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US Cries Wolf Again over Russian Satellite Launch

© Photo : Russian Space SystemsMeteor-M satellite. Rendering provided by Russian Space Systems JSC.
Meteor-M satellite. Rendering provided by Russian Space Systems JSC. - Sputnik India, 1920, 23.05.2024
On May 16, 2024, Russia launched Kosmos 2576 into a Sun-Synchronous Orbit (SSO) along with four other satellites, using a Soyuz 2.1b/Fregat launcher combine.


Reacting to the launch, Pentagon spokesman Brigadier General Pat Ryder said on May 21 that "Russia launched a satellite into low Earth orbit that we assess is likely a counter space weapon."
He said that the satellite allegedly was launched into the "same orbit" as a US government satellite, adding that Washington would continue to monitor the situation in order to protect its interests. Ryder claimed that Russia deployed the satellite without communicating the fact to the United States.
Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov responded on May 22, calling the Pentagon statement misinformation.

"I do not think we should respond to any misinformation from Washington. The Russian space program is developing as planned, launches of spacecraft for various purposes, including devices that solve the problem of strengthening our defence capability, are also not news. Another thing is that we always consistently oppose the deployment of strike weapons in low-Earth orbit," Ryabkov told reporters.

Was the Pentagon statement based on an objective threat perception, or is the US trying to stoke Russophobia by grossly overstating the facts in order to alarm its allies and vassal states?
Let's first understand the nature of the Kosmos 2576 satellite and assess for ourselves whether its successful launch poses a threat to anyone.

Rendezvous and Proximity Operation (RPO) Inspector Satellites

Going by the text of the Pentagon's statement, it's likely that Kosmos 2576 is a Rendezvous and Proximity Operation (RPO) Inspector satellite. If so, Kosmos 2576 does not represent an escalatory deployment of a Russian counter-space capability as the Pentagon claims.
RPO Inspector Satellites are capable of periodically manoeuvring in orbit and parking themselves in proximity to satellites of interest. These satellites are designed and equipped to physically inspect other satellites in SSO, to assess their purpose based on their size and physical architecture. The inspector satellite can also electronically eavesdrop on the signals received and transmitted by the satellite under inspection.

In the past, Russia has deployed RPO satellites both in High Earth Orbit (HEO) and Low Earth Orbit (LEO). Kosmos 2576 was deployed in an SSO, a form of LEO. Most optical and radar ELINT and reconnaissance satellites orbit in SSO.

Kosmos 2576 is the fourth RPO satellite launched by Russia since the start of its Special Military Operation in February 2022.
On October 21, 2022, the RuAF is believed to have launched the inspector satellites MKA No 1 (Kosmos 2561) and MKA No 2 (Kosmos 2562) into SSO using a Soyuz-2.1v/Volga combine from Plesetsk Site 43/4.
Earlier, on August 1, 2022, RuMoD launched Kosmos 2558 into SSO close to USA-326 (NROL-87).
The recently-launched Kosmos 2576 is trailing USA 314, a bus-sized NRO spy satellite launched in April 2021.
According to Reuters’ review of orbital data, Cosmos 2576 has been placed at an orbital inclination and height identical to USA 314. The Russian satellite, which is travelling slightly faster, will eventually come in close proximity to the US spy satellite.

RPO Inspector Satellites in High Earth Orbit

Besides its RPO satellites in LEO, Russia has also launched RPO satellites into HEO.
On March 12, 2023, the RuMoD placed Olimp-K No. 2 (Luch-5X No. 2) into Geosynchronous orbit (GSO) using Proton-M/Briz-M combine.
According to Roscosmos, Luch-5X has been placed into orbit to test “advanced relay and communication technology.”
In the past, Russia has used satellites with the Luch (Beam) designation, placed in geostationary orbit, for data relay between satellites.
However, in September 2014, Russia launched a satellite with the Luch designation (Luch No. 1) which has spent the past nine years. It is likely that Luch No. 1 and Luch No. 2 are new-generation satellites that can additionally undertake ELINT tasks in addition to data relay.

US RPO Capabilities

The US has also been developing its own RPO satellites under its space situational awareness (SSA) and space security programs.
Under the Geosynchronous Space Situational Awareness Program (GSSAP), the US Space Force positions satellites in geosynchronous orbit to monitor other satellites and space debris. These satellites provide a detailed view of objects in geosynchronous orbit, enabling the US to track and characterise objects in critical space segments.
The US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has launched projects like the Robotic Servicing of Geosynchronous Satellites (RSGS) program — which is developing orbital robotic vehicles for repairing and potentially upgrading satellites in geosynchronous orbit.
The capabilities developed by the US are dual-use in nature. A satellite that can change orbit to inspect and upgrade a friendly satellite can also disable another country’s satellite. But Russia has not raised the alarm over those capabilities.


Since 2010, the US Space Command has deployed a counter space capability that is still unmatched by other nations, and will likely remain so well into the future — its super secretive X-37B unmanned military space shuttle.
The capabilities of the X-37B include orbital manoeuvrability, ability to carry different payloads on different missions and extended mission duration.
In contrast, Russian RPO satellites deployed so far can manoeuvre in orbit, but do not carry a weapons payload and cannot return to Earth to re-arm.
Orbital manoeuvrability is a key feature that differentiates an RPO satellite from a traditional satellite. Most satellites have thrusters for maintaining their intended orbit, but do not have the ability to change orbit.
Using its orbital manoeuvrability, the X-37 can inspect and potentially service or capture other spacecraft.

The X-37B features a payload bay that can carry mission specific sensors and payloads. It could be equipped with sensors for surveillance, cameras for inspection, a mechanical arm for capture, a directed energy weapon (DEW) — a laser — or kinetic weapon like a gun for destruction of satellites. It could even carry a warhead for orbital bombardment of targets on the Earth's surface.

A warhead released from the X-37B would not be interceptable because the time available to detect and track it would be minimal.
The X-37B can stay in orbit for extended periods, posing a persistent threat to other satellites and nations. The longest mission of the X-37B lasted an incredible 900 days.
The fact that the X-37B is reusable allows it to be periodically upgraded with new sensors and weapons.
Russia and China have endured the threat from the X-37B calmly for years now.


The US leads other nations in dual-use space technology such as RPO, Earth observation, communication and navigation satellites.

US dual-use satellites built under the RSGS program have significant counter-space capabilities that pose a threat to other satellites.

The US has the resources to maintain its lead in dual-use space technology and even extend it over time. However, the US is wary that Russia or China might deploy similar technology that could incapacitate its dual-use satellites if hostilities break out in space.
One such technology that the US fears is the Zeus space tug under development in Russia since 2010. The tug would initially haul cargo from Earth to Moon orbit and later from Earth to Mars. It will use nuclear propulsion, allowing it to remain in operation for decades.

The US fears that, like it does with the X-37B, Russia could use Zeus to inspect satellites in space and even incapacitate them. Russia could even equip the tug with a powerful DEW to knock out communication satellite constellations like Elon Musk’s Starlink.

It is unsurprising that in April the US attempted to push through a UN Security Council resolution that would have compelled Russia to abandon its Zeus project on the grounds that it uses nuclear propulsion, and in May blocked a more comprehensive and logical Russian UNSC resolution aimed at preventing deployment of any weapons in space.
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