In November 2019, Russia launched in space an inspector satellite Cosmos 2542. Initially the behavior of the satellite did not rise any concerns until it released one more object – an inspector satellite Cosmos 2543 which began to chase American USA 245 spy satellite, a property of the National Reconnaissance Office. Inspector satellites are small objects, originally used to repair bigger ones, but they may also be used for remote data interception, taking pictures of other satellites and, as a result, studying their vulnerabilities. Such satellites have cameras, optionally they may be equipped with manipulator arms to repair (or damage), and, the most important, inspectors may be mistaken for a space debris, which allows them to approach other objects freely. Russian Cosmos 2543 kept an eye on the USA 245 at a distance of 300 km or less, having an excellent opportunity to view its target at a close distance. Not surprisingly that the U.S. had a reason to worry about. The maneuvers of Russian inspectors were described as “unusual and disturbing.” Gen. John Raymond commented on the issue: “These satellites have been actively maneuvering near a US government satellite and behaving similar to another set of satellites that Russia deployed in 2017.”
On the 15 July, 2020, Russia conducted tests of the inspector satellite once again. This time, according to the statement of the U.S. Space Command, the behavior of Russian satellite did not correspond to the agenda and posed potential threat. Russia tested the same(!) Cosmos 2543. An another object detached from Cosmos 2543 and passed nearby Russian satellite at a speed of 250 kilometers; however, not damaging it. The Space Command cautiously mentioned it has an evidence that the inspector poses threat, though the Command has not given it yet. The Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs hedged by using general words: “The testing conducted by the Russian Defence Ministry on July 15 has not endangered any other space object and, most importantly, has not infringed on any norms and principles of international law.” And Russian officials furiously blamed the U.S. of providing disinformation aimed to discredit Russia and its “peace initiatives” for preventing an arms race in space.
The question rises, what does “preventing” in this context implies, and what kind of “peace initiatives” the Russian Ministry referred to? Russian space activities of the recent years confirm that this concern has a background. For instance, in November 2018, Russia reported on launching four objects from Plesetsk Cosmodrome: three satellites, Cosmos 2530, Cosmos 2531, and Cosmos 2532, and one upper stage of the rocket, that delivered the satellites on the orbit. However, according to the information provided by Space-Track.org, there was one another object that Russia failed to mention. The purpose of the fifth object remained unknown. A month earlier in 2018 Russia developed new air-launched anti-satellite interceptor and its modified carrier MiG-31 Foxhound. Such activity may add weight to the general assumption claiming that developed and technologically advanced countries is believed by Russia to be adversaries. The Defence Intelligence Agency confirms: “Russia continues to research and develop sophisticated on-orbit capabilities that could serve dual-use purposes. For example, inspection and servicing satellites can be capable of closely approaching satellites to inspect and potentially fix issues causing malfunctions; this same technology could also be used to approach another country’s satellite and conduct an attack that results in temporary or permanent damage.”
It would be imprudent to draw now any conclusions regarding the purpose of Cosmos-2543 and its projectile, which became objects of concern for the U.S. Space Force. But it should be taken into account that the “incident” occurred on the eve of the U.S.-Russian Space Security Exchange in Vienna (the first negotiations on the matter in the last seven years) and could serve as deliberate provocation. The question of what should be considered a space weapon remains open. Russia advocates for certain agreement which could ban countries from using weapon in outer space. The U.S., in turn, argues that actually there is no definition of space weapon – anything can be used to target a satellite. According to the announcement of U.S. official at Vienna meeting, “it only takes an impact — a fender bender in space.”