Vladimir Putin knows that the majority feeling in the society he leads is that Russia should be respected and revered in the geostrategic sphere as a great global power, which includes being recognised as such by the Biden Administration.
He is aware that neither the United States nor China will make it easy for him, and has therefore given instructions to recover the enormous international influence and presence that his predecessors failed to manage and that he inherited at a low level. But, above all, he has been instructed to redouble Moscow's presence in the military operational arenas, preferably in cybersecurity and outer space.
For the moment, the fight is in the verbal and economic sphere. But if the fight moves into space, Putin wants to let the United States, China, India and their allies know that he is a tough opponent. And an example that he is serious about this is his Strategic Missile Force, which has just demonstrated how? By destroying one of its numerous missiles orbiting our planet with its own missile, a mission of great complexity.
The shot that ended the vegetative life of an old orbiting platform was fired from Russia's main military complex dedicated to launching strategic delivery vehicles, the Plesetsk Cosmodrome, located some 800 kilometres north of Moscow. From there, a powerful missile ascended at sunset on 15 November, its warhead colliding at an altitude of 500 kilometres with the aging Russian encrypted spy satellite Kosmos-1408, which had been out of service for several decades.
Dedicated to signals intelligence and belonging to the defunct Tselina constellation, Kosmos-1408 had been put into orbit on 16 September 1982, a couple of months before the death of Soviet leader Leonidas Brezhnev and at the height of the Soviet Union's economic decline, which would lead to its disintegration a decade later.
The firing and consequent shooting down of the spacecraft was the final test Moscow needed to confirm to the world that it has completed the development of an anti-satellite weapon system (ASAT). In this case it is a so-called direct-ascent missile, which can be launched from the ground, a ship or an aircraft to immolate an orbiting infrastructure.
Which Russian missile is involved? Unless Moscow has misinformed or changed its name, it is the PL-19 Nudol. It is a vector mounted horizontally on a heavy 12-wheel drive vehicle, which also serves as a launch platform. It has been under continuous evaluation for the past eight years with at least a dozen actual tests, but with no intention of shattering any satellites.
The Russian defence ministry did not confirm the missile launch or the destruction of Kosmos-1408 until the day after the launch. It was the minister himself, General Sergei Shoigu, who reported the impact "with surgical precision against an old satellite", but that the resulting fragments "pose no threat to space activities". But that last statement is more than doubtful.
The fracture of Kosmos-1408 has produced "about 1,500 fragments larger than 10 centimetres" and "hundreds of thousands much smaller", according to General James Dickinson, head of the Pentagon's Space Command. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken has called the test "reckless and devastating", while NASA administrator Bill Nelson has called it "irresponsible and dangerous". Professor Hugh Lewis of Britain's Southampton University says that "half will burn up within a year during re-entry into the atmosphere". The rest will remain spinning for another 10 to 15 years.
Is this debris a danger? Yes, they are. They travel around the Earth at about 27,000 kilometres per hour and their impact on a space platform can be lethal. It could also endanger the survival of China's new orbital complex, inhabited by two astronauts. And the large International Space Station, which is 400 kilometres above the Earth's surface and is home to seven astronauts, two of them Russian. Fortunately, surveillance networks are in place to warn of the potential dangers ahead.
The missile launch and the explosion in orbit were immediately detected by the early warning and missile defence networks of the United States, China and India. Washington and the rest of the world knew in advance that something major was going to happen in the airspace around a large area of the Plesetsk Cosmodrome. The Pentagon did not know what it was, but that is where the electronic eyes and ears of its spy satellites were directed.
How did they know? Hours before the shot, the Moscow authorities had issued what is known as a Notice To Airmen (NOTAM). In essence, a NOTAM is an alert informing pilots on certain flight routes of temporary restrictions on the use of airspace, which may be due to air shows, parachute jumps, military exercises or any other incident that may affect flight safety.
Are the destruction and consequences caused by Moscow contrary to international law? No, they are not. No international treaty on the use of outer space prevents the removal of space infrastructure. However, it is ethically reprehensible and contrary to recommendations to avoid littering exoatmospheric space with debris. But the United States, China, India and Russia compete with each other for weapons capable of intercepting ballistic vectors in their ascent phase and shooting down satellites in low orbits around the Earth. And that causes a lot of space debris.
Fragmenting one's own satellite with one's own missile requires mastering advanced guidance and propulsion technology. Russia is not the first but only the fourth nation to successfully attack one of its own devices in space. The United States (twice), China (once) and India (once) have done so before. The first test was conducted by Washington on 13 September 1985 under Ronald Reagan. An ASM-135 missile fired from an F-15 fighter destroyed the failed P78-1 test satellite, which was flying at an altitude of 555 kilometres, according to the US Air Force.
In the 21st century, the first nation to achieve this was the China of President Hu Jintao, Xi Jinping's predecessor. On 11 January 2007, a DF-21 missile shot down the veteran 750-kilogram FY-1C weather satellite. It was at an altitude of 865 kilometres, according to official Chinese sources. George W. Bush was not to be outdone and on 20 February 2008, citing national security reasons, an upgraded RIM-161 SM-3 missile fired from the cruiser USS Lake Erie took out the 2.3-tonne USA-193 radar observation spy satellite.
And not to be outdone, India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi gave the go-ahead for the Shakti mission. A Prithvi Mark II missile departed from the ground on 27 March 2019 to end the life in orbit of the 740-kilogram Microsat-R experimental device, which was at an altitude of 300 kilometres. In short, the big four have added thousands of pieces of debris to the space debris that is freely circling the Earth and is already a very serious problem. But that is another story.