Russian testing of an anti-satellite weapon in space – an allegation denied by Moscow – has been branded “very dangerous” by a former deputy chief of defence staff.
Moscow has dismissed US and British claims that it threatened the “peaceful use of space” after the UK accused Russia of launching a projectile “with the characteristics of a weapon” during a satellite test.
The decision by the head of the UK’s space directorate, Air Vice-Marshal Harvey Smyth, to speak out this week marked the first time the Ministry of Defence (MoD) had called out Russian activity of that sort.
It came in the same week that a long-awaited report by Parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee was published, accusing the Government of badly underestimating the scale and nature of Moscow’s activities in seeking to interfere in British democracy.
Lieutenant General Sir Simon Mayall, ex-deputy defence staff chief, said he thought the alleged anti-satellite activity was a further example of President Vladimir Putin aiming to “up the ante” against the West.
Sir Simon, speaking to BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, said: “Putin again, having largely been challenging the West in all sorts of domains since way back in 2006 – Georgia, Ukraine, Libya, you name it – is now trying, some of it I suspect for domestic consumption but also again to up the ante, to create another confrontation area with the West.
“So it is very dangerous because there is always the chance of miscalculation on both sides’ part.”
He urged the UK to lobby against the development of anti-satellite weapons, adding: “The consequences (are there) for every nation on Earth of some kind of catastrophic confrontation in space because we are so reliant on satellites, and will continue to be.”
The Russian Foreign Ministry has rejected the allegations, however, saying in a statement that the July 15 experiment did not threaten any other space objects and complied with international law.
It described the claims as part of an “information campaign to discredit Russia’s space activities and its peaceful initiatives aimed at preventing an arms race in space”.
But Will Whitehorn, president of UK Space, the body representing the British space industry, said he was confident in the MoD’s assessment.
Asked on the Today programme about whether he thought Russia had carried out a weapons test, he said: “Yes, I’m pretty sure from everything I’ve read in the public media about it that it was a kinetic weapon… because of the speed it was travelling at, the way it was launched, the way it went into an orbital path.
“It didn’t actually hit anything – it is quite possible it was a test that went wrong or they decided they didn’t want to hit anything with it.
“The fact is, it was definitely not a satellite itself – it looked to me what the public would call a bullet of some sort.”
The former president of Virgin Galactic confirmed the so-called “bullet” looked to have come from a Russian satellite.