USSR: No Satellite Smashing

Wade has a great “article”: in the new _ACT_ about the Chinese ASAT test. It comes complete with a box titled “The USSR’s Past Anti-Satellite Testing.”

Here’s the lead:

bq. The Soviet Union pursued anti-satellite (ASAT) programs for decades but apparently never smashed a satellite into bits as China did recently and the United States did in 1985.

Given what he told me, Wade should do a story just about the research he did for the piece.

Anyway, the rest is below:

Before instituting a moratorium on ASAT test launches in August 1983, the Kremlin conducted at least 20 ASAT tests beginning in 1968. The Soviet tests involved the use of interceptor vehicles with explosives designed to detonate near their intended target.

None of the Soviet tests resulted in a target’s complete destruction. Indeed, *Nicholas Johnson, NASA’s chief expert on orbital debris, told Arms Control Today Feb. 24 that “only one Soviet ASAT target ever released debris as a result of an ASAT engagement.” He reported that four pieces of debris were detected from a November 1968 test.*

Nevertheless, Johnson noted that even though targets were not obliterated, *the tests were not necessarily failures. “In [the November 1968 test] and other successful engagements, the target satellite might well have been ‘destroyed’ from an operational viewpoint,” he stated.*

The Pentagon assessed the Soviet Union as first attaining an operational ASAT capability in 1971. The now-disbanded congressional Office of Technology Assessment reported in an extensive September 1985 report on ASAT systems that “Soviet ASAT capabilities threaten U.S. military capabilities to some extent now and potentially to a much greater extent in the future.”
*Moscow continued to investigate ASAT systems, allegedly including lasers, after its 1983 test moratorium, but it is uncertain how extensive and productive those efforts were and what Russia’s exact ASAT capabilities are today.*

2 thoughts on “USSR: No Satellite Smashing

  1. Dwayne A. Day

    The Boese sidebar on the Soviet ASAT system was somewhat misleading and also apparently did not benefit from the latest research on this system.

    For starters, it is misleading to state that the “targets” did not release debris. It was the attacker that generated the debris in the form of a shotgun blast aimed at the target. Much of the debris produced from these tests was probably too small to track. A better question to ask would be how much total debris was produced from those tests? No definitive answer can be produced because most of the debris was too small to track from the ground, but it should be possible to generate estimates. Given that the Soviets tested this weapon multiple times over many years, it is safe to say that Soviet ASAT tests produced MUCH more space debris than the single US test which gets all the attention.

    Furthermore, rather than relying on a 1985 OTA report, the author might cite the work of Dr. Asif Siddiqi, who has written a history of the Soviet weapon based upon Russian sources.

  2. Paul

    Reply from Wade:

    The post by Mr. Day is missing the point of my original article. It would be a really safe bet that almost everybody reading about China’s January ASAT test outside of Arms Control Today: 1) was informed in a sentence or clause that the Soviet Union conducted ASAT tests, and 2)assumed that the Soviet Union must have destroyed a target satellite similar to the way China recently did. They would be wrong. To be sure, the Soviet interceptor system employed an explosive conventional device, but its target was never shattered into pieces.

    The article was not about assessing or comparing total debris creation. It also was not a comprehensive assessment of Soviet ASAT programs or current Russian ASAT capabilities. Inclusion of the 1985 OT&A finding was to simply point out that the U.S. government at that time assessed the Soviet program as a security threat.


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