Russia Just Tested a Space Weapon

PL-19 Nudol anti-satellite missile system. TEL-mounted Nudol Artist’s depiction from company calendar.

Probable “Nudol” from Plesetsk launched on December 15.

USS Lake Erie launching the SM-3 interceptor that destroyed USA-193 in orbit, 2008.

Russia has carried out another test of its new PL19 Nudol (named after a Russian river) anti-satellite weapon system, a ground-launched missile designed to destroy satellites stationed in low-Earth orbit in order to deny their use by Russia’s enemies.

Russia developed the system from an anti-missile system originally meant to protect Moscow from nuclear attack.

On December 15, 2020 Russia carried out the anti-satellite (ASAT) weapon test from Plesetsk Cosmodrome in Arkhangelsk Oblast. The Russian government issued an advisory for civilian traffic to stay out of the areas highlighted in red below.

The PL19 Nudol is a so-called “direct ascent” ASAT weapon, which means it’s launched from a mobile launcher vehicle on the ground on Earth, and then ascends to intercept its target in space. Other anti-satellite attack vectors include orbital systems (satellites designed to attack other satellites), electromagnetic interference that block satellite signals from space, and ground-based laser weapons.

Experts believe Nudol is a variant of the A-235 anti-ballistic missile system. The original 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty banned large-scale construction of anti-ballistic missile (ABM) systems under the logic that allowing their production unimpeded would boost the number of nuclear-tipped missiles worldwide. The treaty did allow both participants, the U.S. and the U.S.S.R., to maintain two batteries of 100 missiles each. The U.S. built a system and eventually abandoned it, but the Soviet Union maintained one to protect its capital city, Moscow.

While the ABM Treaty is no longer in effect, the Russian government maintains the system protecting Moscow. The A-235 anti-ballistic missile was originally designed to replace older A-135 missiles. Russia’s ABMs are designed to knock down incoming nuclear warheads with 10 kiloton nuclear explosions, similar to destroying an incoming bullet with a well-timed hand grenade.

PL19 is apparently a derivative of the A-235 system. The missile can reach high enough to hit satellites in low-Earth orbit, which is probably about where A-235 intercepts incoming missile warheads. PL19 also apparently uses a conventional warhead, instead of a nuclear one. Any use of PL19 in a conflict would likely be in the early stages, in order to deprive an adversary of its space-based assets from the outset, and using nuclear weapons early on would be an unnecessary escalation.

In an alert, the U.S. Space Command noted the test and said, “The United States is concerned by Russia’s continued development and deployment of several types of ground-based and space-based ASAT weapons. These actions are contrary to Russia’s diplomatic and public stance against the weaponization of space.”

That’s a little rich, considering the U.S. is believed to have at least two direct ascent anti-satellite weapons: the SM-3 and Ground Based Midcourse Defense (GBMD) missile interceptors.

Like A-235, both weapons were originally designed to shoot down intermediate- or longer-range missiles, a mission very similar to shooting down enemy satellites. The SM-3 interceptor has already taken out a satellite: In 2008, the USS Lake Erie conducted Operation Burnt Frost, the intercept of a disabled American satellite in low-Earth orbit. The satellite, USA-193, was intercepted at an altitude of 153 miles at a speed of 22,000 miles per hour.

In addition to direct ascent missiles, the U.S. Space Force also has a ground-based jammer designed to prevent enemy forces from using satellite signals, like GPS for aiming weapons, on the battlefield.

Russia has conducted previous Nudol tests over the last three years. In addition to PL19, Russia has at least three other anti-satellite weapon systems. An aircraft-launched version, Kontakt, is a direct-ascent ASAT missile launched from a modified MiG-31 fighter jet. The truck-mounted Peresvet anti-satellite laser, meanwhile, is designed to blind the optical sensors of spy satellites.

Russia is believed to be testing co-orbital ASAT weapons involving carrier satellites launching smaller interceptor sats under the Burevestnik program.

The Russian DA-ASAT capabilities currently consist of three primary programs which have direct or indirect counterspace capabilities:

1. Nudol: a rapidly maturing ground-launched ballistic missile designed to be capable of intercepting targets in LEO;

2. Kontakt: an air-launched interceptor designed to be used against targets in LEO orbits, on a several-year development timeline; and

3. S-500: a next-generation exoatmospheric ballistic missile defense system, still several years from deployment, that may have capabilities against targets in low LEO orbits. All three have their roots in Soviet-era programs but have been revived or reconstituted in recent years.

14A042 Nudol

The Soviet missile defense system A-135, first released in June 1978, was developed by the Vympel division of the Tactical Missile Corporation, which oversees Russia’s multi-layered missile defense architecture. 188 The A-135 system included two missile interceptors, the exoatmospheric 51T6 (NATO designation “SH- 11 Gorgon”) and the endoatmospheric 53T6 (NATO designation “Gazelle”). While the system at the time possessed some dual-use potential for use as an ASAT, it was sharply limited and has likely since been eliminated by the retirement of the 51T6.

Designs for the would-be replacement, the A-235 missile defense system (under the Russian codename Samolyot-M, first surfaced in 1985-1986, though little came of it at the time. The system includes the 53T6M, an upgraded version of the Gazelle, as its shortrange interceptor.

In August 2009, the PVO (Russian space defense company) Almaz-Antey signed a contract with the Russian Ministry of Defense, followed by subcontracts with OKB Novator and KB Tochmash (also known as the Nudelman Design Bureau) to work on a separate program called Nudol (U. S. designation PL-19). KB Tochmash had previously developed a cannon for the Almaz military space station and worked on several other Soviet-era counterspace programs and OKB Novator has a long history developing long-range antiaircraft missiles. In 2010, Almaz-Antey began technical design work based on those initial blueprints and entered prototyping and initial production of various software and hardware components over the next several years. Individual components were tested in 2012 and initial non-flight testing of the system as a whole was successfully conducted in 2013. In 2013, a second contract was signed between the Ministry of Defense and Almaz-Antey that also includes the Moscow Institute of Thermal Technology, which specializes in long-range solid fuel ballistic missiles, as a subcontractor instead of OKB Novator. The implication is that there may be two separate missiles being developed for Nudol, one short-range version being developed OKB Novator195 and one long-range version developed by the Moscow Institute of Thermal Technology.

The evidence suggests Nudol is being developed for the direct purpose of direct-ascent ASAT operations. Throughout the development process, Almaz-Antey (whose role within the Russian defense complex is development of technologies for “active space defense”) has pitched the system as valuable for holding U. S. LEO assets at risk. What little is known publicly about the Nudol flight tests are more suggestive of an orbital ballistic trajectory intercept than a mid-course missile intercept. Most significant, the system itself is described by Russian state-run press reports as a mobile, TEL-based “new Russian long-range missile defense and space defense intercept complex. within the scope of the Nudol OKR [experimental development project].” The system appears to be designated the 14Ts033, comprised of the 14A042 Nudol rocket, 14P078 command and control system, and 14TS031 radar.

There have been nine known flight tests, four of which were likely successful, and two additional unconfirmed tests. Sources suggest that at least the November 2015 test was of just a rocket and did not include a kill vehicle. A report in April 2018, citing unnamed U. S. intelligence officials, stated that the Nudol test in March 2018 was the first time it was fired from the transport-erector-launcher it will be deployed with. Evidence is inconclusive as to whether any of the remaining tests included a kill vehicle. Russia issued safety notices for airspace closures in June and November 2019 that are consistent with additional Nudol tests, but to date those have not been confirmed.

Little is known for sure about the operational capabilities of the Nudol, and available estimates for maximum altitude vary widely from approximately 50 km210 to nearly 1,000 km. Something in the middle but closer to the former is most likely, based on observations from flight tests as well as third-party analysis of suspected components. Russian media reports of the April 2015 failure suggested a rocket mass of 9.6 metric tons, which if true would indicate only a very limited ASAT capability. The designation 14A is usually reserved for “space rockets” and intended for intercepting space objects, either satellites or nuclear warheads.

Imagery of the Nudol appears to show a mobile launch capability but stationary radar, in keeping with the missile defense application for which it was initially conceived and reports that it relies on the 14TS031 radar system. This has led some experts to note that while the system is movable, without mobile radar, it could be limited to hitting satellites passing over Russian territory. However, several factors reduce the salience of this fact. First, in the event of a conflict in Russia’s near abroad, many of the most relevant U. S. assets would indeed be passing overhead. More importantly, Russia is rapidly maturing multiple technologies for advanced targeting, tracking, and measurement. These include, among others: ground-based lasers which, while stationary, are a more flexible means of targetacquisition than radar; mobile radar; space-based targeting, tracking, and measurement (TT&M) and SSA capabilities; expansion and modernization of groundbased space monitoring sites throughout Russia; and on-board guidance systems akin to those employed for late-stage course-correction of conventional and nuclear cruise and ballistic missiles.

It is possible that nuclear-arming of the Nudol under at least some circumstances is being considered, but the evidence is not conclusive. Available depictions of the Nudol TEL has features that appear to be environmental control systems (ECS) on the missile tubes-a feature typically associated with nuclear-armed missiles. And there is precedent for such a decision: the 51T6 Gorgon was nuclear-tipped due to persistent skepticism regarding the efficacy and reliability of non-nuclear missile defense. Some Soviet and Russian military strategists have discussed the desirability of nuclear ASATs for reliable, rapid, and wide-area kinetic and EMP effect, but there is no conclusive public evidence that the Soviet Union or Russia planned on nuclear-tipped ASAT weapons, even as part of their response to Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI). There are also some who argue that Russia has shifted its nuclear doctrine towards the use of tactical nuclear weapons for war fighting, but most Russian experts conclude that this has not yet happened. Moreover, Russian-language media reported in early 2018 that the system would not be equipped with nuclear warheads. Deployment is reportedly scheduled for late 2018.

Russian news media also reported that a new type of interceptor launched from a mobile vehicle was tested in July 2018 by the Russian Aerospace Forces. According to Andrey Prikhodko, deputy commander of air and missile defense of the Aerospace Forces, “After a series of trials, the interceptor missile confirmed its specifications and successfully performed its task, hitting the simulated target with the specified precision.” The specifics of the test were not released.