An S-500 test launch. Photo:

With little fanfare, last year Russia reportedly fielded its S-550 anti-satellite (ASAT) missile system, which can hit spacecraft, ballistic missile re-entry vehicles and hypersonic targets at altitudes of tens of thousands of kilometers. 

The S-550 is believed to be a mobile system specializing in strategic defense against intercontinental-range ballistic missiles (ICBMs), with a “space attack” and “space defense” role, referring to hard-kill missions against enemy satellites.

The S-550 is a possible continuation of a late Soviet-era weapons program for a “high-mobility terminal air defense system” in development from 1981 to 1988. It was then scrapped as part of Soviet-US arms control agreements. 

However, some analysts have cast doubt on Russia’s claims of developing such as system, pointing out inconsistencies and vagueness between Russian news media pronouncements and statements made by ranking Russian military officials.

They argue that claiming to have one system capable of defending against hypersonic and space-based threats is a tall order, if not implausible, given current limitations on missile defense technology.

Also, they noted that there may have been possible confusion between the S-550 and the S-500, another system being developed for missile defense. 

But if Russia’s claims are proven to be true, the S-550 mobile ASAT system increases the operational flexibility and survivability of Russia’s ASAT capabilities, compared with its current fixed and space-based systems.

The US Air Force began developing this air-launched anti-satellite missile, or ASAT, to destroy enemy satellites after the USSR demonstrated its ability to attack satellites in space. Photo: WikiCommons

A mobile advantage

A mobile ASAT system such as the S-550 exploits Russia’s huge territory to make ASAT launch locations more unpredictable, reducing the response time against attacks and preventing adversaries from targeting ASAT weapons as the launch system could be moved immediately to new locations. 

This contrasts to fixed systems, whose launch locations are known, possibly making them vulnerable to attack, and to space-based systems which when damaged or destroyed cannot be easily replaced. 

Thus, Russia’s S-550 adds to its already substantial array of ASAT weapons, which it views as a necessary asymmetric response to US space-based capabilities. 

Last year, Russia tested its Nudol PL-19 ASAT missile, knocking out its inactive Kosmos 1408 satellite, which has been in orbit since 1982. Unlike the S-550, the Nudol is a stationary system requiring fixed launching pads. 

The test created a debris field of 1,500 trackable fragments in low orbit, potentially threatening other satellites and manned spaceflight. The test happened 80 kilometers above the International Space Station (ISS), forcing its crew to take cover as debris from the test intersected with the ISS’s orbit multiple times. 

Russia also has a long history of fielding co-orbital ASAT systems, which are satellites that can attack other satellites. In the 1960s, Russia developed the Istrebitel Sputnikov (IS) ASAT system. After being launched into orbit, the interceptor would separate from the booster, maneuver close to the target and explode to release fragmentation with an effective range of 50 meters.

The system was later modernized into the IS-M standard, which could attack higher orbit targets.

A follow-up system, Naryad-V, was tested in the 1990s. Like its Nudol predecessor, Naryad-V is a stationary system that uses a solid-fuel launch vehicle, and a very capable liquid-fuel upper stage, allowing it to target an extremely wide range of orbits with rapid launches of large numbers at once. 

An artist’s illustration of the Soviet-era Istrebitel Sputnikov ASAT system. Illustration: WikiCommons

Electronic warfare systems

Apart from these hard-kill systems, Russia also fields several electronic warfare (EW) ASAT systems. These include the Tirada-2 and Bylina-MM ground-based satellite jamming systems. 

The Tirada-2 was first fielded in 2001 and is claimed to be capable of overwhelming the electronic countermeasures of enemy satellites, forcing them to spend all their energy trying to overcome the jamming and depriving them of the ability to relay signals to the ground.

The Bylina-MM system is designed to target satellites operating in the “millimeter band,” which corresponds to extremely high frequency (EHF), the band in the electromagnetic spectrum from 30 to 300 gigahertz.

Russia also maintains the capability to field space-based ASAT jammers. However, details of this program remain classified. Despite that, satellites with EW payloads would be capable of interfering with enemy satellites’ control, intelligence, communications and navigation systems.

These developments point to Russia’s shift in strategic thinking, which places outer space as the new operational center of gravity for contemporary military operations. This shift is shown by the 2015 merger of Russia’s Air Force and Aerospace Defense Forces into the Russian Aerospace Forces. 

Russia’s observations during the 1999 NATO bombing of Yugoslavia, wherein air and space-based attacks formed the first stage of NATO’s intervention, may have prompted it to merge its air and outer space defense forces.

This reflects the practice of major modern militaries such as the US and China to fuse these domains as part of an integrated battlespace.