The Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan has just finished a series of anti-terror exercises staged by Russia’s National Anti-Terror Committee and the Federal Security Service (FSB), codenamed “Baikonur-Anti-Terror 2007” (Itar-Tass, September 26).
Established by the USSR in 1955, Baikonur is the world’s oldest and largest continuously operational space launch complex. After the 1991 collapse of the USSR the Russian space program continued to operate from the site under Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) agreements.
The exercise scenario had two stages. First, a group of international terrorists infiltrated Belarus, Russia, and Kazakhstan before moving onto the Baikonur complex, where they took hostages and seized the facility’s KAZ oxygen and nitrogen-producing plant, which would create an environmental hazard if it exploded. The terrorists demanded $5 million and the release of their associates from prison (Informatsionnoe Agentstvo Trend Novosti, September 27). Russian and CIS anti-terrorist personnel responded after discussions with the terrorists collapsed.
The exercises deployed special forces and armed paratroopers equipped with specialized gear dropped from aircraft, ending with seven “terrorists” killed and three captured, while all hostages were released unharmed. The operation drew a broad audience, including Kazakh Prime Minister Karim Masimov, the Russian Federation’s National Anti-Terror Committee deputy head Vladimir Bulavin, CIS Anti-Terror Center director Andrei Novikov, and various representatives of CIS special services and law-enforcement agencies (Mediagruppa Zvezda, September 27).
Commenting on the scenario, National Anti-Terror Committee member Vice-Admiral Yuri Alexeyev said, “The basic purpose of the exercise is evaluating the workability and effectiveness of a proposed situational reaction plan in the event of a crisis situation, precipitated by a terrorist act on an ecologically dangerous site. During the second phase of the study basic questions of interaction between the relevant subdivisions of the relevant CIS ministries and departments will be worked out, with the assignments drawn up for conducting joint measures for the suppression of terrorist acts. [The exercise] also allows special units to master the practical operational and combat measures necessary to both release hostages and neutralize terrorists operating on the ecologically dangerous spaceport terrain.”
Afterwards Bulavin said, “The general opinion is that all stages of the exercises succeeded at a high level of expertise. All the subdivisions that participated in the drills received excellent evaluations. If a real [terrorist] situation occurs, then it is possible to confidently inform the Presidents of our countries that the combat mission will be solved, most likely without either losses of personnel or civilian casualties” (RIA-Novosti, September 27).
The Russian Federation pays Kazakhstan $115 million annually to rent the Baikonur Cosmodrome under a lease arrangement that expires in 2050. The massive Baikonur complex covers 2,593 square miles. As the terms of the agreement are currently a source of tension between Almaty and Moscow, Russia accordingly is upgrading is Plesetsk Cosmodrome in Arkhangelsk oblast as a fallback alternative should arrangements fall through. As Baikonur also has separate facilities for launching classified Russian military satellites, however, it seems likely that Moscow will continue to utilize this facility for the foreseeable future.
Civilian satellite launches from Baikonur are provided by International Launch Services, a U.S.-Russian joint venture with exclusive rights for global commercial sales and mission management of satellite launches on Russian Proton rockets; since 1996 the company has overseen 46 commercial Proton launches and has 15 scheduled launches through 2010.
However, “terrorists” are not Baikonur’s only problem. On September 6 the launch of the Japanese telecommunications satellite JCSat-11 failed 139 seconds into its flight, experiencing engine malfunction and second-stage separation failure, and crashing 25 miles southeast of the town of Zhezkazgan (Itar-Tass, September 27). The Proton launch was insured for $300 million.
Kazakhstan immediately suspended all further launches pending an investigation. Prior to the debacle Baikonur’s Federal Space Center press service reported that seven launches had been planned for this autumn (Kazakhstan Segodnya, September 6). The Baikonur Cosmodrome had already carried out 10 successful launches in 2007, with an additional 10 launches scheduled, making Baikonur the busiest launch facility in the world. The disaster follows the 2006 failure of a Russian Dnepr rocket that crashed after lifting off from Baikonur; eventually Russia paid Kazakhstan $1.1 million in compensation. For the failed September 6 launch Kazakhstan is seeking a “minimum” of $8.6 million (MiGnews.com, September 27).
While Moscow and Astana posture and wrangle over responsibility and compensation, Baikonur is quietly proceeding with preparations for launching two Russian spacecraft next month, the SoyuzFG with a payload of Global Star four satellites and the manned spacecraft Soyuz TMA-11 with a crew of three cosmonauts to the International Space Station (Kazakhstan Segodnya, September 24). As the TMA-11 crew of Yuri Malenchenko (Russia), Peggy Whitson (U.S.) and Sheikh Muszafar Shukor (Malaysia) have arrived at the Baikonur Cosmodrome, the issue of suspended flights seems moot, even if the issue of compensation is not (Olo.ru, September 27).
The reality is, in an increasingly telecom-linked “global village,” neither Russia, Kazakhstan, nor their international partners can afford to have Baikonur idle for long.