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Arms Control Today, News in Brief, May 2020

The publication of the News in Brief section of Arms Control Today magazine is a joint project of the Center for International Security and Policy and The Arms Control Association.


Iran Launches Military Satellite 

Iran launched its first military satellite into orbit using a new space launch vehicle on April 22.

The launch of the Noor-1 satellite was conducted by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corp’s (IRGC) space program using a new three-stage Qased launch vehicle. The Qased’s second stage is a solid-fueled missile that the IRGC unveiled in February.

IRGC Aerospace Force Brig. Gen. Amir Hajizadeh said April 24 that the launch was a success and that Iran is receiving signals from the satellite. He said the IRGC intends to launch a second satellite into a higher orbit in the “not-too-distant” future.

Iran has launched satellites into orbit in the past, including a failed attempt Feb. 9, for communications and remote sensing purposes, but this is the first in the military program. (See ACT, March 2020.)

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo condemned the launch in an April 25 statement and said it proves that Iran’s space program is “neither peaceful nor entirely civilian” as Tehran has claimed. He told reporters that the launch was inconsistent with UN Security Council Resolution 2231 and said Iran needs to be “held accountable for what they have done.”

Resolution 2231 calls upon Iran to refrain from activities relevant to developing ballistic missiles designed to be nuclear capable, but the language is non-binding. Satellite launch vehicles and ballistic missiles do share features, but there are differences in their technical requirements and trajectories. — KELSEY DAVENPORT


Russian ASAT Test Sparks War of Words 

The U.S. military reported on April 15 that it tracked a Russian test of a direct-ascent anti-satellite missile (ASAT). The test did not involve the destruction of a satellite, which can produce space debris.

The Pentagon pointed to Russia’s test as evidence of Russia’s malign intentions. The “test provides yet another example that the threats to U.S. and allied space systems are real, serious and growing,” said Gen. John W. Raymond, commander of U.S. Space Command and Chief of Space Operations for the U.S. Space Force.

Raymond added that the “test is further proof of Russia’s hypocritical advocacy of outer space arms control proposals designed to restrict the capabilities of the United States while clearly having no intention of halting their counterspace weapons programs.”

TASS reported April 16 that Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov said Moscow remains committed to not being the first to place weapons in space and criticized the United States for refusing to engage with Russia on the subject.

For more than a decade, Russia and China have proposed talks on a treaty that would ban the placement of any type of weapon in orbit or on celestial bodies and obligate states-parties “not to resort to the threat or use of force against outer space objects.”

“If the United States rejects [the Russian] proposal, the natural conclusion that we draw is that they are headed for the creation of attack systems for deployment in outer space,” Ryabkov told TASS on April 16.

In an April 6 briefing, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Ford called the Russian-Chinese proposal a “terrible” idea in part because “it would by careful design fail to address in any meaningful fashion the terrestrially–based ASAT systems.”

U.S. and Russian diplomats have held inconclusive on-and-off talks on limiting or banning ASAT systems for decades but have not taken up the question in many years.

Instead, Ford said “U.S. diplomats are looking ... to work constructively with their counterparts in other spacefaring nations to develop approaches to outer space norms that will help improve predictability and collective ‘best practices’ in the space domain.”

In 2007, China used a ballistic missile to destroy one of its aging weather satellites, which produced a large amount of harmful debris in orbit. The 2008, the United States used a modified SM-3 missile to intercept and destroy one of its aging weather satellites. In April 2019, India successfully test-fired an interceptor missile that shot down an orbiting satellite. — DARYL G. KIMBALL



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