Russia conducted its first kinetic satellite interception on November 15, 2021. A ground-based (presumably silo-based) missile was launched from the Plesetsk launch site and targeted the dead Soviet military satellite Kosmos-1408 at an altitude of about 480 kilometers—considered low Earth orbit (LEO). The Russian Ministry of Defense justified this action as a countermeasure to the United States’ efforts to maintain space superiority, and it referred to the previous anti-satellite (ASAT) tests carried out by China in 2007, the US in 2008, and India in 2019 (TASS, November 16; see EDM, November 18). Meanwhile, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs has sought to convert this test into a diplomatic asset or bargaining chip in US-Russian discussions on strategic stability, missile defense and space security (Mid.ru, November 16, 2021). Yet all that said, it is important to point out that while Russia did apparently realize an ASAT test, it was not the test of an “ASAT weapon” per se.
Russian ballistic missile defense (BMD) has been undergoing complex modernization for years now (Rossiyskaya Gazeta, February 3, 2016; Krasnaya Zvezda, November 27, 2020; Izvestia, November 18, 2021). One of its newest systems, the A-235, will be replacing the A-135 Amur BMD system, arrayed around Moscow, which was developed in the 1970s–1980s and fully deployed by the mid-1990s. In 2017–2021, Russia tested this new high-altitude interceptor at least 11 times (Mil.ru, June 6, 2017–September 17, 2021). The interceptor seems to be a modernized version of the 53T6 missile (ABM-3 Gazelle), used within the aging A-135 system. Besides the conventional/kinetic warhead and presumably updated guidance system, the new interceptor probably uses a novel solid fuel—an area Russia made advances in during the 2010s. Notably, the test launches were made at Sary Shagan, Russia’s missile test site in Kazakhstan, not at Plesetsk, from where the November ASAT trial reportedly originated. Moreover, the visible dimensions of the launch pod container (10–11 meters in length and about 2 meters in diameter) as well as the size of the system’s dedicated MAZ-7310 8×8 carrier vehicle allow one to conclude that the tested interceptor cannot hit targets at an altitude of 480 km, even if it is able to cross the Kármán line (boundary between the Earth’s atmosphere and outer space). Together, all that evidence suggests the new ballistic missile interceptor regularly being assessed at Sary Shagan could not have been the same missile used in last month’s interception of the Kosmos-1408 satellite.
That said, the A-135 Amur was also designed to use another projectile specifically for exo-atmospheric interception: the 51T6 (ABM-4 Gorgon) two-stage missile, which was 20 meters long, weighed 30 tons, and could be armed with a nuclear warhead. However, interceptors of this type were retired in 2006 (Dfnc.ru, December 12, 2019) and have yet to be replaced. As such, Plesetsk could become a test site for a modernized version of the 51T6 interceptor under development that will receive a conventional warhead and other advanced specifications. Indeed, the state-owned corporation Almaz-Antey, the designer and manufacturer of all major Russian air- and missile-defense systems, ordered the modernization of the missile test site at Plesetsk specifically for the purpose of testing a “14Ts033” system in 2017 (Zakupki.gov.ru, December 15, 2017).
Crucially, without nuclear warheads, such interceptors will not need specialized maintenance or logistics facilities. And so they may be deployed alongside the developing network of Voronezh early-warning radars distributed around Russia’s borders (Interfax-AVN, October 4, 2021)—akin to the deployment area of 51T6 interceptors near the Don-2N missile-defense radar in Sofrino, near Moscow, several decades ago. This missile’s specifications also permit the possibility of using mobile launchers, instead of only silo-based ones, that may be combined in missile defense battalions, regiments and/or brigades to reach a symbolic parity with the US’s ground-based network of interceptors.
Almaz-Antey, together with the Russian government, invested large sums of money in its industrial facilities over the previous decade. The Kalinin plant in Yekaterinburg, which previously manufactured 53T6 interceptors (this plant also produces Kalibr-NK long-range cruise missiles), has been modernized (Zakupki.gov.ru, January 1, 2014); and so have the corporation’s factories in St. Petersburg. Moreover, two new plants were constructed, in Kirov (Almaz-antey.ru, February 25, 2016) and Nizhniy Novgorod (Almaz-antey.ru, March 30, 2016), to boost missile manufacturing, especially for the S-400 and S-500 systems (Kommersant, February 26, 2018), as well as to duplicate the output of the MMZ “Avangard” plant in Moscow (Integral, April 25, 2019). The last plant was a manufacturer of 51T6 interceptors in the past. The total cost of these efforts totaled 120 billion rubles ($3 billion) by 2017, and created almost 5,000 new jobs. Such an aggressive expansion of manufacturing capacity suggests Almaz-Antey needed additional production lines for some other types of missiles beyond its well-known systems. With these newly built or expanded plants in place, the production levels of the (presumed) replacements for the 53T6 and 51T6 interceptors will likely top out at fewer than 20 missiles per year for the foreseeable future.
In trying to develop this next-generation heavy interceptor, Russia needed either a special training target (which itself would cost of tens of millions of dollars to build and that the interceptor could well miss) or simply an old satellite, which is big enough to decrease the probability of missing and costs nothing. So despite the reputational losses that came out of the November 15 test due to the generation of a cloud of dangerous space debris, Moscow importantly acquired a new tool of diplomatic pressure to use against Washington (see EDM, November 18). That is particularly the case since it is becoming ever more difficult for Russia to compete with the US, Europe, China and other actors in the fields of space exploration and technologies (see EDM, March 31, June 22, October 20).
Nevertheless, Russia does not need special, dedicated kinetic ASAT capabilities. Technically, any exo-atmospheric ballistic missile interceptor or even a regular intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) could be repurposed to target an LEO satellite. But the growing density and progressive miniaturization of satellites in space are increasingly making kinetic ASAT systems senseless from both an economic and a military point of view. Ground-based (Mil.ru, December 17, 2018; TASS, August 24, 2020) and space-based (Voennaya Mysl, October 2019) electronic warfare (EW) systems are generally considered to be a superior means of disrupting Western militaries’ dominance in space systems in the operational theater. Nonetheless, Russia’s aim is to link the space security agenda with ballistic missile defense, and it is ready to trade away this unnecessary kinetic ASAT capability (utilizing exo-atmospheric interceptors) to make a strategic deal with the United States and push the latter into giving up its missile-defense-related space programs.