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Cut-away view of the Almaz space station, for which Russian developed technologies to defend it from ASAT attacks. (source)

Self-defense in space: protecting Russian spacecraft from ASAT attacks

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During the Cold War the Soviet Union was the only country to have an operational co-orbital anti-satellite (ASAT) system. Called IS (“Satellite Destroyer”), it began test flights in 1963 and reached operational status in the late 1970s. What is less known is that the Soviet Union also worked on technology to defend its space assets from ASAT weapons. This included systems to detect, document, and counter ASAT attacks as well as stealth technology to conceal satellites from attacking vehicles. Much of that effort remains shrouded in secrecy to the present day, but some details have come to light in recent years. Moreover, there is unmistakable evidence that Russia resumed research on satellite defense technology at the beginning of this decade.

Origins of the satellite defense program

Much of the new information on the Soviet-era satellite defense programs was revealed last year in an article written by Yuriy A. Androsov, a veteran of the Central Directorate of Space Assets (TsUKOS), a body set up under the USSR’s Strategic Rocket Forces in 1964 to oversee military space activities.1 Androsov was a member of a so-called “Group for Special Equipment”, established in 1967 under TsUKOS’ 1st Directorate. Led by Boris S. Prokhorov, the group was placed in charge, among other things, of coordinating work on satellite defense systems. In 1970, TsUKOS was renamed the Main Directorate of Space Assets (GUKOS) and the Group for Special Equipment was reorganized as the 1st Directorate’s 6th Division, headed by Yevgeniy S. Shchapov. GUKOS underwent more reorganizations in the 1980s, eventually becoming a separate branch of the armed forces (the “Military Space Forces”) in 1992.

Evidently, Soviet military planners were concerned enough about the potential of attacks on these vehicles to outfit them with an impressive suite of defensive equipment.

The decision to start the development of spacecraft defense systems was made as work was in full swing on two piloted reconnaissance platforms similar in concept to the US Manned Orbiting Laboratory (MOL). One was a space station called Almaz (“diamond”), conceived by the design bureau of Vladimir Chelomei. The other, named 7K-VI or Zvezda (“star”), was a reconfigured version of the Soyuz spacecraft that was being built by a branch of the design bureau of Sergei Korolyov in the city of Kuibyshev (now Samara). 7K-VI/Zvezda was canceled in early 1968 and superseded by a small space station (Soyuz-VI) to be developed by the Korolyov bureau itself. Ultimately, only Chelomei’s Almaz left the drawing board and three of the stations were launched, with the official names Salyut-2 (1973), Salyut-3 (1974), and Salyut-5 (1976), creating the false impression that they were in the same series as the civilian space stations of the Korolyov bureau (announced as Salyut, Salyut-4, Salyut-6 and Salyut-7).

Evidently, Soviet military planners were concerned enough about the potential of attacks on these vehicles to outfit them with an impressive suite of defensive equipment. Androsov says that concern stemmed from on-orbit rendezvous experiments in the Gemini program and the deployment of American ASAT systems in the 1960s. In reality, the US ASAT program was much smaller in scope than its Soviet counterpart. Plans for an Air Force co-orbital ASAT system called SAINT had been shelved in 1962 in favor of two ground-based direct-ascent systems that would use nuclear warheads to knock out enemy satellites in orbit. One was an Army project (Program 505) using Nike Zeus missiles from the Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshall Islands chain in the Pacific. The other was an Air Force project (Program 437) relying on Thor missiles stationed on Johnston Island in the Pacific.

Although both programs saw a number of test launches in the 1960s, they had many drawbacks, one of them being that the nuclear blast would in all probability have crippled every other satellite, friendly or not, within a radius of several thousand kilometers. They also would have offered little or no protection against the Soviet Fractional Orbit Bombardment System (FOBS), a single-orbit nuclear weapon delivery system that was considered to be the main Soviet space-based threat against the US. Program 505 was canceled in 1966 and Program 437 was formally terminated in 1975, although it had lost most of its operational capacity after a hurricane hit Johnston Island in 1970.

The fact that the Russians spent significant resources on defending their military space stations shows that they either grossly overestimated the capabilities of these systems or had poor intelligence on future American ASAT systems. Sheer paranoia may also have come into play here, as it did in the 1976 decision to go ahead with Buran, the equivalent of the US Space Shuttle. That decision was largely driven by a twisted perception of the shuttle’s military potential.

Protecting Almaz

What has been known for quite some time is that one or more of the Almaz stations carried a rapid-fire cannon to counter any ASAT weapons threatening the station. However, Androsov’s article now reveals that this was just one element of a much broader array of defensive equipment, not all of which made it into space. The so-called On-Board Defensive Complex (BKZ) was to consist of the following systems:

1) Electronic intelligence (ELINT) equipment called Krona (the “crown” of a tree) to pick up the signals emitted by the radar expected to be carried by the ASAT interceptor. This was developed by the Central Scientific Research Institute of Radio Technology (TsNIRTI), which had a monopoly in developing similar payloads for the Soviet Union’s ELINT satellites. The Krona payload was also intended to observe ground-based radars and the detection of an ASAT radar system was only one of its tasks. It was capable of distinguishing between various types of radar signals by analyzing their signatures.

2) An infrared detector called Yantar-P (“amber”) that was developed by the State Institute of Applied Optics (GIPO) in cooperation with several other organizations. This was to detect the launch of a ground-based interceptor by picking up the infrared radiation emitted by its exhaust plume. One other source has earlier described it as being able to operate in two overlapping wavebands (1.7-3.2 and 2.55-3.2 μm) and having a field of view of 78 degrees in the azimuth direction and 28 degrees in the elevation direction.2

3) A radar called Lazurit (“lazurite”) to determine the distance of the ASAT weapon to the space station. The original plan was to modify for this purpose the radar system used to guide Soyuz vehicles to space stations. The existing system (called Igla or “needle”) was only designed to dock “cooperative” vehicles with the station, but an upgraded version of that (Opal) was under development that would allow to determine the range of “uncooperative vehicles” approaching the station. That turned out to be too heavy and cumbersome, though, and it was decided to turn to a design bureau specializing in radars for fighter jets (NPO Fazotron) to build a dedicated satellite defense radar for Almaz. The chief designer of the system was Yevgeniy Genishta. However, there was much opposition against its development within the design bureau and the work ground to a halt after a Soviet pilot (Viktor Belenko) defected to the West in September 1976 by flying his MiG-25P “Foxbat” fighter jet to Japan. Among the equipment that had been compromised was a radar built by NPO Fazotron, which now had to be redesigned, diverting resources away from the Almaz radar.

It is still not exactly clear which of the BKZ systems did fly.

4) Radar jamming devices and deployable decoys known together as Dymka (“haze”). These were also developed by the TsNIRTI institute. In order to precisely determine what Almaz would look like to US radar systems, scale models of Almaz were placed inside an anechoic chamber and exposed to the type of signals that were believed to be emitted by US radar systems. Although Androsov says that elements of Dymka were flown, he also notes that work on these systems could not be fully completed because they would have to rely on range data provided by the canceled Lazurit radar.

5) a rapid-fire cannon named NR-23 and a periscope called Sokol-1 (“falcon”), which together were referred to as the Shchit-1 (“shield”) complex. The cannon, developed by the KB Tochmash design bureau of chief designer Aleksandr Nudelman, had originally been intended to fly on the canceled 7K-VI spacecraft. Derived from an aircraft weapon, the 23-millimeter gun was capable of firing 950 rounds per minute and hitting targets at distances of up to 3 kilometers. The first footage of the cannon was released in 2015 and used by Russian space watcher Anatoly Zak to make a 3D-computer model of it.3 The periscope, needed to scan the sky for attacking vehicles and point the cannon, was a product of the Kazan Optical-Mechanical Plant (KOMZ).

One disadvantage of the Shchit-1 complex was that the cannon was in a fixed position, forcing the crew to reorient the entire station in order to aim the cannon. An improved system called Shchit-2 was developed to rectify that and several other problems. It was to consist of an improved periscope (Sokol-2) with much improved magnification and two space-to-space missiles with a range of about 100 kilometers that could destroy interceptors approaching the station from virtually any angle. An early version of this missile had already been devised in the late 1960s by the Design Bureau of Instrument Building (KBP), headed by Arkadiy Shipunov, for the 7K-VI project. Prototypes were thoroughly tested at a proving ground for tanks near Moscow, but problems with the missile’s optical homing head made it necessary to turn over the project to Nudelman’s KB Tochmash, where the missile was redesigned to carry a radar homing head. That redesigned version of the missile also underwent extensive ground test but ultimately never flew in space. According to one leading designer of the Chelomei bureau, it was ready to fly on the fourth Almaz station, which never left the ground.4

It is still not exactly clear which of the BKZ systems did fly. Androsov says elements of the BKZ were flown only on Salyut-2 and Salyut-3 (although the Krona ELINT equipment, primarily used for regular ELINT observations of U.S. radars, was probably installed on all three Almaz stations). Salyut-2, launched on April 3, 1973, carried Yantar-P and “elements of Shchit-1 and Dymka”, but it failed in orbit before the first crew could get to it. Salyut-3, orbited on June 24, 1974, was fitted with Yantar-P and the complete Shchit-1 complex. During the mission a total of ten missiles were launched from Soviet territory to simulate ASAT attacks on the station. These were observed by Yantar-P as well as ground-based and airborne calibration sensors deployed in the launch area. Yantar-P, along with Meteor weather satellites and specially equipped ships, also performed observations of the American ASAT launch site on Johnston Island in order to obtain infrared data on the area that would have helped distinguish the signature of a missile launch from that of the Earth’s background radiation.

It appears that the Yantar-P observations were conducted while the station was uncrewed. The only crew that managed to board Salyut-3 (Pavel Popovich and Yuriy Artyukhin from July 4 until July 19, 1974) carried out several observations with the Sokol-1 periscope, using background stars as simulated targets. One other source earlier revealed that the crew also used the device to observe America’s Skylab space station.5 The cosmonauts did not fire the NR-23 rapid-fire cannon because it was not known how the station would react to the weapon’s recoil. It was eventually successfully tested shortly before the station performed its deorbit burn on January 24, 1975. As an aside, Androsov says that small capsules intended to return to Earth photographic film obtained by the Almaz reconnaissance cameras could have been redesigned to deliver nuclear bombs to the Earth’s surface.

In the early 1970s, the head of GUKOS’ 1st Directorate Viktor Favorskiy put forward a proposal to outfit the Soviet Union’s reconnaissance satellites with defensive equipment. As recalled by Androsov, the idea received a lukewarm response from both the military community and the design bureaus.

None of the defensive equipment was carried aboard the final Almaz station, launched as Salyut-5 on June 22, 1976. Androsov says this was done in order to save mass for other instruments, but a contributing factor may have been the termination of Program 437 the year before. The manned portion of the Almaz project was scrapped in 1978. Among the reasons were the strained relations between chief designer Vladimir Chelomei and the newly appointed Defense Minister Dmitriy Ustinov, the high cost of two other piloted projects (the civilian Salyuts and Buran), and the fact that military space stations were less efficient than unmanned reconnaissance satellites. The latter factor had also been crucial in the US decision to cancel MOL in 1969. Development did continue of an unmanned radar-equipped version of Almaz, which saw two missions in 1987 and 1990.

Protecting military satellites

While Almaz may have been the most impressive Soviet reconnaissance platform of the 1970s, the bulk of the orbital reconnaissance was performed by robotic satellites. Zenit photographic reconnaissance satellites based on the Vostok spacecraft had been used since the early 1960s to fly one to two-week missions and were joined in the mid-1970s by Yantar satellites (not to be confused with the Yantar-P infrared detector) that spent about a month in orbit and ejected small return capsules. Besides that, the Soviet Union operated a fleet of Tselina (“virgin lands”) electronic intelligence satellites as well as two types of ocean reconnaissance satellites, one equipped with a nuclear-powered radar (US-A) and the other with electronic reconnaissance antennas (US-P). Because of their relatively short lifetimes, these satellites were launched at a very high rate.

In the early 1970s, the head of GUKOS’ 1st Directorate Viktor Favorskiy put forward a proposal to outfit the Soviet Union’s reconnaissance satellites with defensive equipment. As recalled by Androsov, the idea received a lukewarm response from both the military community and the design bureaus. At least one reason must have been the severe mass restrictions that satellite designers were faced with. The design bureau that displayed most interest in the proposal was the branch of the Korolyov bureau that had earlier worked on the 7K-VI/Zvezda piloted reconnaissance platform. This became independent in 1974 as the Central Specialized Design Bureau (TsSKB) and had manufactured all of the country’s optical reconnaissance satellites since the early 1960s. Androsov says that none of the Yantar satellites ever carried a “full complement” of defensive equipment, but adds that it would have been ready to fly if the need had arisen. Similar systems were developed for the Tselina, US-A and US-P satellites, but it is not clear if these were ever tested in space conditions.

According to Androsov, TsSKB tested some of its satellite defense technology on small containers that were regularly flown on its Vostok-based Zenit photographic reconnaissance satellites. The containers were attached to the forward end of the descent module and separated from the satellite shortly before it returned to Earth. They were pressurized, making it possible to install experiments both inside and outside. Although they were officially called Nauka (“science”), only some of the containers carried scientific experiments and most were earmarked for military research. Few details have been revealed about the Nauka experiments related to satellite defense. Androsov mentions tests of “space-to-space projectiles,” “transformable and inflatable structures,” as well as radar-absorbing materials.

According to Androsov, the resulting plasma cloud made the vehicle temporarily disappear from radar screens, but the 2012 article says it also had the unwanted effect that the command to shut down the engine did not immediately reach the vehicle, leaving little propellant and battery power for a second burn that turned out to be far less effective.

He also refers to Nauka experiments related to plasma stealth technology. Just like the plasma that naturally builds around a spacecraft during reentry can cause communication blackouts, artificially created plasma clouds can theoretically absorb radar waves aimed at satellites in orbit. The principle was tested using so-called magnetoplasmadynamic (MPD) engines, which expel plasma at very high speeds, giving them more thrust than any other type of electric propulsion system. Soviet-era publications had already described one such plasma engine having flown on Cosmos-728 in April 1975 and later publications identified another one carried by Cosmos-780 in November/December 1975. They were developed by the Scientific Research Institute of Thermal Processes (NIITP) (later renamed the Keldysh Research Center). Mounted on the forward end of the Nauka modules, the 2.5-kilowatt MPD engines were fueled by potassium and used for experiments called Kren (“roll”), at least one purpose of which was to test the stealthy effect of plasma clouds. NIITP is also known to have built a “plasma generator” to reduce the radar cross-section of the Chelomei bureau’s Meteorit (“meteorite”) cruise missiles. Some sources say the generator was based on stealth technology earlier developed for satellites, but it is not known for sure if there is a link with the Kren experiments.6

A Vostok-based Zenit spy satellite carrying a Nauka container equipped with a plasma engine (used for experiments called Kren). The satellite is shown attached to the upper stage of its launch vehicle. (source)

Testing plasma stealth technology on Soyuz

A similar test of plasma stealth technology was conducted in 1976 on an uncrewed Soyuz spacecraft built by NPO Energiya, the former Korolyov design bureau. The bureau had begun research on MPD engines in the 1960s with a view to future interplanetary expeditions, but now decided to use the technology for more practical purposes in Earth orbit.

The Soyuz variant involved in the experiment was known as 7K-S. This vehicle had been conceived in the late 1960s as a transport vehicle for the short-lived Soyuz-VI military space station, and after that was canceled in 1970 was reoriented to fly solo missions in the interests of the Ministry of Defense. Several years later the ship was again redesigned as a crew ferry, now for missions to the civilian Salyut space stations. This version, known internally as 7K-ST and publicly announced as Soyuz-T, would go on to fly fourteen crewed missions to the Salyut-6 and Salyut-7 space stations between 1980 and 1986. However, on its first three unmanned test flights in 1974–1976 the vehicle flew in the original 7K-S configuration.

The experimental engine was flown on the final of the three 7K-S test missions, launched under the cover name Cosmos-869 on November 29, 1976. It was described in articles published in 2007 and 2012, but those did not make any mention of the cloaking objective.7,8 The engine was mounted on the forward end of the Soyuz orbital module along with a set of batteries that comprised more than 50 percent of the Soyuz payload mass (while MPD engines consume little propellant, they are extremely power-hungry.) Fed by lithium, the 17-kilowattengine was successfully ignited on December 13, ejecting ions at a speed of up to 60 kilometers per second. According to Androsov, the resulting plasma cloud made the vehicle temporarily disappear from radar screens, but the 2012 article says it also had the unwanted effect that the command to shut down the engine did not immediately reach the vehicle, leaving little propellant and battery power for a second burn that turned out to be far less effective.

Although these experiments undoubtedly taught designers a lot about operating MPD engines in space, the fact that they were not revealed until decades later strongly suggests that their primary goal was to test plasma stealth technology. However, there is no evidence that serious thought was given to implementing this technology on operational satellites.

MPD engine
Drawing of the MPD engine carried by Cosmos-869. The batteries are in position 6. Left is the forward part of the Soyuz orbital module (source)

Standardizing satellite defense technology

One problem with the work on satellite defense systems in the 1970s was that each design bureau developed equipment tailored to its own satellites. Although GUKOS was supposed to play a coordinating role in this effort, only a handful of people within that organization seem to have worked full-time on the program. By the early 1980s, the need was recognized to produce standardized defensive systems that could be installed on a wide variety of satellites. This task was entrusted to a design bureau based in Tashkent, the capital of the then-Soviet republic of Uzbekistan. Known as the Tashkent Design Bureau of Machine Building (TashKBM), it had gained independence in the late 1970s after having existed for ten years as a branch of the Moscow-based Design Bureau of General Machine Building (KBOM). It specialized in the construction of launch pads but in the late 1960s and early 1970s also did significant research on a lunar base nicknamed “Barmingrad” (in honor of its chief designer Vladimir Barmin). The Tashkent branch had been set up to take part in that research and went on to develop drilling mechanisms for some of the Luna sample return missions in the early 1970s as well as the Venera-13, 14 and Vega-1 missions to Venus in 1981 and 1985. It also manufactured furnaces for materials processing experiments aboard Salyut-6, two Foton satellites and the Mir space station.

The fact sheet describes Legato as being designed to register information about the attack of a “small self-guided rotating projectile of the ‘hit’ type” (clearly a reference to ASM-135) and send it to ground stations of the Ministry of Defense.

The development of satellite defense technology gained added significance after the United States carried out its first live test of an ASAT system in September 1985, when an ASM-135 missile equipped with a kinetic energy warhead was launched from the belly of an F-15 fighter jet and destroyed an American scientific satellite called Solwind. The US Air Force had initiated this project in the late 1970s (several years after the cancelation of Program 437 in 1975) and openly available information on it may well have been an important factor in assigning TashKBM to the satellite defense project in the early 1980s.

Some details on TashKBM’s work in this area have become available via a website run by veterans of the design bureau.9 Initially, TashKBM focused on systems that would merely document an ASAT attack without providing an actual defensive capability. These systems, which essentially fulfilled a role comparable to that of a black box on an aircraft, were called Storozh-1, 2, and 3 (“guard”). A demonstrator called Legato with fewer capabilities than Storozh was flown in 1987 on a military navigation satellite of the Parus (“sail”) type built by the PO Polyot design bureau in Omsk, Siberia. These satellites, analogous to America’s Transit navigation satellites, were routinely launched from the Plesetsk cosmodrome into 83-degree inclination orbits at an altitude of roughly 1000 kilometers. Four were placed into orbit in 1987 (Cosmos-1821, 1864, 1891, and 1904), but it is not known which of them carried Legato.

The aforementioned website has a fact sheet on Legato that was obviously intended for internal use in the 1980s and provides some additional insight into the experiment. It says that the decision to fly the experiment was made on February 17, 1986. It also refers to a March 22, 1985 order from the Ministry of General Machine Building (which oversaw most space and missile projects in the Soviet days) for an all-round effort in the 1985–1990 period to make Soviet satellites (both existing satellites and satellites still under development) “battle-proof.”

The fact sheet describes Legato as being designed to register information about the attack of a “small self-guided rotating projectile of the ‘hit’ type” (clearly a reference to ASM-135) and send it to ground stations of the Ministry of Defense. It was an instrument package that weighed roughly four kilograms, measured about 190 x 170 x 110 millimeters, and had an impact force sensor weighing around 100 grams. Powered by a lithium battery, the instrument package could operate entirely autonomously, although it is not clear if it was designed to separate from its host satellite. Drawings in the fact sheet show it to be attached to the satellite by what seems to be some sort of tether. Clearly, it must have been hardened to withstand an ASAT attack, but how that was achieved is unknown. It could operate for at least three years as part of the satellite.

Soviet-era fact sheet on the Legato “black box”. (Source : TashKBM)

Storozh-1 has been described as an instrument package that would pyrotechnically separate from its host satellite after an ASAT interception and then send the data on the attack back to Earth. It had a set of sensors that could distinguish between various types of ASAT weapons (both kinetic and laser-type weapons) and determine when and where the attack had taken place. It had lithium batteries that allowed it to operate as an independent satellite for several days. Experimental versions of Storozh-1 were ready by 1987 and they are said to have been tested in space conditions aboard satellites built in Leningrad, Kuibyshev, and Dnepropetrovsk. That probably refers to ocean reconnaissance satellites built by KB Arsenal (Leningrad), optical reconnaissance satellites built by TsSKB (Kuibyshev), and electronic intelligence satellites manufactured by KB Yuzhnoye (Dnepropetrovsk).

Virtually nothing has been revealed about Storozh-2, only that it would be able to protect the “entire satellite fleet of the Soviet Union” and was ready for production in 1988. Development of Storozh-3 began around the same time, but doesn’t seem to have advanced very far. What also remains unclear is what exactly drove the Russians to spend significant resources on black boxes for satellites. They probably would not have taught them much more about American ASAT weapons than what was already publicly known. Possibly, their main purpose was to provide evidence for a clandestine ASAT attack in a non-wartime situation.

The end of the Cold War left little reason to outfit satellites with protective systems and to continue the development of ASAT weapons.

Other satellite defense techniques studied by TashKBM were electronic countermeasures, measures to reduce the radar cross-section of satellites, the deployment of decoys, the use of aerosol particles to obscure satellites from attacking vehicles and what are described as “heat screens.” Experiments in these areas were staged under the code-names Mirazh (mirage), Shchit (shield), Sigma (the Greek letter), Shar (sphere), and Archa (a type of juniper). Only the first of these can be linked to a specific mission. Three experiments called Mirazh-1, 2, and 3 were carried aboard the Skif-DM/Polyus spacecraft, the 100-ton payload flown on the first test flight of the Soviet heavy-lift Energiya rocket on May 15, 1987. This was to serve as a prototype of a space-based laser battle station, but it also carried a set of experiments not directly related to that goal. Mirazh was later described as one in a series of “geophysical experiments” flown on the spacecraft and was said to be designed to study “the interaction of rocket combustion products with the upper atmosphere and the ionosphere.” The Mirazh-1 experiment was to be conducted during launch (up to an altitude of 120 kilometers), Mirazh-2 during the final orbit insertion burn by Skif-DM’s own engines (at altitudes between 120 and 280 kilometers), and Mirazh-3 during the de-orbit burn and re-entry. Although the Energiya rocket itself operated flawlessly, Skif-DM accidentally deorbited itself after separating from the launch vehicle when it incorrectly oriented itself for the orbit insertion burn. It remains unclear if any of the objectives of the Mirazh experiments were achieved and what exactly their relation to satellite protection was.

TashKBM also studied advanced computer systems that would enable satellites to detect ASAT weapons, determine their trajectory in real time and perform evasive maneuvers or activate defensive systems. However, there is no evidence that the design bureau worked on weapon systems to counter ASAT attacks.

Ground-based experiments related to satellite defense may have been performed at a test site of TashKBM called Nevich, which was constructed in the 1980s in a mountainous area some 70 kilometers east of Tashkent. The site was used, among other things, to test large space-based radio telescopes that TashKBM began working on in the 1980s (for a human-tended military space station known as Gals and a space-based radio telescope called Radioastron).

There are some indications that the work on satellite defensive systems was transferred to another organization in Tashkent called the Tashkent Scientific Research Institute of Space Instrument Building (TashNIIKP), which was founded in 1987 as a branch of a Moscow-based organization called NPO Radiopribor. However, the program is likely to have ended with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, when the design bureaus in Tashkent suddenly found themselves on foreign territory in the now independent state of Uzbekistan. Moreover, the end of the Cold War left little reason to outfit satellites with protective systems and to continue the development of ASAT weapons. In April 1993, President Boris Yeltsin signed an order to dismantle the country’s IS-MU ASAT system, which had remained on standby at the Baikonur Cosmodrome.

New Russian satellite defense systems

After a nearly 20-year break, Russia seems to have resumed the development of both offensive and defensive space systems at the beginning of this decade. This may very well have been a response to similar work done in both China and the United States. In January 2007, China performed an ASAT test in which a direct-ascent kinetic kill vehicle destroyed one of the country’s own weather satellites. Just over a year later, in February 2008, the United States demonstrated the ASAT capabilities of its sea-based Aegis missile defense interceptor by shooting down a non-responsive US military satellite that was said to pose a threat to populated regions on Earth.

At the same time, both countries began experimenting with small satellites capable of performing close-up inspections of other satellites in orbit. One application of such satellites is to examine other satellites for malfunctions, but they could just as well be used to spy on satellites belonging to other nations or even disable them if equipped with the proper technology. Following two initial test flights in low Earth orbit with the XSS-10 and XSS-11 satellites in 2003 and 2005, the US launched two MiTEx inspector satellites in 2006 to inspect satellites in geostationary orbit. China followed suit by deploying a small inspector satellite from its Shenzhou-7 piloted spacecraft in 2008 and performing a rendezvous between two small robotic satellites in 2010. More such missions followed in subsequent years. In addition to that, the United States launched the first of its military X-37B spaceplanes in 2010. These could potentially be used for in-orbit inspection or even offensive missions and have been a matter of major concern to the Russians ever since. Also in 2010, the United States launched the first Space-Based Surveillance System (SBSS) satellite for long-distance observations of the geostationary belt from sun-synchronous orbit.

There are also signs that Russia is again developing a variety of ASAT systems. These include ground-based and airborne direct-ascent systems as well as ground-based electronic jamming systems

Russia’s reaction followed soon. Three small inspector satellites (identified as Cosmos-2491, 2499, and 2504) were launched as piggyback payloads on Rokot boosters in 2013–2015 and the last two of these rendezvoused with the Briz-KM upper stage that had deployed them in orbit. In June 2017, Russia launched a satellite called Cosmos-2519 that it acknowledged was going to be used for space surveillance. In August 2017 the satellite deployed a subsatellite (Cosmos-2521), which in turn deployed another subsatellite (Cosmos-2523) in October 2017. Both these subsatellites have officially been described as being on missions to inspect other Russian satellites. The only close approaches observed so far have been between Cosmos-2521 and its own “parent” satellite (Cosmos-2519). It is known from publicly available online procurement documents that this project (known as Nivelir-L) was started around 2011.

There are also signs that Russia is again developing a variety of ASAT systems. These include ground-based and airborne direct-ascent systems as well as ground-based electronic jamming systems. One ground-based direct-ascent system called Nudol (named after a Russian river) has reportedly already undergone flight tests, without intercepting targets.10 The author has also found compelling evidence that Russia is working on a new space-based ASAT system called Burevestnik (“stormy petrel”).11

Speaking during a recent hearing before the House of Representatives Subcommittee on Strategic Forces, the Commander of the US Strategic Command, Air Force Gen. John Hyten, voiced concern that both China and Russia have invested enormous amounts of their national treasure to build both ground-based and space-based counterspace capabilities that in his words “will be able to hold US satellites in every orbital regime at risk within the foreseeable future”.

The re-emergence of ASAT weapons has rekindled interest in satellite defense technology. In response to the 2007 Chinese ASAT test, the US Air Force initiated a technology demonstration program known as Self Awareness Space Situational Awareness (SASSA) to fit satellites with equipment capable of detecting hostile action. Some of that equipment seems to have been tested in space.12 In late 2016 it was reported that the Air Force and the Pentagon had mapped out a multi-dimensional space weapons defense plan in which they were expected to invest $5.5 billion over the next five years.13

Although Russia’s constellation of military satellites is dwarfed by that of the United States and even China, the ASAT and satellite inspection capabilities demonstrated by both those countries seem to have caused enough concern to resume research on satellite defense systems. That research harks back to work done in the 1980s on so-called aerosol obscurants. The idea to use such obscurants in near-vacuum conditions emerged after the announcement in 1983 of America’s Strategic Defense Initiative, which was aimed at creating a space-based defensive shield against incoming Soviet missiles. One way of making Soviet missiles hard to detect by SDI’s space-based X-ray lasers and radars was to envelop them with clouds of nanosized particles similar to aerosols (tiny particles suspended in the air). Back in the 1970s, Soviet scientists had found that aerosols interfered with laser beams while experimenting with ground-based lasers designed to shoot down intercontinental ballistic missiles. They now realized that they could turn this property of aerosols to their advantage by using similar particles (which they dubbed “cosmosols”) to protect missiles from space-based lasers during the exoatmospheric portion of their flight. By ionizing such particles it would also become possible to make missiles invisible to radar.14

Back in the 1970s, Soviet scientists had found that aerosols interfered with laser beams while experimenting with ground-based lasers designed to shoot down intercontinental ballistic missiles. They now realized that they could turn this property of aerosols to their advantage by using similar particles (which they dubbed “cosmosols”) to protect missiles from space-based lasers during the exoatmospheric portion of their flight.

TashKBM is known to have studied the same principle in the 1980s to mask orbiting satellites, but it is not known how far that research advanced. Early this decade the time was evidently considered ripe to carry on with this work. In November 2011, the Russian Space Agency announced a tender for what was literally called “the development of nanotechnologies to produce conducting and semi-conducting ultrafine fiber-shaped elements with typical cross-sectional dimensions of 1 to 10 nanometers for integrated macrostructures which make it possible to lower the detectability of satellites and future warheads, including warheads of cruise missiles.” On December 25, 2011, the contract was awarded to TsNIRTI, already mentioned in this article as a manufacturer of space-based electronic intelligence systems, but also one of Russia’s leading institutes in the field of electronic warfare and stealth technology. The research project was given the code-name Vual (“veil”). Although initiated by the Russian Space Agency, it was considered part of Russia’s national defense program and was never publicly announced. Notwithstanding its secret nature, a handful of documents and articles related to this project are accessible online.15

One technical paper presented in 2016 says two types of particles were studied, one type based on “catalytic filamentous carbon” (which contains metal particles such as iron, cobalt, copper and nickel or their alloys) and another based on “carbon black” (which consists of nearly pure elemental carbon). The choice eventually fell on a type of carbon black which the researchers called “vual” after the name of the research project. The nearly globular particles have diameters ranging from 1 to 10 nanometers.16

Nanosized carbon black particles called “vual” (source)

One subcontractor known to be involved in the project is IPPU SO RAN, an institute based in the Siberian city of Omsk whose name literally translates as the “Institute for Problems of Processing Hydrocarbons belonging to the Siberian division of the Russian Academy of Sciences.” TsNIRTI signed a contract with the institute in the framework of the Vual project on March 1, 2012, and was tasked with working out techniques to produce the nanoparticles (carbon black is obtained through the thermal decomposition of gaseous or liquid hydrocarbons.) The institute’s website describes it as an ongoing project that is part of the federal program “Development of the military industrial complex of the Russian Federation in the period 2011–2020.”17,18

Judging from tender documentation published in 2011, the Vual project was not aimed at producing operational hardware, but was merely a research program to demonstrate the feasibility of using nanosized particles to camouflage satellites and cruise missiles. The objectives of the project were to build an experimental installation to produce the nanosized particles as well as a test stand to “check their parameters” and also to protect any newly invented technology with patents. The project was to be finished by December 2014.

It would appear that all of these goals were achieved. In 2014, four specialists of TsNIRTI received a patent for using such an obscurant to conceal satellites from ASAT weapons. As shown in an accompanying drawing below, the target satellite (1) would protect itself from the attacking vehicle (2) by deploying a container (3) carrying the nanosized particles. After release from the container, the particles would form a bell-shaped cloud (4) in the ASAT’s line of vision (5), obscuring the target from view.19

Drawing from the 2014 patent. (source)

The authors summed up several advantages that this technique has over others where protective screens are installed either on the satellite itself or explosive devices are deployed at a short distance from the satellite. Unlike those, the cloud of nanoparticles offers protection against maneuverable ASAT weapons, can be formed at a safe distance from the target satellite and obviates the need to determine the mass and size of the attacking vehicle before the protective systems are activated. However, the patent description does not answer some obvious questions, such as what happens after the cloud has dispersed or how it can offer protection against simultaneous ASAT attacks from different angles, to name but two.

An article published in 2017 said TsNIRTI had successfully tested an installation that (if serially produced) would be capable of producing the carbon black particles on “an industrial scale” (up to 300 tons per year). Among the advantages of the material is that its production costs are low, it can be manufactured using widely available raw materials (hydrocarbons), it is non-toxic, and has a high bulk density, meaning that large amounts of it can be stored inside a small volume. The test stand built as part of the project proved that the material can absorb radiation in a wide range of the electromagnetic spectrum (ultraviolet, visible, infrared, and radio.)20 The originally stated goal of the Vual project had been to develop materials capable of absorbing only visible light and radar signals. Mention has been made of its ability to absorb laser beams.21

Articles published in 2016–2017 have stressed that this is a universal masking technology that can be used to obscure from view not only satellites, but also land-based vehicles, aircraft, and helicopters. TsNIRTI claims it is ready to implement the technology, but there is no evidence as of now that it has actually been incorporated into any satellite project.

Being less dependent on space-based assets for its national security, Russia will have to carefully assess if the threat posed by foreign ASAT systems is serious enough to justify the cost of installing this defensive technology on its satellites.

TsNIRTI is not the only institute to have studied aerosol obscurants. Similar research has been carried out by the Scientific Research Institute of Applied Chemistry (NIIPKh), based in Sergiyev Posad north of Moscow. The company is known to have worked on solid-propellant gas generators that produce clouds of aerosol particles to obscure moving vehicles from enemy attacks. One paper about such devices was jointly written by specialists of NIIPKh and TsNIRTI (including one of the authors of the 2014 patent), indicating there has been at least some interaction between the two institutes in this field.22

An article written by NIIPKh specialists in 2016 mentions the possibility of installing such solid-propellant generators aboard satellites. They would produce nitrogen aerosol clouds to protect satellites from enemy spacecraft carrying “detection, homing, and negation systems.” According to the authors, such clouds could be used for both masking and disabling satellites.23 That suggests the generators could just as well be installed on ASAT vehicles to blind sensors of enemy satellites, one obvious advantage being that they would not produce any space debris. Indeed, in 2015 NIIPKh was awarded a contract as part of the Burevestnik ASAT project, one aspect of which was to find “chlorine-free oxidizers for gas-generating substances”, something which may well be related to this technology.24

In short, the newly developed technology can seemingly be used both to protect domestic satellites or engage enemy satellites, underlining the fact that the line between “defensive” and “offensive” technology can be very thin. Being less dependent on space-based assets for its national security, Russia will have to carefully assess if the threat posed by foreign ASAT systems is serious enough to justify the cost of installing this defensive technology on its satellites.


  1. Yu. Androsov, “Defense in space” (in Russian), published on 4 June 2017 on a website of veterans of the Russian Space Forces.
  2. M. Pervov (ed.), “Istoriya razvitiya otechestvennoi pilotiruemoi kosmonavtiki”, Moscow: Stolichnaya Entsiklopedia, 2015, p. 317.
  3. A. Zak, “Here is the Soviet Union’s Secret Space Cannon”, article published on the website of Popular Mechanics, 16 November 2015.
  4. V. Polyachenko, “Readers’ letters” (in Russian), Novosti kosmonavtiki, 2/2001, p. 70-71.
  5. A. Gorelik, “Cicero gives his approval” (in Russian), Novosti kosmonavtiki, 9/2003, p. 72.
  6. “The plasma generator of the Meteorit missile is getting a new job” (in Russian), article published on the Voyennoye obozreniye website, 20 December 2016.
  7. O. Gorshkov, V. Shutov, K. Kozubskiy, V. Ostrovskiy, “Development of High Power Magnetoplasmadynamic Thrusters in the USSR”, paper presented at the 30th International Electric Propulsion Conference, Florence, Italy, 17-20 September 2007.
  8. V. Ostrovskiy, A. Smolentsev, B. Sokolov, “Development of high-power electric rocket engines at OAO RKK Energiya” (in Russian), Trudy MAI, nr. 60 (2012).
  9. Website “Veterans of TashKBM” (in Russian). (readers are warned that some pages on this website trigger virus alerts)
  10. An up-to-date overview of Russian ASAT systems can be found in this report: B. Weeden, V. Samson (ed.), “Global Counterspace Capabilities: An Open Source Assessment”, Secure World Foundation, April 2018.
  11. See a thread started by the author on the NASA Spaceflight Forum.
  12. K. Johnson, F. Zaman, “Adding the ‘local’ layer to space situational awareness”, paper presented at the Advanced Maui Optical and Space Surveillance Technologies Conference, held in Maui, Hawaii on 11-14 September 2012.
  13. K. Orbon, “Air Force preps strategy to defend anti-satellite attacks”, 31 October 2016.
  14. A. Tovmash, “Cosmosols : an asymmetric response to the SDI program” (in Russian), Populyarnaya mekhanika, 9/2004.
  15. The tender documentation for the Vual project (in Russian) is available.
  16. I. Prokhorov, D. Bolshakov, G. Yershov, A. Murlaga, “Measuring changes in the reflection coefficient of metallic sheets covered with materials containing carbon” (in Russian), paper presented at the 4th All-Russian Microwave Conference in Moscow, 23-25 November 2016.
  17. IPPU SO RAN website.
  18. Documentation related to a follow-up contract signed between TsNIRTI and IPPU SO RAN in 2014 is available.
  19. V. Khurmatullin, N. Sudarikov, S. Druzhko, Yu. Bannikov, “A means of protecting satellites” (in Russian).
  20. D. Bolshakov, G. Yershov, A. Murlaga, “Proposals on introducing an industrial technology to produce nanosized ultrafine carbon materials in future systems to lower the detectability of land-based mobile objects” (in Russian), paper presented at the conference “Launch into the future 2017” held in St.-Petersburg on 19 April 2017.
  21. S. Nefelov, V. Soldatov, “TsNIRTI in the interests of naval aviation” (in Russian), Voyenno-promyshlennyy kuryer, 14-20 September 2016.
  22. O. Antonov, A. Borodin, S. Druzhko, I. Tartynov, “Protecting mobile objects against terrorist threats using gas generators of aerosol formations”, paper presented at the conference “Current problems and the future of radiotechnical and information and communications systems” held in Moscow on 28-30 March 2013.
  23. O. Antonov, S. Vagonov, I. Tartynov, Ye. Polyakov, “The history and future of low-temperature pyrotechnic generators” (in Russian), Izvestiya Tulskogo gosudarstvennogo universiteta, 2016 (nr. 12).
  24. Documentation related to this contract (in Russian) is available.

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