US accuses Russia of testing new space-based weapon

US Space Command said Russia has recently tested a space-based anti-satellite weapon, stoking fears that the former cold war enemies were preparing to extend their rivalry to a new front.

A Russian satellite called Cosmos 2543, which was this year caught trailing a US spy satellite, released a projectile into orbit last Wednesday, according to America’s new space command chief. 

“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 US and allied space assets at risk,” General John W Raymond, head of US Space Command, said on Thursday.

The Kremlin did not immediately respond to a request for comment from the Financial Times. On Thursday, US President Donald Trump and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin discussed the urgent need to consult on “strategic stability and arms control”, according to a Russian readout of their call, which Moscow said was “constructive and informative”.

The US now treats space as another theatre of war, similar to land, sea or air and simulations of large-scale conflict show battles extending into space.

“Space is now a distinct war fighting domain,” according to the new US defence space strategy, released in summary last month, which said Beijing and Moscow presented the greatest strategic threat.

“China and Russia each have weaponised space as a means to reduce US and allied military effectiveness and challenge our freedom of operation in space,” the document said. 

In 2007, China shot a ballistic missile more than 500 miles into space to destroy one of its own ageing weather satellites, which the US took as a message from Beijing that it could shoot down American satellites too. The incident prompted the US to revise its own approach to space.

Russia created a defence command structure to oversee the earth’s atmosphere and beyond in 2015, and has long been accused by the US of seeking to deploy weapons in space.

Mr Putin said last year that the “preservation of strategic stability and military parity” depended on Russia’s “ability to effectively resolve security tasks in outer space” and develop military and dual-purpose spacecraft.

In April, the US accused Russia of conducting a test of a missile system designed to combat satellites in low earth orbit. Western defence agencies have also claimed that Russia’s ground-based Peresvet laser weapons system has the potential to destroy or damage satellites.

But Moscow has denied it is seeking to militarise space. Two days before the alleged Russian missile test, foreign minister Sergei Lavrov said: “We are ready to talk with US colleagues . . . to hash out co-operation for the peaceful use of outer space.”

US Space Command said the state department had raised concerns that Russian satellite behaviours were inconsistent with their stated mission and displayed characteristics of a space-based weapon.

“This event highlights Russia’s hypocritical advocacy of outer space arms control,” Christopher Ford, a state department official working on arms control, said of the alleged test of a space-based anti-satellite weapon.

Todd Harrison, director of the Aerospace Security Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said in a paper in May that there was little international consensus on what constituted a “space weapon” or the weaponisation of space.

“No international agreements exist today that completely limit space weapons,” he wrote, adding that by many definitions “space has already been weaponised”. 

Washington established US Space Force in December as a new branch of the armed forces at Mr Trump’s behest, despite disinclination from some in the Air Force, which previously oversaw the country’s space operations.

The US military relies on space for satellites communications and GPS location services among a host of other operations, but has warned against developing weapons in space, citing among other problems the risk of sending debris permanently into orbit, saying even small fragments can destroy other objects given speeds involved.

The US defence space strategy says the US wants to grow its “spacepower” over the next decade, defining the term as “the sum of a nation’s capabilities to leverage space for diplomatic, information, military, and economic activities in peace or war in order to attain national objectives”.