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A Summary of Russia’s Counterspace Capabilities

By Doug Messier
Parabolic Arc
April 20, 2020
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In 2009, the defunct Cosmos 2251 satellite and the Iridium 33 satellite collided in Earth’s orbit. A Livermore visualization shows the orbits of the two satellites prior to the collision among the thousands of other satellites in low-Earth orbit. The collision occurred where the two orbital paths cross near the North Pole. (Credit: Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory)

Global Counterspace Capabilities:
An Open Source Assessment

Secure World Foundation
April 2020

Full Report

The following excerpt from the report summarizes Russia’s counterspace capabilities.

There is strong evidence that Russia has embarked on a set of programs over the last decade to regain many of its Cold War-era counterspace capabilities. Since 2010, Russia has been testing technologies for rendezvous and proximity operations (RPO) in both low Earth orbit 9LEO) and geosynchronous Earth orbit (GEO) that could lead to or support a co-orbital anti-satellite (ASAT) capability. Evidence suggests at least two active programs: a new co-orbital ASAT program called Burevestnik that is potentially supported by a surveillance and tracking program called Nivelir.

The technologies developed by these programs could also be used for non-aggressive applications, including surveilling and inspecting foreign satellites, and the on-orbit testing done to date does not conclusively prove they are for an ASAT program. However, the high-velocity deployment of sub-satellites and multiple releases of orbital debris suggests at least some of the LEO activities are of a weapons nature.

Credit: Secure World Foundation

Russia is almost certainly capable of some limited direct ascent anti-satellite (DA-ASAT) operations, but likely not yet on a sufficient scale or at sufficient altitude to pose a critical threat to U.S. space assets. While Russia is actively testing what appears to be a new DA-ASAT capability, it is not yet operational and does not appear to have the capability to threaten targets beyond LEO. Russia appears highly motivated to continue development efforts even where military utility is questionable, due at least in part to bureaucratic pressures.

Russia places a high priority on integrating electronic warfare (EW) into military operations and has been investing heavily in modernizing this capability. Most of the upgrades have focused on multifunction tactical systems whose counterspace capability is limited to jamming of user terminals within tactical ranges.

Russia has a multitude of systems that can jam GPS receivers within a local area, potentially interfering with the guidance systems of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), guided missiles, and precision guided munitions, but has no publicly known capability to interfere with the GPS satellites themselves using radiofrequency interference.

The Russian Army fields several types of mobile EW systems, some of which can jam specific satellite communications user terminals within tactical ranges. Russia can likely jam communications satellites uplinks over a wide area from fixed ground stations facilities.

Russia has operational experience in the use of counterspace EW capabilities from recent military campaigns, as well as use in Russia for protecting strategic locations and VIPs. New evidence suggests Russia may be developing high-powered space-based EW platforms to augment its existing ground-based platforms.

Russia has a strong technological knowledge base in directed energy physics and is developing a number of military applications for laser systems in a variety of environments. Russia has revived, and continues to evolve, a legacy program whose goal is develop an aircraft-borne laser system for targeting the optical sensors of imagery reconnaissance satellites, although there is no indication that an operational capability has been yet achieved.

Although not their intended purpose, Russian ground-based satellite laser ranging (SLR) facilities could be used to dazzle the sensors of optical imagery satellites. There is no indication that Russia is developing, or intending to develop, high power space-based laser weapons.

Russia has sophisticated SSA capabilities that are likely second only to the United States. Russian SSA capabilities date to the Cold War and leverage significant infrastructure originally developed for missile warning and missile defense.

Although some of these capabilities atrophied after the fall of the Soviet Union, Russia has engaged in several modernization efforts since the early 2000s to reinvigorate them. While the government-owned and-operated SSA capabilities are limited to the geographic boundaries of the former Soviet Union,

Russia is engaging in international civil and scientific cooperative efforts that likely give it access to data from SSA sensors around the globe. Today, Russia is able to maintain a catalog of Earth-orbiting space objects in LEO that is somewhat smaller than that of the United States but has a slightly more robust catalog of high Earth orbit (HEO) and GEO objects.

Russian military thinkers see modern warfare as a struggle over information dominance and net-centric operations that can often take place in domains without clear boundaries and contiguous operating areas. To meet the challenge posed by the space-aspect of modern warfare, Russia is pursuing lofty goals of incorporating EW capabilities throughout its military to both protect its own space-enabled capabilities and degrade or deny those capabilities to its adversary.

In space, Russia is seeking to mitigate the superiority of U.S. space assets by fielding a number of ground-, air-, and space-based offensive capabilities. Russia has recently re-organized its military space forces into a new organization that combines space, air defense, and missile defense capabilities. Although technical challenges remain, the Russian leadership has indicated that Russia will continue to seek parity with the United States in space.