Three months into Russia’s full-scale war of aggression against Ukraine, the role of Russian military reconnaissance and communications satellites remains noticeably underdeveloped. Although Moscow has 102 military satellites in orbit, the efficiency of its battlefield reconnaissance, surveillance, targeting, and command-and-control systems still seems to be lower than one would have expected for a country with a space program and military-industrial complex ostensibly as advanced as Russia’s. Its forces have been unable to destroy Ukraine’s military infrastructure or eliminate Ukrainian aviation and air/missile-defense systems. When it comes to inadequate reconnaissance and targeting, Russian troubles apparently hinge on a shortage of open optical and synthetic aperture radar satellites. Whereas, its deficient command, control and communications (C3) systems are the result of having too few satellite communication channels and terminals.
Only two Russian military satellites—Persona No. 2 (Cosmos 2486), launched in 2013, and Persona No. 3 (Cosmos 2506) put into orbit two years later—are optical intelligence spacecraft; they follow sun-synchronous orbits 700 kilometers above the surface of the Earth. Three Russian Bars-M satellites also travel along sun-synchronous orbits but below 600 kilometers: Cosmos 2503 (launched in 2015), Cosmos 2515 (2016) and Cosmos 2556 (2022). The Bars-Ms mostly carry out topography and mapping missions (Rossiyskaya Gazeta, February 1). The first experimental, next-generation optical-intelligence satellite, designed to replace the Persona assets, was the EMKA No. 1 (Cosmos 2525) (Kommersant, July 28, 2016). It was launched in 2018 but burned up in the atmosphere in April 2021. Another two satellites of this new generation, Cosmos 2551 and Cosmos 2555, were lost during failed launch attempts, in September 2021 and April 2022, respectively.
The Russian armed forces likely also rely on five Kanopus-V civilian optical imaging satellites, which use electronics and software produced in the United Kingdom (RIA Novosti, February 26, 2020; TASS, February 24, 2016). However, each of them can only cover the same territory (revisit rate) once every 15 days (Cyberleninka.ru, 2016), and the low resolution allows imaging of mostly massive stationary objects (Innoter.com, 2022). Another civil constellation of optical imaging satellites involves a single Resurs-P satellite (Lenta, January 19, 2022) with a revisit rate of three to six days (Karta.yanao.ru, 2015; Innoter, 2022). These space assets would permit Moscow to plan bombing runs and monitor damage to Ukrainian cities and towns, while the Resurs-P enables little more than analysis of permanent, non-camouflaged military installations.
The Russian Armed Forces possess only one satellite, named Kondor (Cosmos 2487 of 2013), equipped with a radar locator. However, the deployment of newer-generation Kondor satellites, Kondor-FKA, equipped with synthetic aperture radars, was postponed until 2022–2025 (Ikiweb.ru, 2017; RIA Novosti, March 27, 2021). The specifications and efficiency of this new spacecraft is unknown, but it is doubtful it could significantly contribute to Russia’s military campaign in Ukraine.
Russia additionally operates a satellite electronic intelligence system—Liana—which consists of five Lotos and one Pion-NKS satellites. The system is used mostly for naval intelligence. Lotos satellites are equipped with passive radar surveillance systems, but the Pion-NKS (Cosmos 2550) has an active radar system (Izvestia, March 6, 2021). In orbit since June 2021, Pion-NKS represents the most advanced satellite of the Liana constellation, and Russia could theoretically be using it in the war against Ukraine. Yet like in the case of the Kondor satellite, the lone Pion-NKS’s contribution to Russian combat activity in Ukraine is presumedly low.
In total, therefore, Russia’s existing space intelligence capabilities consist of only 12 satellites, limiting the effective use of high-precision weapons and aviation. For comparison, the Russian military studied the United States’ experience during the campaign in Iraq in 2003 and found that the US military relied on almost 30 reconnaissance, surveillance and intelligence satellites of different types, including those provided by the allies and by private companies (Zarubezhnoe Voennoe Obozrenie, No.11, 2003). Russia faces several challenges today. It is not able to produce satellites that match even the quality of US assets dating to the early 2000s; its satellite constellations suffer from operational problems; and Moscow still has not developed an orbital-based analysis system or a means to effectively distribute the information collected by its satellites. But even if it could address all these shortcomings, Russia simply does not have enough satellites for a war of such scale. Moreover, the Iraqi forces were much less combat capable in 2003 than the current Ukrainian Armed Forces, and the battlefield environment of Iraq was less urbanized and less populated than today’s Ukraine.
The priority for the Russian military space program over the previous decade was to fill the gap in communications, and the country has 45 military communication satellites in orbit today. More than 30 of them have exceeded their warranted lifetime, however, like the Strela-3 and Rodnik constellations (Strela-3 satellites aged out of service many years ago and are likely hardly usable now). However, Russia deployed six Meridian satellites into a Molniya orbit and four Blagovest satellites into geo-stationary orbit in the 2010s. The Russian Armed Forces additionally rely on advanced civilian satellite communication systems: 14 Express geostationary satellites belonging to the state-owned Russian Satellite Communication Company, 5 Yamal geostationary satellites belonging to Gazprom (Bastion, December 26, 2020), and 18 of Roscosmos’s Gonets low-orbit satellites. The total capacity of the Gonets system is much lower than 40,000 consumers (Roscosmos, March 12, 2022). Considering the facts that the number of the Russian troops engaged in the 2022 re-invasion of Ukraine may have reached as high as 190,000 (BBC News, February 23) and these troops attacked from five different directions, Russian satellite communication capacity certainly would not have been high enough to support effective warfare.
Moreover, the speed of a typical Russian ground-based satellite communication terminal is 32–4,096 kilobits per second (kbit/s) in the Ku-band and 32–1,024 kbit/s in the C-band (Bastion, December 26, 2020). So even if Russia possessed more satellites and each Russian battalion tactical group operated a dedicated satellite communication terminal, the total Russian satellite communication bandwidth would be several times higher than the United States and its allies had during Operation Desert Storm in 1991, but several times lower than the US and its allies used during Operation Iraqi Freedom over a decade later (Nps.edu, September 2008). Finally, Russian military communications are organized as a vertically oriented hierarchy, with the National Defense Operations Center at the top, rather than a true network-centric system. This set-up, common to many dictatorial countries, further undermines Russia’s already insufficient satellite communication system, reducing its battlefield utility. Thus, the highly centralized political system President Vladimir Putin is trying to preserve plays its own role in reducing the usability of Russian military satellites.