capable of destroying commercial and government satellites.

“On May 16, Russia launched a satellite into low Earth orbit that the United States assesses is likely a counterspace weapon presumably capable of attacking other satellites in low Earth orbit,” Wood said in remarks before a vote on a UN Security Council resolution drafted by Russia on outer space security. “Russia deployed this new counterspace weapon into the same orbit as a US government satellite.”

Wood added that the May 16 launch “follows prior Russian satellite launches likely of counterspace systems to low Earth orbit in 2019 and 2022.”

Pentagon spokesperson Maj. Gen. Pat Ryder said on Tuesday that US assessments of the Russian satellite “further indicate characteristics resembling previously deployed counterspace payloads, from 2019 and 2022.”

The ambassador called the launch “troubling,” and said it undermines Russia’s claims that it is seeking outer space security. A US official separately told CNN that the US had been expecting the launch for at least several weeks, and North American Aerospace Defense Command and US Northern Command tracked it as it happened, according to a defense official.

Russia issued at least 2 NOTAMs — Notices to Airmen — that became active on May 16 indicating a possible space launch. One was for the launch itself and the other was for the re-entry of a Russian space launch booster off the coast of Baja California, Mexico.

“The good news is that the NOTAM is the responsible, normal way for nations to support safe air and maritime activities,” the defense official said.

The US and its allies have been working to deter Russia from developing a nuclear space weapon, CNN previously reported. If deployed, such a weapon could destroy satellites by creating a massive energy wave when detonated, potentially crippling a vast swath of the commercial and government satellites that the world below depends on to talk on cell phones, pay bills, and surf the internet.

In April, the US and Japan jointly introduced a UN Security Council resolution that called for UN member states not to develop space-based nuclear weapons, but Russia vetoed against it — something the US saw as a sign that it is indeed pursuing a nuclear space-based weapon.

“As we have noted previously, the United States assesses that Russia is developing a new satellite carrying a nuclear device,” National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan said in a statement on April 24. “We have heard President Putin say publicly that Russia has no intention of deploying nuclear weapons in space. If that were the case, Russia would not have vetoed this resolution.”

The Russian weapon is still under development and is not yet in orbit, Biden administration officials have emphasized publicly. But if used, officials say, it would cross a dangerous Rubicon in the history of nuclear weapons.

Russia introduced its own rival resolution earlier this month, calling for the prohibition “for all time” on the placement of weapons in our space. But the US vetoed it on Monday because it “does not achieve the simple task that we set out to achieve several months ago: reaffirm the basic obligations of the Outer Space Treaty and avoid a nuclear arms race in space,” Wood said.

The US ambassador took particular issue with the resolution’s call for a binding mechanism to ban any space-based weapons, saying such a ban “cannot be verified” and that the resolution was an attempt by Russia “to distract global attention from its development of a new satellite carrying a nuclear device.”

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