Vladimir Isachenkov, The Associated Press
MOSCOW - The Russian military closely monitored last year's flight of a new U.S. spaceplane but hasn't decided whether it needs a similar craft, a top general said Thursday.
Russia's Space Forces chief, Lt. Gen. Oleg Ostapenko, was quoted by Russian news agencies as saying that the military knows all about the orbital manoeuvrs of the U.S. X-37B unmanned spaceplane during its maiden flight of more than seven months.
The U.S. Air Force said the primary purpose of the flight, which ended in December, was to test the craft itself, but classified its actual activities in orbit, leading to speculation about whether it carried some type of spying system.
Ostapenko said Russia has conducted preliminary work on a similar design but that no decision has been made on whether it needs such a craft. "Time will show whether we shall imitate that project, but everyone must remember that there always is a counteraction to any action," he said.
Military analysts have been skeptical about Russia's ability to mount a response to the new U.S. robotic spacecraft.
Russia's ability to match the latest Western weapons designs has been weakened because its defence industries were hurt by the post-Soviet industrial meltdown and lack of modern technologies. But Ostapenko said efforts are under way to develop a missile defence system.
"Works are in progress to build prototypes and test some parts, systems and components," Ostapenko said, adding that the military has been testing prospective missile defence weapons at a Soviet-era testing range that Russia leases from Kazakhstan. He gave no specifics.
Ostapenko's comment followed Defence Minister Anatoly Serdyukov as saying Wednesday that Russia is working to develop its own missile defence system.
Russia has a Soviet-designed system of interceptor missiles to protect Moscow from ballistic missiles, but analysts say that the shield is outdated and has limited efficiency.
The Kremlin has criticized U.S. plans for space-based weapons, saying they could trigger a new arms race. Moscow also has voiced concern about the prospective U.S. missile shield, fearing it could erode its nuclear deterrent.
NATO has approved a plan for a U.S.-led missile defence in Europe last fall and invited Russia to join. Russia's President Dmitry Medvedev was receptive of NATO's proposal but didn't make a definitive commitment.
Medvedev has warned that the failure to reach agreement on a joint European missile shield with Russia may force it to deploy new offensive weapons and trigger a new arms race.