Secretive U.S. Military Space Plane Lands After Record 908 Day Flight: Why is Russia Concerned?

The U.S. Military’s X-37B unmanned spacecraft landed at Florida’s Kennedy Space Centre on November 12 after completing a classified 908 day mission outside the Earth’s atmosphere and far above the Armstrong Limit. The aircraft broke its previous record of 780 days in orbit, and flew for the first time with a service module attached which allowed it to carry out a greater number of experiments that it had previously. U.S. Space Force Lieutenant Colonel Joseph Fritschen, the program director for the spacecraft, announced in an official statement regarding the flight: “The X-37B continues to push the boundaries of experimentation, enabled by an elite government and industry team behind the scenes. The ability to conduct on-orbit experiments and bring them home safely for in-depth analysis on the ground has proven valuable for the Department of the Air Force and scientific community.”

It has been speculated that the U.S. Military will begin to field spacecraft for combat missions by the early 2030s, including a variant of the SR-72 reconnaissance aircraft designed for strike operations. Russian officials have warned that the Pentagon is working towards fielding space aircraft equipped for nuclear strike roles, with new Russian armaments such as the S-500 air defence system and upcoming PAK DP interceptor designed to be able to intercept such targets. The proliferation of hypersonic aircraft and of space aircraft is expected to potentially fuel foreign interest in the S-500 as one of very few weapons systems in service today which can threaten them. Although the Soviet Union formerly had a lead in developing space aircraft, with its Buran program having been years ahead of all competitors, the state’s disintegration in 1991 allowed the U.S. to quickly overtake Russia which, with a much diminished economy and scale of research and development, is not expected to bridge the gap.