In the months since President Donald Trump directed the Pentagon to establish a sixth branch of the U.S. Armed Forces dedicated specifically to space defense, Russian officials have repeatedly issued statements seeming to suggest that this new U.S. endeavor would amount to an unprecedented militarization of space. America’s expansion into defending its orbital assets, Russia has accused, will invariably lead to deploying weapon systems in orbit — which would be a violation of the outer space treaty signed by both the United States and Russian precursor, the Soviet Union, decades ago.
However, as a number of revelations have since pointed out, it would seem the intent behind Russia’s accusations was not to prevent America from militarizing space, so much as it was meant to prevent nations like America from meddling in Russian orbital military operations. Last month, Assistant Secretary of State for Arms Control, Verification, and Compliance, Yleem D.S. Poblete, addressed the United Nations about Russia’s “inspector” satellites, which have demonstrated behavior so unusual (even compared to other maneuverable orbital assets) that the Pentagon believes it, and other satellites like it Russia has deployed, to be weapons. These platforms could potentially interfere with satellite operations or even nudge them onto a reentry orbit, destroying the satellite without ever having to fire a shot.
Now France, too, is chiming in about Russia’s unusual orbital assets. According to new statements made by French Defense Minister Florence Parly, Russia’s “Luch-Olymp” satellite closed with a joint French and Italian military communications satellite last year, using what she referred to as “big ears” to attempt to eavesdrop on the secure communications link that satellite provided the European allies.
“Trying to listen to one’s neighbor is not only unfriendly. It’s called an act of espionage,” Parly said to the press. “It got close. A bit too close. So close that one really could believe that it was trying to capture our communications.”
She then added whimsically, “this little Stars Wars didn’t happen a long time ago in a galaxy far away. It happened a year ago, 36,000 kilometers above our heads.”
Russia’s Luch-Olymp satellite has been tracked maneuvering around a number of satellites, including American commercial communications satellites, in recent years, and this isn’t the first time that someone has postulated that Russia’s intentions may be espionage. But Parly’s comments are a bit out of school for prominent Western officials who traditionally devote little time in the public eye to concerns of orbital defense. As the popular responses on social media demonstrated in the United States after President Trump’s Space Force directive, many are inclined to mock the idea as science fiction at first pass, rather than consider the legitimate threats posed by foreign nations with offensive capabilities in orbit.
This revelation, while important as a check for Russian aggression in orbit, also represents an important shift in international rhetoric. Space defense is now a subject of discussion and discourse in a way it was not only months ago.