In recent years, Russia repeatedly demonstrated the increasingly advanced orbital maneuvering capabilities of its satellites by conspicuously moving them closer to Russian, United States and European orbital space assets. These experiments involved the Cosmos 2499 satellite in 2014 (Habr, November 23, 2014), Cosmos 2504 in 2015 (Interfax, July 20, 2015), Cosmos 2519 and other Russian satellites in 2017–2018 (TASS, June 24, 2017; Interfax, August 23, 2017), and Cosmos 2543 in 2020 (RIA Novosti, July 23, 2020). The incidents are presumed to be milestones in Russia’s development of inspector satellites and anti-satellite (ASAT) weapons despite objective limitations that Russia faces in this field.
As of the end of July 2020, Russia has 170 satellites in Earth orbit, and 104 of them are military:
- 50 communications satellites;
- 28 GLONASS navigation satellites;
- 17 satellites for Earth observation (optical, radar and electronic intelligence), including 4 Tundra satellites for missile early warning along with the Cosmos 2542, with its sub-satellite, Cosmos 2543, which reportedly conducted some inspections of advanced US intelligence satellites (Interfax, February 7);
- 3 satellites for Earth science (geodetic surveying), including Cosmos 2519, with its non-counted inspector sub-satellite;
- 6 satellites for technology development, including Cosmos 2499, Cosmos 2504 and Cosmos 2535/2536/2537/2538 that have demonstrated proximity orbital maneuvering (Ucsusa.org, April 1; Spacelaunchreport.com, accessed July 31).
Most of Russia’s spacecraft launched into orbit are related to the defense sector. But they, like Russia’s communication satellites, suffer from inadequate technologies and shortages of electronic components caused by Western sanctions. Practically speaking, this means relatively short operational lifespans (up to seven years) for Russian communication satellites and relatively small numbers of communication channels provided by them. Indeed, the country’s GLONASS constellation suffers from comparable limitations (see EDM, April 27). The only exception is a group of four Blagovest geostationary satellites that were launched in 2017–2019, which have lifespans of 15 years thanks to the fact that Russia imported their electronics before the passage of the sanctions.
During the last decade, 2011–July 2020, Russia has deployed 73 military-related satellites into Earth orbit (Ucsusa.org, April 1): 27 communication satellites, 22 Earth-observation satellites, 18 GLONASS satellites and 6 technology-development satellites. Some of these have since been removed from service, though at least 20 satellites launched in 2011–2013 achieved or exceeded their warranted lifetimes. Moreover, Russia has 34 satellites launched before 2011 that also exceeded their planned lifespans. These numbers show a relatively high rate of rotation, with most efforts by Russia’s space program apparently spent on the replacement rather than expansion of satellites in orbit.
Moscow’s space-based priorities constitute three key classes. Communication and navigation satellites are first because of their role in the modernization of Russia’s Armed Forces, which includes efforts to improve command-and-control systems (see EDM, November 6, 2019, November 20, 2019, March 4, 2020). Second are early-warning assets for nuclear deterrence purposes. And the third important category of orbital spacecraft is space-based intelligence collection. This particular hierarchy of priorities is confirmed by Russian military satellite deployment plans for 2022 onward. Yet, while those plans clearly include technologies related to orbital maneuvering, they conspicuously say little about anti-satellite weapons (Krasnaya Zvezda, July 3, 2020).
The United States possesses more than 1,300 satellites, more than 190 of which are military assets. Other North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) members have more than 40 military satellites. China has more than 360 satellites, and almost 120 of them are military. These statistics suggest that even if it is technically possible for a state to target individual satellites (particularly in low-Earth orbits) using ground-based missiles, it would presently be almost impossible to target enough of them to sufficiently degrade whole orbital constellations. The same holds true for anti-satellite satellites: even nano-satellites that could hypothetically be adapted for ASAT missions would require at least tens of launchers in order to effectively target adversary satellite systems. Moreover, such nano-ASATs work only in lower orbits, require days to achieve their target, and their operational lifespans are too short to be deployed on a long-term basis. As such, present-day ASAT technologies are rather limited in a military sense. Nevertheless, Russia may have other probable reasons that can explain why it has been developing and continually testing its “strange” maneuvering satellites.
First, Russia is developing space-based electronic intelligence and jamming capabilities. Though it is not able to move all of its electronic warfare (EW) capabilities into orbit, Moscow does seek to complement ground-based EW systems so as to more thoroughly cover the Russian Armed Forces’ future operational theaters. At the same time, maneuver satellites sent in to inspect NATO military spacecraft can help Moscow understand how the Alliance’s Command, Control, Communications, Computers, Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (C4ISR) systems work.
Second, and relatedly, Russia needs to improve its espionage tools because its access to advanced foreign space technologies is constrained. As such, Moscow may want to try to analyze foreign satellites’ technical specifications. Of course, even having done so, that does not necessarily mean the Russian defense-industrial sector will be able to successfully reproduce this foreign technology (see EDM, February 27).
Third, as alluded to above, Russia is crucially interested in extending the lifespans of its satellite constellations from orbit (repairs, replacement/upgrade of internal components, etc.)—a capability already demonstrated by US firm Northrop Grumman’s Mission Extension Vehicle (Northropgrumman.com, April 17). According to the Russian Ministry of Defense, the Cosmos 2535 and 2536 spacecraft have been tested in such missions (Mil.ru, August 1, 2019).
Fourth, Russia may be seeking to add one more level to its so-called “escalate to de-escalate” concept, which currently appears to rely only on non-strategic nuclear arms (Stephen Blank, “Putin’s ‘Asymmetric Strategy’: Nuclear and New-Type Weapons in Russian Defense Policy,” Russia’s Military Strategy and Doctrine, The Jamestown Foundation, 2019). Essentially, Russia may try to target single low-Earth-orbit satellites in order to spook an advanced adversary from acting against the Russian Armed Forces.
Finally, all these steps create political uncertainty for other space actors. And therefore, they are arguably designed to force the West to talk with Moscow on Moscow’s terms. For instance, Russia, which understands its long-term disadvantages in developing advanced military space technologies compared to other active space actors, is highly interested in foreign governments accepting its draft of the Treaty on the Prevention of the Placement of Weapons in Outer Space, the Threat or Use of Force Against Outer Space Objects (PPWT) (Mid.ru, July 31, 2020). But so far having been unable to bring the US onboard, Russia, may seek to offset its diplomatic failures by creating the impression of a mounting Russian threat in space that can only be addressed politically.