Russia maintains an active space programme that includes systems supporting military operations. It pursues capabilities to counter and disrupt the space activities of its competitors, while remaining open to arrangements regulating military space.
Military operations have been an important part of space activity since the beginning of the space age. During the Cold War, the Soviet Union invested in a wide range of space programmes – military as well as civilian – and created a formidable space industry, building an expansive infrastructure to support satellite operations. After the end of the Cold War and the break-up of the Soviet Union, Russia experienced serious difficulties with maintaining key elements of the Soviet space programme but, starting in the early 2010s, it began regaining at least some of the capabilities lost during previous decades. Even though this process is far from completed, Russia has demonstrated that it has the capability to maintain and probably expand its presence in space.
Military space continues to be an important part of the space programme that benefits from both the consistent support of the political and military leadership and increasingly steady access to resources. This inevitably raises the question of the future direction of the military space programme and the risk of a confrontation in space that may result from the growing role of space systems in military operations. It becomes particularly important in view of a number of recent developments which suggest that Russia is working on systems that can provide it with the capability to carry out offensive operations in space.
This chapter provides a brief overview of the status of Russia’s space-related military programmes in an attempt to assess the risk of weaponizing space that can be linked to its recent activities.
Russia’s space forces
During the last three decades, both the space industry and the divisions of the armed forces that are responsible for space operations have undergone numerous reorganizations. In the current structure of the Russian armed forces, established in 2015, the space forces exist as a separate branch within the Air and Space Forces (VKS). The VKS is a service that also includes the military air force and the air- and space-defence forces.
The space forces’ areas of responsibility include space situational awareness, early warning of ballistic missile attack, satellite launches and operations, and maintaining all elements of the space infrastructure at a high degree of readiness. One of the tasks assigned to the space forces is the detection of ‘threats to Russia in space and from space, and, if necessary, fending off these threats’. This mission, however, does not include missile defence, which is assigned to the air- and space-defence forces.
The Russian military is clearly aware of the nature of modern warfare, which relies on situational awareness and reliable communication, including that provided by satellite-based systems. It is logical to assume that the disruption of these systems would be an important element of Russia’s military strategy in space, especially as its potential adversaries become increasingly dependent on space assets. At the same time, the space forces’ mission is defined in a way that calls for action only in response to a threat ‘in space and from space’. This suggests that it is defence rather than offence that is considered the primary mission of the space forces, although offensive operations in space are not ruled out.
The notion of a threat from space can be traced back to the concept of ‘strike weapons in space’ – that is, space-based weapons that can attack targets on Earth. This concept has occupied an important place in Soviet and then Russian military and political discourse since at least the early 1980s. This category of weapons appears to include a broad range of systems. For example, in the draft Treaty on the Prevention of Placement of Weapons in Outer Space, submitted by Russia and China to the Conference on Disarmament (CD) in 2014, a ‘weapon in outer space’ is defined as a space-based object that can destroy or damage ‘objects in outer space, on the Earth’s surface or in the air’. It is normally understood that space-based elements of a missile defence system, such as interceptors or directed-energy weapons, would fall into this category. Moreover, Russian officials often emphasize that a space-based missile defence could be used to pre-emptively attack its strategic forces.
Since none of the weapons systems of these kinds have been developed or are in development at the present time, Russia’s concerns about weapons in space are probably unwarranted. However, Russia does seem to use this view of potential threats in space to justify its own work on systems to counter these threats. In the absence of an agreement that prohibits the deployment of weapons in space, the development of tools that could repel an attack initiated from space can be considered a legitimate step.
This approach was particularly prominent in the 1980s, at which time Soviet work on anti-satellite systems received a considerable boost when the mission of these systems was reframed in terms of the need to counter elements of the US Strategic Defense Initiative. A similar dynamic is likely to exist today, especially as the Russian political leadership appears to give its full support to programmes that offer a capability to counter US missile defence systems.
In the absence of an agreement that prohibits the deployment of weapons in space, the development of tools that could repel an attack initiated from space can be considered a legitimate step.
This does not necessarily mean that Russia has a coordinated strategy of relying on the capability to target space assets, or a dedicated programme of integrating that capability into its military operations. While several projects in this area are clearly under way, as detailed in the following sections, at this point they appear to be driven primarily by the interests of the developers rather than by demand for a specific military mission.
This state of affairs is characteristic for the organization of military research and development in Russia, largely inherited from the Soviet Union. Normally, the enterprises of the defence industry have significant flexibility in pursuing projects within their area of expertise. Russia has created a number of organizational structures and governmental bodies to direct this process, provide general oversight, and ensure efficiency. In 2015, it created the Roscosmos State Space Corporation, which includes design bureaux, missile and satellite production facilities and the infrastructure that supports testing and operations of missile and space systems. In government, the defence industry is overseen by a deputy prime minister, who also chairs the Military-Industrial Commission, a body that coordinates the economic activity of the defence industry.
Finally, the ministry of defence has a certain degree of control over all defence-related projects through its role as the customer. This control, however, does not necessarily give the military a capability to determine which specific systems the industry must work on. The research, development, and acquisition process is driven largely by what the industry can offer rather than by what the military requests.
This pattern applies to virtually all military space programmes that are currently implemented in Russia. Most of them are aimed at reconstituting the capabilities that were built in the Soviet Union, using the expertise and experience accumulated at the time.
Military space programmes and projects
Russia’s satellite navigation system, known as GLONASS, is built on the same principle as its US counterpart, the Global Positioning System (GPS). A full GLONASS constellation consists of 24 satellites that can provide accuracy of up to about 3 metres, comparable to that of the GPS system.
The system first reached limited operational capability in 1993, and the full constellation was deployed for the first time in 1995. However, in the following years the system deteriorated to a serious extent and was unable to provide a reliable service. With considerable effort, the system was restored to an operational condition by the early 2010s, and in 2016 the defence ministry formally accepted the system for service.
This process included the development of second-generation satellites, GLONASS-M, and the opening of the system to civilian users. The modernization of the system continues – Russia has already deployed several GLONASS-K spacecraft, and is working on the next modification. This programme, however, appears to be experiencing some difficulties as the economic sanctions imposed on Russia in 2014 in the wake of its annexation of Crimea have limited access to the space-grade electronic components used in these satellites.
Russian appears to be actively using the GLONASS system to support military operations, especially as its armed forces begin to deploy an increasing number of high-precision weapons. GLONASS is believed to be an important factor in the success of the Russian military operation in Syria. This trend is expected to continue, so in the future the Russian armed forces are likely to increase their reliance on the navigation services provided by the GLONASS system. The difficulties caused by sanctions would probably make this more challenging, but Russia could maintain the current capability of the system by relying on previous-generation satellites, even though this may require increasing the number of launches.
Russia’s nuclear command and control relies on a ballistic missile early-warning system for detecting launches of ballistic missiles and assessing attacks. This system includes a network of ground-based radars deployed on the periphery of the country and a constellation of satellites that provide early launch detection. The space tier has always been considered an essential element of the early-warning system, even though its practical role is somewhat limited.
Deployment of the first space-based early-warning system, Oko, began in the late 1970s. The constellation was designed to include two types of satellites, deployed on highly elliptical orbits (HEO) or placed in geosynchronous orbits (GEO). The system began limited operations in 1982 and for a long time was only capable of detecting launches from US territory. Starting in 1991, Russia has launched a number of geostationary satellites that provided coverage of the oceans as well, but that constellation, Oko-1, was never completed. In 2014, the last satellite of the Oko generation stopped its operations, leaving Russia without a space-based component of the early-warning system.
In the 1990s, Russia began developing a new space-based early-warning system, known as EKS or Kupol. The first launch of a new early-warning satellite, Tundra, took place in 2015. With the launch of a fourth satellite in May 2020, the constellation of satellites that are deployed in HEO reached initial operational capability. The full constellation, with ten satellites on highly elliptical and geosynchronous orbits, will provide coverage of all potential missile launch regions. The deployment of the system is expected to be completed in 2024.
Two other legacy Soviet systems that Russia is working to reconstitute are the signal intelligence (SIGINT) Tselina and the ocean electronic reconnaissance system, known as EORSAT or US-P. The last launches of the previous-generation satellites took place in 2007 and 2006 respectively. The system that is being built to replace them, known as Liana, will include satellites of two types – signal intelligence Lotos and ocean reconnaissance Pion-NKS. Although nominally part of an integrated system, these satellites have different missions and capabilities. While Lotos is a passive SIGINT collection spacecraft, it appears that Pion-NKS will have an active radar on board and will be able to provide targeting information to the Russian navy.
The first launch of a prototype Lotos-S spacecraft took place in 2009, but regular launches of the satellites, now known as Lotos-S1, did not begin until 2014. In February 2021, Russia launched its fourth Lotos-S1. At least four more spacecraft were ordered in 2017, indicating that the programme is largely successful.
The other component of the Liana network, a Pion-NKS constellation, is farther from deployment. The programme has suffered several setbacks, some of which were related to the cessation of cooperation with developers in Ukraine. Nevertheless, work on the programme continues, and the defence ministry has repeatedly emphasized the importance of the project. The first satellite of the Pion-NKS constellation was launched in June 2021. It is, however, unclear when the system will reach initial operating capability.
The main element of Russia’s military communication system is the Integrated Satellite Communication System (ESSS). The system includes a constellation of Meridian satellites deployed in HEO, optimized to provide services to the northern regions of the hemisphere. It also includes satellites of the Raduga-1M type deployed in GEO.
Russia maintains two constellations of geostationary data relay satellites – Garpun, which supports the operations of reconnaissance satellites, and Blagovest, which appears to be handling non-sensitive military traffic. Another military system deployed by Russia is the constellation of Rodnik satellites (also known as Strela-3M). These low-earth orbit (LEO) satellites provide store-dump communication capability and are believed to be used primarily by military intelligence and other similar services. The system has a civilian counterpart, known as Gonets. That system uses a network of ground stations that link satellites with other communication networks and support the collection of messages or their dissemination over an area within the direct line of sight to a satellite (approximately 5,000 km in diameter). Neither system, however, supports continuous communication between users.
Russia is still in the process of building a set of modern remote sensing tools, including the capability to obtain optical or radar images of the surface of the earth. In photoreconnaissance, until relatively recently Russia relied on satellites carrying returnable film capsules to obtain high-resolution optical images. The programme, known as Kobalt-M, ended in 2015. The effort to develop a digital optical reconnaissance system encountered a series of problems. One possible candidate, Persona, proved only partially successful: the first satellite, launched in 2008, failed shortly after reaching orbit, and two subsequent satellites, launched in 2013 and 2015, apparently did not demonstrate adequate performance. No new satellites of this type were launched after that, as the defence ministry decided to support a different project, Razdan, which is a photoreconnaissance system believed to provide a capability similar to that of the US KH-11 series of satellites. The original plan called for the deployment of three satellites between 2019 and 2024, but as of 2021, the programme was yet to launch its first satellite.
In 2018, Russia launched a first small imaging satellite, EMKA, which is reported to provide imagery with a resolution of less than one metre. This satellite became a prototype for a series of Razbeg spacecraft, the first of which was launched in September 2021.
Another potential source of satellite imagery is the Bars-M series of satellites. The primary purpose of these satellites is cartography, but they can provide optical reconnaissance capability as well. Two satellites of this type have been launched so far, in 2015 and 2016. They have been deployed in low-earth sun-synchronous orbits.
In addition to a dedicated military photoreconnaissance capability, Russia is probably relying on the information provided by the civilian satellites of the Resurs-P class. Another civilian remote-sensing system that could potentially be used by the military is the Obzor-R series of synthetic aperture radar (SAR) satellites. The first Obzor-R launch is expected in the second half of 2021. The absence of SAR capability in Russia is notable, especially if considered in contrast with the rapid development of commercial SAR satellites in the West.
Starting in 2013, Russia began deploying satellites that demonstrated the capability to approach and inspect satellites in orbit. While there is no direct evidence that would suggest that these programmes have an anti-satellite mission, this is one of the potential applications of this technology.
One series of satellites designed for rendezvous missions appears to be under development as part of a programme known as Nivelir. Satellites that were involved in these missions are normally launched as auxiliary payloads, which suggests that they are relatively small. The first satellite of this programme was probably Cosmos-2491, which was launched in December 2013 but which appeared to have failed shortly after launch. It was followed by Cosmos-2499 and Cosmos-2504, launched in March 2014 and March 2015 respectively. These satellites performed a series of rendezvous with the upper stages that delivered them into orbit.
While there is no direct evidence that would suggest that these programmes have an anti-satellite mission, this is one of the potential applications of this technology.
In June 2017, Russia launched Cosmos-2519, which was described in the official launch announcement as a ‘platform that carries Earth observation equipment and equipment that will be used to photograph various space objects’. This satellite later released two additional objects. One of them, Cosmos-2521, performed a series of rendezvous manoeuvres. The other, Cosmos-2523, may have been a test of a projectile, as it separated from its host with a relatively high velocity.
A similar pattern of behaviour was observed after a launch conducted in July 2019. Two of the four satellites placed in orbit – Cosmos-2535 and Cosmos-2536 – were involved in a series of proximity manoeuvres approaching each other. The proximity operations were officially confirmed by the Russian ministry of defence.
Another proximity operation satellite, Cosmos-2542, was launched in November 2019. The official announcement issued by the Russian ministry of defence stated that the spacecraft was placed into an orbit from which it could monitor the status of other Russian satellites. Less than a month into the flight, Cosmos-2542 released another satellite, Cosmos-2543. Unlike its predecessors, which would normally approach other Russian satellites, Cosmos-2543 positioned itself in an orbit that allowed it to observe a US optical reconnaissance satellite, USA 245. Furthermore, in July 2020, Cosmos-2543 released a new object – an event that US Space Command described as an ‘in-orbit weapons test’.
Russia also conducted a series of proximity operations in GEO. A satellite launched in September 2014, known as Luch/Olymp, performed a series of manoeuvres that brought it to the vicinity of a number of Russian and foreign geostationary satellites. Luch/Olymp appears to be an electronic intelligence satellite that can intercept communication between GEO satellites and their ground stations.
These operations suggest that Russia has an active programme or several programmes to develop a capability to approach and inspect orbital objects. While there is no direct evidence of an anti-satellite dimension to these programmes, it is possible that this capability could be used to damage or destroy other satellites.
Other military projects
Russian military-related space activities include several other missions. Among those are the geodetic Geo-IK-2 satellites, as well as several small satellites used to calibrate radars or study atmospheric drag. The mission of one small satellite, ERA-1, which was launched in December 2020, was described as the development of ‘future micro devices and micro components of guidance and attitude control systems’.
In addition to space systems that may have anti-satellite missions, Russia appears to be exploring land-based anti-satellite capability. These include systems that are designed to destroy satellites, as well as several systems that can interfere with satellite operations.
One project in this area, known as Nudol, is believed to be a direct-ascent anti-satellite system. The Nudol interceptor appears to be mounted on a mobile launcher, which could expand the range of orbits that it could target. For targeting, Nudol probably relies on the existing network of early-warning radars that provide data for the Russian space situational awareness system. It may also include a dedicated radar to guide the interceptor to the target.
Work on Nudol reportedly started in 2009, and initial tests of its various components were conducted in 2012–13. The interceptor failed on the first flight test, conducted in August 2014, as well as on the second one in April 2015. The first successful test took place in November 2015. By the end of 2020, Russia had conducted about 10 tests of the interceptor, almost all of them from the Plesetsk test site. None of the tests involved destroying a target satellite.
Although the US assesses Nudol to be an ASAT system, it is possible that it is being developed as an exoatmospheric tier of the future upgraded Moscow missile defence, known as A-235. A missile defence interceptor will, of course, have the capability to intercept LEO satellites.
Another system with potential ASAT capability is the S-500, which is the latest addition to the family of long-range air-defence systems. Although the S-500 has never demonstrated the capability to intercept targets outside the atmosphere, it might indeed be capable of targeting LEO satellites.
A further example of a programme with potential anti-satellite applications is an air-based space launcher that can deliver into orbit a small satellite inspector or an interceptor. The programme, known as Burevestnik (unrelated to the ground-launched nuclear-powered cruise missile project described in Chapter Three of this paper), is developing a system that includes a modified MiG-31 aircraft carrying a solid-propellant rocket. It appears that, rather than attack the target directly, the rocket is supposed to place its payload in an orbit from where it will approach the target. It is possible that the payload of the Burevestnik system has been tested in one of the ‘proximity operations’ missions conducted by Russia in previous years.
A different category of land-based system is designed to disrupt satellite observations or communications rather than destroy them. One system of this kind is the Peresvet laser system that was publicly unveiled in 2018. Shelters housing elements of the system are being deployed in the vicinity of road-mobile intercontinental ballistic missile bases, which suggests that Peresvet could play a role in protecting these bases. The laser is unlikely to be powerful enough to physically destroy attacking vehicles, such as cruise missiles or drones, but may have enough power to dazzle or blind their optical sensors. It is also possible that the Peresvet laser could dazzle or damage the sensors of reconnaissance satellites.
Russia has also developed a range of electronic warfare systems that could jam or spoof the signal of communication satellites (Tirada-2 and Bylina-MM), counter radar reconnaissance satellites (Krasukha-4 and Divnomorye) or protect Russian satellites from electronic attacks (Tobol). It appears that these systems are in active development, so it is likely that the Russian military will continue its investment in these capabilities.