Space Threat 2018: Russia Assessment

Russia’s space and counterspace capabilities suffered after the fall of the Soviet Union, but it has since made significant progress rebuilding both programs.

The following article is an excerpt from Space Threat Assessment 2018, a report from the CSIS Aerospace Security Project. Download a PDF version of this chapter in the full report here

Overall Space Capabilities

We cannot just sit back and watch when others do it. I can only say that [ASAT research] is being conducted in Russia.VLADIMIR POPOVKINRussian Deputy Defense Minister 1

SINCE THE SUCCESSFUL LAUNCH of Sputnik I on October 4, 1957, the Soviet Union, and subsequently the Russian Federation, has been one of the most dominant players in outer space. Russia remains a dominant actor in space today, particularly in space launch. Even the United States continues to use a Russian rocket engine, the RD-180, on one of its main space launch systems, the Atlas V.2 However, the Russian space industrial base today pales in comparison to its Soviet predecessor, with a total space budget of only about $4 billion in 2016.3 While a collection of design bureaus in the Soviet Union together constituted a majority of all global space launches in the first space age (1957 to 1991), Russia’s modern International Launch Services (ILS)—an American-Russian commercial company known for its Angara and Proton rockets—now only makes up about 10% of the global market share.4 In 2015, two separate organizations known as the Russian Federal Space Agency and United Rocket and Space Corporation, were consolidated into one megacorporation called Roscosmos.5 Although legacy Soviet space technology continues to provide an advantage for Russia today, the country has not continued to make advances in space at the same rate as it did during the Cold War. Many of Russia’s satellite constellations deteriorated in the 1990s and 2000s due to a declining budget and crumbling economy; however, the country has maintained its global prominence in human spaceflight. Since the end of the U.S. Space Shuttle program in 2011, the Soyuz launch system has been the only vehicle transporting astronauts to and from the International Space Station (ISS).6 Russia was a founding partner of the ISS and is the second largest contributor to its construction and operation. Despite a deterioration in diplomatic and military relationships in recent years, Russia and the United States maintain a strong partnership in civil space; the two nations share training, communications, operations, and launch capabilities in support of the ISS.

Russia is beginning to modernize many of its languishing space capabilities. The Global Navigation Satellite System (GLONASS) constellation of PNT satellites deteriorated through the 1990s, dropping to just 9 functional satellites out of the 24 that are necessary for global coverage. In 2011, Russia began work on a third generation of satellites (GLONASS-K) that will greatly improve the accuracy and reliability of the system, and the constellation has now returned to the full network of satellites necessary for global coverage.7 Over the next decade, Russia plans to revamp its optical imaging satellites, land a scientific probe on the surface of Mars, and develop a new human launch system capable of placing cosmonauts in lunar orbit.8 9 10

Space Organization and Doctrine

DESPITE A DECLINE IN SOME AREAS after the fall of the Soviet Union, Russia remains a major player in military space and has extensive operational expertise from decades of space operations. Russia operates a comprehensive and well-organized space force, responsible for space object tracking and identification, space launch, and satellite operations.11 Like China, Russia recently reorganized and consolidated its space forces. In 2011, it combined the air-defense and space forces into a new military branch known as the Aerospace Defense Forces (ADF). Then in 2015, it combined the Air Force and Aerospace Defense Forces into a new service—the Russian Aerospace Forces—with three sub-groups: the Air Force, Aerospace and Missile Defense Force, and Space Forces.12 The mission of the Space Forces is to: monitor space objects, identify potential threats, prevent attacks from space, launch satellites, and control satellite operations (both military and civilian).13

Image Source: Soyuz Capsules over Earth (NASA)

Russia believes that the militarization of outer space is a security threat and one of its “main external military danger[s].” The Russian military doctrine approved in 2010 states that “the securing of supremacy on land, at sea, and in the air and outer space will become decisive factors in achieving objectives.”14 According to the same document, one of the nation’s “main tasks in deterring and preventing military conflicts” is to develop “an international treaty prohibiting the deployment of any types of weapons in outer space.”15

In 2008, Russia and China submitted the “Treaty on the Prevention of the Placement of Weapons in Outer Space, the Threat or Use of Force Against Outer Space Objects” to the UN Conference on Disarmament.16 The United States dismissed the proposal as a “diplomatic ploy” and refused to sign on.17 While Russia claims to view space as a peaceful domain and wants to prevent the development and use of weapons in space, its counterspace activities and weapons programs suggest otherwise.

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Image Source: Robert Karma / Flickr

Russia continues to benefit from the Soviet Union’s rich history of developing and operating anti-satellite weapons during the Cold War. With its first operational ASAT weapon program dating back to the early 1960s, the Soviet Union conducted extensive ASAT tests before its fall in December 1991. Soviet-era ASAT technologies give Russia a substantial advantage in the development of kinetic physical counterspace systems. Two of the Soviet Union’s verified ASAT weapon systems used co-orbital methods.

The first program, Istrebitel Sputnikov (IS), meaning “satellite destroyer” in Russian, completed 20 tests from 1963 to 1982, and successfully destroyed several targeted satellites in orbit.18 An announcement from April 1991 suggested a modified version of the IS system, named IS-MU, was also operational.19 Like its predecessor, the IS-MU program was only designed to take down satellites in LEO. Although the program officially ended in August 1993, its ground segment for identifying satellite targets on orbit continued to operate.20

In the early 1980s, the Soviet Union began developing its most powerful anti-satellite weapon yet, known as the Naryad. Also a co-orbital ASAT, the Naryad was designed to reach altitudes as high as 40,000 km, and could contain multiple individual warheads in a single launch, posing a threat to satellites in GEO.21 The Naryad launch system—including the Rokot and Briz staging combination—is still used to launch satellites today.22 The Naryad-era ground segment can track space objects in MEO and GEO and remains operational today; this tracking system is named Okno, which means “window” in Russian. Although Okno is in modern-day Tajikistan, control of the facility was transferred to Russia in the mid-2000s.23 The system has undergone upgrades, and a 2016 report suggests that Okno can now detect objects as high as 50,000 km.24 An Okno follow-on featuring more than ten new ground stations, called New Okno, is reportedly under construction within Russia’s borders.25

At the center of co-orbital anti-satellite technologies is rendezvous and proximity operations (RPO). RPO involves moving a satellite close enough to a target to damage or destroy it. According to a 2018 Secure World Foundation report, Russia has engaged in a series of secretive RPO activities since 2013.26 On several occasions the country has maneuvered space objects in LEO and GEO that were initially identified (incorrectly) as debris in the U.S. Space-Track catalog. These objects later appeared to maneuver and conduct proximity operations.27 While modern-day Russian RPO activities are much different than the actual destruction of target satellites in the first IS program, Russia’s current activities indicate that it is reviving its efforts in co-orbital counterspace technology development.

Russia’s most recent kinetic ASAT tests have used direct-ascent technologies, representing a departure from the traditional co-orbital systems that dominated the Soviet approach. Intended for missile defense purposes, the PL-19 Nudol missile is capable of striking a satellite in LEO in much less time than a co-orbital ASAT. This system has been tested at least five times, but analysts disagree whether the launches should be considered ASAT tests, since the PL-19 Nudol missile system is also a missile interceptor.28

Other missiles in the Russian arsenal that are not specifically designed to strike satellites can also reach objects in space. The S-300 and S-400 missiles are surface-to-air missiles that are capable of “near space”29 activity. In 2018, the Deputy Commander- in-Chief of the Russian Air Force said that the follow-on surface-to-air missile system, the S-500, would be available shortly.30 The S-500 is expected to be capable of reaching altitudes of up to 600 km.31 In 2013, the Russian government expressed interest in building an air-to-space system designed to “intercept absolutely everything that flies from space.”32 This view of a unified air, missile, and space defense is consistent with the organizational changes implemented by the Russian government in 2011 and 2015. In 2017, a Russian Aerospace Forces squadron commander confirmed that an ASAT missile had been designed for use with the MiG-31BM aircraft.33 Some experts have interpreted the confirmation as a revival of the Soviet-era Kontakt program which was first tested in 1991.34

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Image Source: U.S. Air Force

Russia may have adapted Soviet-era non-kinetic systems for modern day use, just as it has adapted Soviet-era kinetic systems. The earliest anti-satellite research conducted by the Soviet Union prior to the original IS co-orbital ASAT program included several tests dedicated to understanding the destructive behavior of nuclear detonations at high altitudes. In October and November of 1962, Russia detonated three nuclear warheads approximately 400 km above the Earth’s surface. These tests resulted in damage to other Soviet satellites, and the Soviets began working on a kill mechanism with more localized effects.35 In April 1999, Vladimir Lukin, chairman of the Duma International Affairs Committee, told a U.S. congressman during an official visit that Russia had retained the Soviet Union’s capability to detonate a high-altitude nuclear weapon.36

In more recent years, Russia has actively developed and tested directed-energy counterspace weapons. In 2010, Russian reports announced the development of a laser ASAT weapon for use aboard a Beriev A-60 jet.37 The system, now named Sokol Eshelon, meaning “Falcon Echelon,” appears to be a revival of a Soviet system first developed in 1965.38 Leaked photos from 2011 show the new A-60 system featuring a laser mounted on the top of the plane, suggesting that the laser fires upwards. An insignia on the side of the plane carries the name of the Soviet predecessor program and depicts a falcon with a laser beam striking a satellite that appears to be a space telescope. The laser was reportedly used in 2009 to illuminate a Japanese satellite at an altitude of 1,500 km.39 Although a 2012 report said the program was halted in 2011 due to budget cuts, a second Russian news report from the same year claimed the program is still operational.40 A laser mounted on an A-60 aircraft could be capable of dazzling or blinding sensors on satellites; at sufficient power levels, the laser could also potentially damage other light- or heat-sensitive physical components on a satellite, such as solar arrays. An airborne laser platform is also more challenging for an adversary to locate and avoid because it is inherently mobile.

Ivan Savitsky / RovSpotters /

Russia also has a robust network of ground-based lasers that are ostensibly for scientific purposes as part of the International Laser Ranging Service (ILRS).41 Laser ranging involves sending short laser pulses to a satellite in order to observe the pulses’ reflection and determine the distance between it and the observation site.142 Although there is no evidence showing that Russia’s ILRS lasers have been used to dazzle satellites, some of the same technologies used for laser ranging could be adapted for a counterspace system.43

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Image Source: Jose Gil / Adobe Stock

Recent conflicts in Ukraine and Syria demonstrate that Russia retains advanced electronic attack capabilities, despite some analysts’ claims that Russia’s ability to jam and spoof satellites has declined since 1991.46 During the Crimean conflict in 2014, Russia jammed GPS signals in Ukraine, which resulted in the loss of GPS for radios and phones, as well as the grounding of some remotely piloted aircraft. According to independent reports from Ukrainian analysts, Russia used six different jamming and radio monitoring platforms in Ukraine from 2014 to 2017, including the R-330Zh jammer and the R-381T2 ultra-high frequency (UHF) radio monitoring system.47 A video leaked in 2015 confirms Russia’s deployment of the Krasukha-4 truck-mounted jamming system in Syria. Reports also indicate that Russia supplied the Assad regime with R-330P jammers of its own.48 In 2016, the Russian military began installing a GPS jamming system called Pole-21 on each of the country’s 250,000 cell phone towers. Each Pole-21 system has an effective range of 80 km.49
A Russian Krashukha-4 truck-mounted jamming system. VITALY V. KUZMIN
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Image Source: spainter_vfx / Adobe Stock

Russia’s cyber capabilities are among the most advanced in the world, and it uses these capabilities on a regular basis in all domains. Since 2007, a Russian-speaking group of hackers, likely linked to the Russian government, has stolen satellite data used by government groups, militaries, and embassies around the world.50 This group, known for using malware called Turla, attacks older communications satellites that still use unencrypted data links.51

Outside of the space domain, Russia is regularly accused of engaging in extreme cyberwarfare. In 2007, Russia was blamed for cyberattacks against Estonia which paralyzed online banking services, government communications, and Estonian media outlets.52 Similarly, Ukraine has sustained thousands of Russian cyberattacks throughout the Crimean conflict over the past few years.53 In 2017, four U.S. intelligence agencies assessed with “high confidence” that Russia interfered with the 2016 presidential election using a variety of cyberattacks and social engineering schemes.54 The governments of the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Kyrgyzstan, and Georgia have each accused Russia of similar cyberattacks.55 Given Russia’s prolific use of cyberattacks in other domains, Russia’s cyber capabilities likely pose a significant threat to space systems as well.