International press coverage of the recent test of Russia’s latest anti-satellite missile has been in the news for the past week. For the first time since 1982, Moscow has successfully destroyed a decommissioned satellite. Although the exact type itself remains obscure, it is not unthinkable that we have seen the first demonstration of the recently mentioned S-550, which, together with the S-500, could fundamentally change the capabilities of Russian air defenses. While the West, most notably the United States, has condemned Russia for what it considers its ‘irresponsible behaviour’, Moscow is not the first – nor the last – to test such a device.
According to a statement released by Defense Minister Sergey Shoygu, Russia successfully conducted an anti-satellite – ASAT – missile test on 15 November with a ‘promising system under development’. The designated target was the now defunct Soviet reconnaissance satellite Tselina-D, launched in 1982 and known as Kosmos-1408, at an altitude of 460 kilometers.
While this was not the first test of its kind, the Russian action provoked a strong reaction and opposition from the West, especially from the United States. Foreign Minister Anthony Blinken has called the experiment reckless and irresponsible, as Russia seeks to militarize space. While taking a more subtle stance, NASA Director General Bill Nelson presented the event in a similar way, as a threat to the ISS and China’s Tiangong space station.
According to the US press, the crew of the International Space Station retreated into the Soyuz and Crew Dragon modules following the test to prepare for a possible evacuation procedure in case the fragments of Kosmos had hit the ISS.
“Despite the fact that Roscosmos declined to comment on the reports, a video released by the Russian Ministry of Defense showed that the satellite’s destruction did not endanger the ISS crew, as even the smallest distance between the debris and the space station was more than 40 kilometers”
But what kind of device could have been the interceptor missile mentioned in the test? Although the US statement mentioned a land-based anti-satellite missile, there are two potential candidates for this role. The first – and presumably the most likely – is the 53T6 interceptor missile of the A-235 ‘Nudol’ system, while the other aspirant is the 30P6 ‘Kontakt’ complex.
While we have previously covered the A-235 and its operation in detail here in our portal – the article is in Hungarian –, the 30P6 Kontakt is less known not only in Hungary but also internationally. Similarly to the American ASAT system, the 30P6 is made up from two components: a MiG-31D “Type 7” launch vehicle and the 79M6 anti-satellite missile itself. During the interception, the MiG-31 launches the missile itself after climbing to a high altitude, which then leaves the Earth’s atmosphere and destroys its target in low Earth orbit by a direct hit. The main principle of operation of direct hit weapon systems is the destructive power of kinetic energy.
“Compared to ground-based alternatives, launching a missile from high altitude can save a considerable amount of energy – and therefore making the missile smaller by having less propellant – because it does not have to pass through the densest layer of the atmosphere”
Although the development itself started back in the 1980s Soviet Union, the lack of funds following the USSR’s collapse meant that work was suspended until the 2000s. Although Russia has since tested several elements of the system – notably at the largest test site in Kazakhstan, the Sary Shagan testing range – and modernized some components, little information is available on its exact state of completion.
In addition, Izvestia also raises the possibility of a third option. This is the case of the S-550, which we have recently covered (article in Hungarian). According to the article, written by Anton Lavrov and Alexei Ramm, although the media generally associate the designation ‘Nudol’ with the A-235 system, which protects Moscow and the surrounding strategically important areas, this is not the case. In fact, the A-235 is under development by JSC Concern VKO Almaz-Antey under the designation ‘Samolet-M’, not ‘Nudol’. In other words, they are two separate systems.
“Although no official information on the Nudol has yet been released by the Russian government, publicly available data on its construction and procurement show that the development itself has been ongoing since 2011”
In addition, while the A-235 system uses silo-mounted missiles – although some earlier reports contradict this, but the exact information is not available due to the secrecy of the development – the Nudol launchers are self-propelled. This is confirmed by a 2014 press release issued by the Belarusian MZKT machine-building plant, which announced that it had won the contract to develop transporter elector launcher (TEL) based on the six-axis MZKT-79291 for the Nudol complex.
“Combining all the available information, Izvestia concludes that the Nudol system itself is nothing more than the recently released but largely unknown S-550, based on the S-500 ‘Prometheus’ system”
According to military expert Dmitry Boltenkov, there is a direct link between the announcement of the S-550 and the missile test. He believes that it can hardly be a coincidence that less than a week after the announcement of the existence of the S-550, Russia successfully destroyed a satellite in space. Moreover – and this is now the editor’s comment – after 39 years this was the first anti-satellite test carried out by Moscow since 1982.
Although there had previously been unconfirmed reports that the S-500 system would be capable of using the then still identical code-named A-235/Nudol’s 14A042 electro-optical guided missile on a mobile platform, this had not yet been linked to any other program. However, while the Nudol’s missiles themselves are not compatible with the S-500 launch vehicles (TELs) – since a much larger diameter missile, and hence the aforementioned MZKT-79291 launch platform, is required to intercept a satellite – it can use the Prometheus’ battle management and fire control radars and command control posts.
“If the latter is indeed the case, and Nudol actually covers the S-550 subsystem as part of the S-500, then the S-500 family is truly a system that offers unprecedented compatibility and versatility as the part of a single network of aerospace defense assets”
So far, Russia and the Soviet Union – and essentially all countries developing air defense and missile defense systems – have created separate dedicated platforms for anti-air and anti-missile missions, with their own subcategories. While some air defense systems have limited capability to destroy ballistic targets, and some missile defense systems have limited capability to intercept objects in low Earth orbit (LEO), one system has not yet been able to do all of this together.
“But it seems that the combination of the S-500 and the S-550 is capable of fighting ballistic, aerodynamic and space targets simultaneously, based on the former’s radar and command and control infrastructure”
Moreover, the S-500’s ability to interoperate with the A-235 system will further enhance the capabilities of the multi-layered air defense ring around Moscow, in particular by intercepting intermediate-range ballistic missiles (IRBMs) and their intercontinental (ICBM) counterparts.
Don’t be confused by the title, although the show is largely about the S-350 ‘Vityaz’ system, it also talks about the compatibility of the A-235 and S-500 missiles.
It is also worth looking beyond the United States’ outrage at the targeted electronic reconnaissance satellite Kosmos-1408 (ELINT) and the potential threat posed by the debris. Kosmos-1408 was originally planned to have a lifetime of only six months, so although it is not known exactly when it became inoperable, it is likely to have been several decades ago. The orbit of the device itself had been on a steadily descending curve prior to the test, as instead of the initial altitude of 645-679 kilometers, the strike occurred at the aforementioned 460 kilometers.
“According to some sources, the satellite was actually modelling the US X-37B unmanned space shuttle, which has an orbital altitude of exactly in the 400-500 kilometer range”
The latter is also a project shrouded in great secrecy, as officially it is only a technology demonstrator to help develop reusable space vehicles. Yet the fact that it has been in space for more than 700 days on several occasions suggests otherwise. Some theories suggest that the X-37B’s main mission is multi-spectrum electronic and optical reconnaissance, while others see it as a combat vehicle with which the US can destroy satellites of hostile countries. In the former case, the design of the X-37B has the advantage of being able to change its orbit to a much greater extent than traditional reconnaissance satellites, and thus to defend itself against interceptor systems. Combat use is potentially made possible by the X-37B’s payload, which can accommodate several types of weaponry.
“Without the shoot-down on 15 November, the Soviet satellite Kosmos-1408 would probably have been destroyed very soon after entering the Earth’s atmosphere, but the exact fate of the space debris it produced is currently uncertain”
While the Russian Ministry of Defense says that neither the test itself nor the debris generated poses a threat to the International Space Station or other human space activities, the United States says otherwise. According to Ned Price, a spokesman for the US State Department, the fragmentation of more than 1,500 satellites in the range detectable by ground radar alone could pose a threat to both manned space missions and commercial satellites for several years or even decades. In any case, the orbits of the most important navigation satellite systems, such as GPS, GLONASS and Galileo, will not be affected by the debris generated, since their orbital altitude is in the region of 20 thousand km.
“On the other hand, it is legitimate to ask whether there is any international regulation against the militarization of space and incidents such as this test”
Well, in practice, essentially not, since the 1967 Outer Space Treaty merely states the prohibition of the deployment or use of nuclear weapons in space, alongside the importance of the peaceful uses of outer space. The deployment and use of conventional weapons based on kinetic energy, lasers or other methods is not contrary to any international legal clause. Indeed, Russia is far from being the first, or even the only, country not only to develop anti-satellite weapons but also to test them in space.
“The most famous such incident, repeatedly cited by the Russian Foreign and Defense Ministries, occurred 12 years ago with the United States”
In February 2008, the destroyer USS Lake Erie used the AEGIS BMD SM-3 missile to destroy the failed US spy satellite US-193 at an altitude of 247 kilometers. Most of the 147 pieces of debris generated during the intercept were burnt up by June 2008 after entering the Earth’s atmosphere, while the last pieces were burnt up in October 2009.
But we could also mention the highly publicised destruction of the Chinese Fengyun-1C meteorological satellite at an altitude of 865 kilometres in 2007, or India’s test in March 2019, which each produced a volume of space debris comparable to the estimated Russian one. In addition, the ISS orbit change on 10 November was necessary precisely because of the hazardous debris generated by Fengyun-1C.
Anyway, it is worth noting that Russia, in cooperation with China, has tried on several occasions to get a legally binding and universal international treaty adopted in the framework of the UN and disarmament conferences.
“But this has been repeatedly rejected by the United States”
Most recently, in October, Russia called on the global community, in the UN General Assembly, to refrain from developing or using space weapons, both in space and on ground targets. It is therefore no coincidence that the Russian Defense Ministry is accusing its American counterpart of double standards. Moreover, as the statement says, it is precisely the United States that is moving closer to the militarization of space with the creation of the United States Space Force in 2020 and is not willing to change its plans in this respect.
Without an international treaty, the militarization of space is likely to continue in the future, not only by the states that are considered major space powers, but also by their smaller counterparts. Furthermore, the downing of Kosmos-1408 can be seen from a Russian perspective more as a demonstration of the capabilities of the Nudol system – although the aforementioned 30P6 Contact is also in competition – showing that Moscow is as capable as Beijing or Washington. Moreover, since the primary use of these assets is not associated with anti-satellite activities, there is no need to fear that Moscow will shoot down random space objects overnight.