Russia’s Counterspace Weapons

Kinetic Physical Evidence suggests that Russia has invested in a sweeping range of kinetic physical counterspace capabilities over the past decade, including ground- and air-launched direct-ascent ASAT missiles capable of targeting satellites in LEO and co-orbital ASAT weapons that could operate in any orbital regime. Russia’s kinetic physical counterspace activities often closely resemble previously operational Soviet-era ASAT programs, suggesting that the country has benefited from decades of ASAT weapons research conducted by the Soviet Ministry of Defense.

On October 20, 1968, the Soviet Union became the second country in the world to successfully demonstrate a counterspace weapon when it destroyed a domestic satellite in LEO using a co-orbital ASAT. Called Istrebitel Sputnikov (IS), meaning “satellite destroyer” in Russian, the first Soviet co-orbital ASAT was tested 20 times between 1963 to 1982, destroying several targets launched as part of the program. A follow-on version of the IS system, known as IS-MU, was operational from 1991 to 1993.

Prior to the fall of the Soviet Union, the country began developing a much more capable co-orbital ASAT known as the Naryad. Reportedly designed to reach altitudes as high as 40,000 km and contain multiple warheads in a single launch, the Naryad would likely have posed a serious threat to satellites in GEO. The system saw limited testing-with just one launch in 1994-and no confirmed intercepts.

Unlike the Soviet Union, Russia’s kinetic physical counterspace arsenal includes ground-launched direct-ascent ASAT missiles. In December 2018, Russia conducted its seventh test of the PL-19/Nudol direct-ascent ASAT system. The PL-19/ Nudol completed its first successful flight test in November 2015, after two unsuccessful attempts. Unclassified U. S. reports suggest that both this launch, and a previous test in March 2018, used a mobile transporter erector-launcher (TEL) within the Plesetsk Cosmodrome complex instead of a static launch pad. Although at least six of the seven launches are verified to have originated from Plesetsk, a mobile launch system would theoretically allow the ASAT to be launched outside of the Cosmodrome facility, ensuring greater flexibility to target LEO satellites in inclinations above 40 degrees as they transit over Russian territory.

Although not specifically designed as direct-ascent ASAT weapons, Russian mobile-launched S-400 surface-to-air missiles-capable of reaching a maximum altitude of 200 km-could potentially reach a satellite in LEO. The follow-on surface-to-air missile system, the S-500, is expected to reach altitudes up to 300 km if launched directly upward. Oleg Ostapenko, Russia’s former deputy minister of defense, once stated that the S-500 will be able to intercept “low-orbital satellites and space weapons.” First tested in 2018, the new missile’s production timeline has since slipped, and “there has been no indication of when an actual S-500 will be made available.” Like the PL-19/Nudol system, using the S-400 or eventually the S-500 as a direct-ascent ASAT would require a high-precision targeting capability that has yet to be demonstrated via a destructive test.

MiG-31BM “Foxhound” Aircraft on September 14, 2018. Photographed at the Zhukovsky airfield outside of Moscow, the aircraft is carrying what has since been identified as a potential anti-satellite weapon.

A modified Russian MiG-31 fighter jet was photographed in September 2018 carrying an unidentified missile that some reports suggest could be a “mock-up” of an air-launched ASAT weapon. Although this development follows a 2013 statement from the Russian Duma expressing the Russian government’s intent to build an air-to-space system designed to “intercept absolutely everything that flies from space,” the system depicted in the September 2018 photo would almost certainly be limited to targeting objects in LEO, due to its size. In 2017, a Russian Aerospace Forces squadron commander confirmed that an ASAT missile had been designed for use with the MiG- 31BM aircraft-the same variant spotted with the mysterious missile. Citing several sources familiar with a U. S. report on the new weapons system, CNBC reported that the missile may become operational as soon as 2022.

Orbital Trajectories for Cosmos 2542 and USA 245 on January 23, 2020. Since orbital parameters for classified satellites do not appear in the U. S. Space Command’s public catalog of space objects, analysts use observations from amateur astronomers to calculate USA 245’s orbital trajectory.

Russia has not publicly announced the development of a new co-orbital ASAT program since the fall of the Soviet Union. In the past few years, however, the Russian Aerospace Forces has launched a series of small “inspector” satellites in LEO that have demonstrated some of the technologies required to operate such a system. In 2017 and 2018, three small Russian satellites-Cosmos 2519, 2521, and 2523-engaged in RPO in LEO, prompting a statement of concern from the U. S. State Department. Although a June 2017 Russian Soyuz launch appeared to place just one satellite in LEO-Cosmos 2519-a second satellite was detected two months later, likely deployed from the first as a subsatellite. The Russian Ministry of Defense made a statement saying that the second satellite was designed to “inspect the state of a Russian satellite.” In October 2017, a third satellite was deployed from either Cosmos 2519 or its subsatellite, resulting in three independent satellites in orbit. Over the course of several months, the satellites engaged in a series of maneuvers and RPO exercises, including slow flybys, close approaches, and rendezvous. In February 2020, Chief of Space Operations of the U. S. Space Force General John Raymond appeared to refer to one of these three satellites when he said that Russian inspector satellites have “exhibited characteristics of a weapon.”

Analysis published in Jane’s Intelligence Review used Russian procurement documentation and contractor reports to connect Cosmos 2519, 2521, and 2523 with the program name Nivelir. Contracts signed in 2016 between the Nivelir program and a Russian company known for developing radiation-absorbing materials suggest that future Nivelir satellites-such as Cosmos 2535, 2536, 2537, or 2538, all launched in July 2019-may be coated with a protective film to avoid being tracked by optical or infrared sensors from the ground or in space.

Russia’s newest co-orbital system may be designed to target satellites in GEO. Designated Burevestnik, this program will likely employ low-thrust but highly-efficient electric propulsion to maneuver lightweight satellites-possibly similar to those from the Nivelir program-around the GEO belt. A report published in 2019 indicated that a new ground control center was being built for Nivelir and Burevestnik at the same site the Soviets used to control the Istrebitel Sputnikov missions in the 1960s.

Luch Continues to Explore the GEO Belt. The Russian satellite has stopped at 19 different positions in the geostationary belt since its launch in 2014, including those depicted here in 2019.

Although there is no evidence yet of lightweight Russian satellites maneuvering in the GEO belt, a larger satellite has been observed engaging in suspicious RPO activity in the regime. The satellite-known as Olymp-K or Luch-has attracted attention for shifting its position within the geosynchronous belt on a relatively frequent basis, occupying at least 19 different positions since its launch in September 2014. Luch first attracted attention when it repositioned itself between two satellites operated by Intelsat, a U. S. satellite communications company. Approaching satellites in GEO in this manner could allow for close inspection or potentially interception of their communication links. In September 2015, Luch approached a third Intelsat satellite. The international response escalated in September 2018, when French Minister of the Armed Forces Florence Parly accused Russia of committing “an act of espionage” after it approached a French-Italian military satellite “a bit too closely” in October 2017.

Analysis of Luch’s on-orbit behavior since its launch in 2014 suggests that the satellite has approached 11 unique Intelsat satellites, four Eutelsat satellites, two SES satellites, and at least nine other satellites operated by Russia, Turkey, Pakistan, the United Kingdom, and the European Space Agency. Although Luch appears to be maneuvering around the GEO belt in a systematic, deliberate manner, no public reports suggest it has damaged any of the neighboring satellites along the way.

Spying on a Spy Satellite ON NOVEMBER 25, 2019, Russia launched a small satellite, Cosmos 2543, into what the Russian Ministry of Defense described as a “target orbit from which the state of domestic satellites can be monitored.” Two weeks later, the ministry announced that a subsatellite, Cosmos 2542, had been deployed from Cosmos 2543.

Three days after its deployment, Cosmos 2542 performed an orbital maneuver to synchronize its orbit with USA 245, what is believed to be a U. S. National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) satellite. Amateur satellite observers who record and share satellite observations online noticed that USA 245 performed its own maneuver soon thereafter, possibly to steer clear of Cosmos 2542. In January 2020, Cosmos 2542 maneuvered toward the American spy satellite again, this time coming as close as 50 km. A day later, USA 245 made another maneuver, further distancing itself from the Russian inspector satellite.

In an interview with SpaceNews, General John Raymond, the Commander of U. S. Space Command and Chief of Space Operations of the U. S. Space Force, confirmed the close approach, adding that he believed it was intentional.