Russian space weapons: Testing the Nudol and Putin’s political warfare agenda

Rod Thornton and Marina Miron, Defence Studies Department, King’s College London

Much has been made of last month’s destruction by Russia of one of its defunct Soviet-era satellites (Kosmos 1408) in a test-firing of a Nudol direct-ascent anti-satellite missile (DA-ASAT). The possibility of the debris produced by this strike hitting the International Space Station (ISS) had its crew (including Russian personnel) making a precautionary boarding of a ‘lifeboat’ pod. And this debris field is not going anywhere soon: the ISS is now having to pass though it every 90 minutes in its orbit.

Considerable alarm has been raised in Western circles as to the ‘recklessness’ of Russia’s action. In contrast, the ‘success’ of this missile test has been trumpeted in the Russian media. Indeed,for Russia, the brazenness of the test may be seen as also representing a form of strategic messaging. President Vladimir Putin, in authorising this act, is making it clear to Western audiences the risk appetite that his country has when it comes to utilising Russian military capabilities. As he pointed out in a speech last month, he wants to raise ‘tensions’ with Russia’s NATO adversary. Where interactions with this adversary and its core states are concerned, he said, Russia needs to ‘maintain a state of tension for as long as possible’.

In terms of maintaining this tension, the Nudol test can be seen alongside the likes of Russia’s recent use of sabre-rattling military exercises; the reducing of gas supplies to Europe, and with its assistance in the dumping of refugees at the Polish border. It is all part of Moscow’s familiar ‘political warfare’ agenda. (For a definition of ‘political warfare’ see the UK MoD’s Integrated Operating Concept). The logic is that the more that tensions are raised with NATO countries then the more that the Alliance will be divided – between the hard-liners and the more accommodating countries – over how to deal with such Russian ‘aggression’. Creating divisions is at the very heart of Russian political warfare. The homily that ‘a house divided against itself…cannot stand’ is well appreciated in the Kremlin. The strategists there understand that NATO ‘cannot stand’ if it is constantly subject to geopolitical pressures. Such pressures, to use a favoured word in Russian military writings, can ‘neutralise’ NATO.

The Western reaction to the Nudol test certainly showed that it did, indeed, raise tensions. But this test may also be seen, though, as indicative of why, from the Russian perspective, tensions need to be raised. It is all to do with Russian military ‘weakness’.

The development of the Nudol can be viewed as a clear example of the Russian military’s proclivity to engage in what it refers to as ‘asymmetric warfare’. Going down the asymmetric line is born of a sense within the Russian military that its forces are inferior to those of NATO. This Russian military accepts it will lose in any direct conventional force-on-force confrontation with NATO (as it is currently configured). It has thus been adopting asymmetric techniques that can tilt the balance in its favour. Basically, the idea is to ‘level the battlefield’ by utilising both kinetic and non-kinetic means that do not try and match NATO strengths (and particularly those of the US armed forces) but instead attempt to subvert them – in both the sub-threshold space and, if necessary, during armed conflict. Information warfare (including in its cyber form) is a favoured tool here and all the various techniques that come under the term maskirovka.

One obvious example of Russian military weakness lies in the current advantage held by NATO, and by the United States more specifically, in terms of space capabilities. To appreciate this and to understand the importance of the Nudol as an ‘asymmetric’ weapon, some background is first needed on the current situation in regard to Russian space projects

During the Cold War, the Soviet Union could, of course, match the US in terms of space technologies. Moscow was, after all, the first to put a man into space and was sending robotic vehicles to Mars as far back as the 1970s. The Soviet Union was, in many ways, ahead in the ‘space race’. No longer. 

Anti-satellite missiles aside, things have not been going well recently in terms of Russian space projects. There have been very few launches of Russian satellites over the last few years, although enough have been conducted by the military to ensure that the GLONASS system (the Russian equivalent of GPS) is kept functioning. The GLONASS system is vital to Russian strategic interests, not least because it ensures that Russian nuclear missiles can find their targets. On the civilian side, the Russian space agency, Roskosmos, has, since the end of the Cold War, done comparative little apart from hiring out its rockets not only to help NASA to put elements of the ISS into orbit but also, and strangely, to put actual US military satellites up there as well. This source of hard currency, however, has dried up as indigenous means of launching satellites has now been developed in the US.

This change has left Roskosmos short of funds. It also suffers from a lack of suitably qualified staff, from a lack of high-tech components from the West (partly the result of sanctions) and, indeed, from corruption on a vast scale.

It is thus no surprise then that often when Roskosmos has tried to place Russian satellites into orbit it has run into difficulties. There has been a litany of recent failures. The latest was in July this year when Roskosmos launched a Nauka module to dock with the ISS. The docking was eventually successful (although not without alarms) but then the module’s manoeuvring thrusters fired up unbidden and the whole ISS was sent spinning. The problem was eventually resolved but only when the malfunctioning thrusters had run out of fuel!

To have all this play out in the full glare of international publicity and risk the deaths of those on the ISS was hugely embarrassing for Russia, and thus also for Putin. The fact that Roskosmos was performing so poorly led to Putin, in October this year, actually banning Russian media from reporting on any Russian space-related activity. It also came as no surprise that, in this same month, Putin announced large-scale cuts to Roskosmos’s budget.

Of course, when something does actually go well in space the Russian media do then have permission to report. So it was with the test of the recent Nudol DA-ASAT. Blowing up satellites that haven’t worked for 39 years seems to be well within the compass of the Russian space programme. This, however, was not the work of Roskosmos but rather that of the military; specifically, its Space Forces (Kosmicheskie Voyska).

These Space Forces have a significant role to play in terms of the military’s overall asymmetric approach. And the Nudol may be seen as one of its most significant means of ‘levelling the battlefield’ in space.

NATO forces have a distinct advantage over the Russian military in terms of C4ISR capabilities. The former’s ability to engage in operational-level multi-domain integration and network-centric warfare is perceived by the Russians to give it significant battlefield advantage. And key to C4ISR operations is satellites. The US military has many more than its Russian counterpart and they are more sophisticated. As the Russian Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, noted just last month, ‘One of its [the US’s] main goals is to create a comprehensive military advantage in outer space.’

Thus, and in line with asymmetric thinking, the Russian military has adopted a ‘counterspace’ approach. The idea being that if Moscow cannot match the number and capabilities of US satellites then it can at least – if the need arises – disable/disrupt/degrade enough of those of its adversary to undermine its C4ISR capabilities. This can be done using electronic warfare means; by directed energy (laser) weapons; by ‘killer satellites’ that can fire weapons at targeted satellites and, in the case of the Nudol, by anti-satellite missiles.

The Russian development of ASATs does seem to be something of a success story. They come in the form of either missiles fired into space from high-flying aircraft or from the likes of the ground-launched Nudol. In the air-launched form, the missile – the Burevestnik – is still in the development stage. It is said to be nuclear-powered, allowing it to reach satellites well above low-earth orbit. Despite Putin lauding the Burevestnik in recent speeches, tests with this weapon are not going that well. Five scientists were reported killed in one test in 2019.

In contrast, though, the Nudol, and as November’s test showed, is further ahead in its development. This was the tenth test of this particular missile but the first ‘practical’ one where it was actually used to intercept a satellite. The first of the nine previous test launches was in 2014. Several of these have been from mobile launchers.

As one Western analyst sees it, ‘Russia [is] intent on creating a new norm where ASAT kinetic weapons testing is a key component of [its] deterrence and warfighting strategies.’ Having high-tech counterspace systems like the Nudol naturally causes concern in NATO circles. And it is therefore important in Russian political warfare thinking that such concerns are amplified as much as possible. For a relatively weaker military, the capabilities of systems like the Nudol, as good an asymmetric tool as it is in a kinetic sense, also have to be leveraged to create maximum psychological effect on NATO. The Nudol is, at one and the same time, a kinetic weapon and also a tool of divisive political warfare.

As such, it was thus important that if Russia was going to test its Nudol ‘practically’ it was going to do so ‘recklessly’. The target, Kosmos 1408, was a large satellite (1,750kg) and if the Russians had merely wanted to show that the Nudol could function effectively then they could have targeted a myriad of other, much smaller, retired Russian satellites that are in low-earth orbit and which would have produced much less debris. But they went for the spectacular; they went for the big impact. The test raised, as it was designed to do, concerns in the West – divisive tensions.

The Russian military knows it is not going to ‘win’ a kinetic war with the current version of NATO; but it can still be very much part of a political warfare agenda that seeks to neutralise NATO over the long term. In a zero-sum sense, the weaker NATO is made then the stronger, geopolitically, Russia becomes. Eventually, by this logic, Russia ‘wins’ but without fighting. The Nudol is not only a weapon that can help level any kinetic battlefield it is also one that can be used to raise the very important ‘tensions’ that Putin so desires.

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