2nd Dec 2023


Kosmos-2558: Russia's killer satellite that could trigger Article 5

  • Low-orbit satellites, such as USA-326, are used for surveillance because cameras need to be as close to the ground as possible (Photo: European Space Agency)
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Two blips of light in the night sky, whizzing around the globe every 90 minutes, could be where Russia opts to clash with Nato over the Ukraine war.

The first blip you see, if you look up at the right place and time even with a naked eye, is an American spy satellite called USA-326, launched on 2 February into an orbit some 500km above the earth and likely capable of taking images as detailed as legible car number plates.

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  • Debris following an exchange of fire could make space too dangerous for normal satellites (Photo: European Space Agency/Pierre Carril)

The second blip, which follows anything from a few seconds to 30 minutes later in a nearly identical orbit 50km lower, is a Russian military satellite called Kosmos-2558.

It was launched on 1 August from the Plesetsk cosmodrome in north-west Russia the moment USA-326 passed overhead, in what looked like an effort to gather information on the US surveillance probe.

The two satellites can be watched on a video posted by Marco Langbroek, a Dutch scientist, in what he called a "Cold War cat-and-mouse game" in his blog.

Russia's tailgating was "really irresponsible", American general James H. Dickinson, in charge of US Space Command, also told the NBC broadcaster on 10 August, in the only high-level comment so far on the satellite duel.

But Kosmos-2558's real mission might be more sinister than mere counter-surveillance, given its capabilities.

It can deploy a small, manoeuvrable subsatellite, armed with a projectile, that could catch USA-326 and shoot it down, two Russian dummy-runs of the same anti-satellite system showed in 2019 and 2017.

Russia also blew up one of its own satellites with a ground-launched missile called Nudol in a test in November 2021 — a display of space aggression just three months before invading Ukraine.

And a Russian official, Konstantin Vorontsov, turned up the heat last week by telling the UN that Western satellites seen as helping Ukraine, for instance by gathering intelligence or providing communication links, "may be a legitimate target for a retaliatory strike".

Vorontsov was referring to dual-use civilian satellites, such as Space-X's Starlink, rather than military ones, such as USA-326, but his warning echoed widely.

"It's very worrying and you can be sure the Pentagon is tracking it [Kosmos-2558] closely," Bart Hendrickx, a Belgian writer on satellite security, told EUobserver on Tuesday (1 November).

"They [the Russians] seem to be waiting for the right moment to deploy that subsatellite. It hasn't separated yet, but once it does, it could move next to the US satellite and do the unthinkable," he said.

For its part, Nato is thinking what to do if Russia attacks its infrastructure, up above or down below.

Defence ministers, meeting in Brussels last month, agreed to step up intelligence-sharing on space and undersea structures, Nato secretary general Jens Stoltenberg said, amid suspicion that Russia sabotaged a Baltic Sea gas pipeline in September to spook the West.

When asked by EUobserver this week if a satellite strike would prompt Nato retaliation, a Nato official declined to answer.

He instead quoted Stoltenberg from the Brussels meeting, who said: "Exactly what kind of measure [Nato retaliation], depends on the nature of the attack. And we will never give our potential adversaries the privilege of defining exactly where the threshold for Article 5 [the Nato treaty's mutual defence clause] goes".

Jamie Shea, a former senior Nato official now teaching war studies in Exeter University in the UK, was more outspoken.

"Any attack by Russia against satellites used by Nato [member states] in space would be seen as an act of aggression that could trigger Article 5," he said.

"Other allies whose satellites are damaged by the space debris engendered by a Russian attack could also request the activation of Article 5," he added.

Nato doctrine says its retaliation, in any event, would be "proportionate" to the act of aggression.

Russian supremacy

But Nato's limited capabilities, as well as the catastrophic collateral damage involved in space warfare, would complicate its response.

The US is the only Nato ally with anti-satellite systems, first developed in the Cold War. It also has the most advanced signals-interception spy satellites, in a high orbit 36,000km above the earth.

But Russia is miles ahead in terms of modern, operational counter-satellite capabilities, according to open source information analysed by the Secure World Foundation, a Washington-based think-tank.

The last time the US tested its abilities was when it shot down one of its old, low-orbit satellites in 2008.

It did so using a modified surface-to-air missile rather than a specialised space weapon and there is no sign its arsenal has moved on in recent years.

But Kosmos-2558s and Nudols aside, Russia is rolling out the 'Burevestnik' programme of killer satellites launched into orbit from the bellies of fighter jets.

It has developed laser cannons mounted on trucks or fixed at a base in the North Caucasus, which can destroy satellites' optical sensors, rendering them useless, though it is not known if the laser systems are up-and-running yet, Hendrickx, the Belgian expert, said.

It also has ground-based electronic warfare systems that can jam communications and radar-imaging satellites.

Russian president Vladimir Putin's anti-satellite supremacy might be one reason why he would pick space as a theatre of conflict in which to give Nato a bloody nose.

The fact the West would be reluctant to shoot down Russian satellites in retaliation even if it could do so might also be a factor in his calculations.

Russia's Nudol test in 2021 created "more than 1,500 pieces of trackable orbital debris" and "hundreds of thousands of smaller [fragments]," US Space Command said at the time.

A cloud of the shrapnel prompted astronauts in the International Space Station, including Russian ones, to make evasive manoeuvres on 25 October when it passed by, Hendrickx noted, in a show of the enduring danger.

End of space age?

"If there was ever a war in space using kinetic weapons on a large scale, it would make space so full of debris that it would be impossible to use for any satellites at all," Hendrickx said.

And while Western allies would be wary of collateral damage to their own satellites, or to Chinese and Indian ones, Russia has a track record of irresponsible behaviour in the sky.

"Russian space debris is also a threat as Russia thus far has not removed from orbit its dozens of defunct satellites that now constitute space junk. This requires Nato countries to pay increasing attention to repositioning their own satellites periodically to avoid collisions," Shea, the former Nato official, said, even though some other space powers are guilty of similar neglect.

Nato's defensive options included "hardening satellites against debris and lasers (with shields) and making satellites more manoeuvrable," he said.

And in any case, no single Russian attack could shut down Western surveillance, GPS, or telecommunications networks, he noted.

"Allies and the EU are also deploying their satellites in constellations so that if one is taken out the system can quickly be reconfigured to maintain connectivity," Shea said.

"Conflict in space is not inevitable," Nivedita Raju, an expert at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, a think-tank, said.

But "trends in space security point to growing potential for escalation", she said.

"It's in every state's interest to prevent conflict, as it would have devastating effects for all stakeholders," she added, recalling Hendrickx on the threat of space debris.

"It is imperative to adopt urgent measures to address potential escalation, including correcting rhetoric and clarifying applicable laws," Raju said.


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