Soviet Strides in Space

March 1, 1983
As the result of a decade-long enhancement of space-based resources, the Soviet Union now possesses a formidable array of space assets clearly designed to support a multitude of terrestrial requirements, both military and civilian. After flirting with the 100-launch record in 1981, the USSR finally broke through this psychological propaganda in 1982 with 101 successful space launches. More importantly, however, Soviet activities during the year vividly illustrated the depth of their tactical space capabilities and gave a glimpse of what lies ahead in the near term.

Little Interest in Falklands War

The response of Soviet satellites to the two major world crises that erupted in 1982 was enlightening. Despite a plethora of media reports to the contrary, the Soviets showed little overt interest in the conduct of the Falkland Islands war. None of the high-resolution photographic satellites in orbit during the conflict exhibited orbital parameters that would indicate dedicated surveillance of the South Atlantic. Specifically, none of these satellites was placed in ground-stabilized orbits that regularly traversed the Falklands, nor were their points of perigee shifted to the southern latitudes to improve the resolution of potential observations.

The most likely candidate for photographic surveillance of the Falklands—weather permitting—was Kosmos-1368. During its last few days (late May and early June) in orbit, it passed near the Falklands at an altitude of about 240 km around 11:00 a.m. local time. Presumably, some of the medium-resolution satellites flown during this period on worldwide surveillance missions could have returned information of lesser utility.

There are probably two reasons for the apparent lack of Soviet interest. First, until the final stages of the war, the Argentines, whom the Soviets were reportedly helping, held the Falklands and were in no need of the type of intelligence for which Soviet photographic satellites are best suited. Secondly, the weather conditions in the region were for the most part unfavorable, reducing the probability of successful reconnaissance. Most of the other Soviet satellites launched during the war—navigation, communications, worldwide ELINT, early warning, and radar calibration missions—were normal replacements for older satellites.

Of the twenty-nine Soviet launches that took place during the Falklands war, only three are assessed to have been of significant potential utility in the conflict. These were the ocean surveillance satellites Kosmo-1455 (passive ELINT), and Kosmos-1365 and -1372 (active radar). When the British fleet was assembled and started its southward trek, the Soviets were without a space-based ocean surveillance network. Consequently, Soviet trawlers and reconnaissance aircraft were drafted to keep track of the British armada during the trip to the Falklands. Only after the fleet had arrived off the Falklands was Kosmos-1355 launched, followed by Kosmos-1365 and -1372 on May 14 and June 1, respectively. Particularly in recent years, new ocean surveillance spacecraft have regularly appeared in the March-April time frame, strongly implying that the 1982 ocean surveillance satellites were not reactive to the Falkland Islands war.

One important incident early in the war may have involved a Soviet satellite. A few hours before an Argentine air-launched Exocet missile mortally wounded the HMS Sheffield, Kosmos-1355 flew directly over the Falklands and then continued north toward Soviet territory. Circumstantially, Kosmos-1355 appears to have been capable of detecting the task force that the Sheffield was trying to protect. One reputable report hinted that an Argentine SP-2H Neptune patrol plane was actually responsible for directing the Super Etendard fighter that fired the deadly missile. Unfortunately for the Sheffield, she was standing picket duty for the beams to detect approaching enemy aircraft. The potential data from Kosmos-1355 would have been in all probability superfluous, since the Neptune aircraft already knew or could have guessed from a wide variety of sources the general location of the Sheffield and her sister ships.

Finally, it should be noted that the Soviet ocean surveillance network appears to be one of the Soviet Union’s front-line tactical space systems, and disclosure of information from it to as unlikely a recipient as Argentina is doubtful.

Eye on the Middle East

More obvious were Soviet observations of the Lebanon war in June and July. Kosmos-1370—one of the new generation of long-duration Soviet reconnaissance satellites—was already circling the earth when the Israeli army crossed into Lebanon on June 6. Two days later the satellite had maneuvered into a position to view the escalating engagements. Kosmos-1370 maintained its daily patrol over the region until June 12, when it was relieved by Kosmos-1377 (launched June 8).

Between June 12 and June 16 Kosmos-1377 followed a virtually identical path over the Middle East, dipping to an altitude of only 170 km. Kosmos-1377, like Kosmos-1370, was one of the type of satellites that reportedly carries small recovery capsules for the dispatch of time-urgent intelligence data. The Soviets could then relay the information to their Syrian allies, who were unable to mount any battlefield air reconnaissance. Kosmos-1384, another advanced photographic satellite, also appeared to be watching over Lebanon, particularly in mid-July.

When Iraq launched a new offensive against Iranian territory on November 1, Soviet spy satellites were quickly diverted to the region. Kosmos-1419 maneuvered on November 1, Soviet spy satellites were quickly diverted to the region. Kosmos-1419 maneuvered on November 5 to retard its drift across the battlefield and to permit observation opportunities on the next two days. After resuming its global surveillance mission, Kosmo-1419 returned to the area on November 13; this time the spacecraft maneuvered into a stabilized ground track and made identical passes over the region for three consecutive days. Kosmos-1419 was then recovered on November 16. Kosmos-1421 also exhibited behavior conducive to surveillance of the Persian Gulf.

Soviet ASAT Test

June witnessed an unprecedented display of strategic weaponry employment, apparently designed to integrate the various command control and communications (C2) functions necessary for full-scale nuclear warfare. Reportedly, the test included firings of two SS-11s, an SS-20, two ICBM targets later intercepted by ABM-X-3 missiles, and an SLBM from an operational ballistic-missile submarine. In the midst of this hectic exercise, the only Soviet antisatellite (ASAT) test of the year was conducted. Kosmos-1379 was launched from the Baikonur Cosmodrome on June 18 and at about 1423 GMT passed close by its target, Kosmos-1375, at an altitude of about 1,000 km.

The significance of the ASAT test, which was almost identical to the two tests performed in 1981, was its relation to the strategic weapons simulation and the other space activity being conducted simultaneously. A little more than three hours elapsed from the launch of Kosmos-1379 until its interception of Kosmos-1375. During this time two other satellites were launched: One a navigation satellite from Plesetsk (Kosmos-1380), and a medium-resolution photographic satellite from the Baikonur Cosmodrome (Kosmos-1381). There had never before been a space launch from any Soviet facility during the course of an ASAT test, let alone two. The two satellite launchings may well have imitated the orbiting of replacement satellites for residents destroyed by the US during the wartime scenario. (In a footnote to the navigation satellite replacement, the second stage of the launch vehicle shut down prematurely. None days later Kosmos-1380 was incinerated as it fell back to earth.)

The timing of the comprehensive strategic exercise was also noteworthy. The United Nations disarmament talks had just gotten under way. In addition, the fourth Space Shuttle flight—the first DoD Shuttle mission—was only nine days away and was already receiving heated criticism from the Kremlin. Finally, the imminent announcement of the formation of a US Space Command was, of course, anticipated. Thus the extent and timing of the exercise may have been intended as a signal to the US of Soviet displeasure with American moves to counter the growing Soviet threat.

Surveillance of US Operations

Unexpectedly, the Soviets have shown a keen interest in space-based surveillance of Space Shuttle landings. Fourteen hours after the liftoff of STS-1 in April 1981, Kosmos-1262, a week-old high-resolution reconnaissance satellite, maneuvered into a new orbit with a lower average altitude. As a result, Kosmos-1262 flew directly over the STS-1 California landing site at an altitude of about 220 km less than ten minutes before STS-1 touched down.

Whether the Kosmos-1262 overflight was a coincidence could not be verified on the next Space Shuttle mission since STS-2 was prematurely returned from space because of equipment malfunctions. Hence, not enough time was given to maneuver the principal orbiting Soviet satellite, Kosmos-1318, into a position conducive for observing the recovery site near the time of landing.

Soviet intentions regarding STS-3 in March 1982 were seemingly transparent. STS-3 lifted off from the Kennedy Space Center on March 22 with a scheduled touchdown at White Sands, N.M., for March 29. In the very early morning hours of March 25, Kosmos-1343, another Soviet high-resolution photographic satellite, maneuvered into a slightly higher orbit. Consequently, on March 29 Kosmos-1343 passed over White Sands just fifteen minutes before the planned landing of STS-3. However, because of excessive winds, STS-3 was commanded to delay reentry until the next day.

But the story does not end there. The orbit of Kosmos-1343 would not pass as close to White Sands on March 30. During the night of March 29 (US time), Kosmos-1343 performed an unusual (under the circumstances) maneuver that altered its orbit from 320 km by 225 km to 243 km by 220 km. the result of this maneuver was twofold.

First, the ground track of Kosmos-1343 on March 30 was shifted back to the east, where the satellite passed close to White Sands at an altitude of 230 km about forty minutes before the safe landing of STS-3. The reason why the Soviets would want to photograph the landing sites so soon to recover is not entirely clear, but the orbits of Kosmos-1262 and Kosmos-1343 appear to be more than coincidental. Although all landings have been open to the public and media coverage has been extensive, a possible explanation for the Soviet actions is a desire to get a satellite’s view of the site for reference in assessing potential future landing fields.

The second benefit of Kosmos-1343’s orbital maneuver was associated with the Gallant Eagle ’82 war games then under way at Fort Irwin, Calif. On the morning of March 30, 2,300 men and 266 tons of materiel from across the country were air-dropped onto the military reservation in a test of the Rapid Deployment Joint Task Force (RDJTF). Besides substantially lowering the satellite’s apogee, the orbital maneuver shifted Kosmos-1343’s perigee from its ascending trek through the northern hemisphere to its descending passage. Therefore, the satellite passed at an altitude of about 220 km just to the east of Fort Irwin and Twenty-nine Palms where the war games were being staged just twelve hours after the main parachute drop. This afforded the Soviets an excellent opportunity to survey the initial staging development by the RDJTF.

Even more intriguing was the recovery of Kosmos-1343 in the Soviet Union within three hours of its passage over the California desert. Hence, the Soviets could test the swiftness of their photographic intelligence teams under a mock tactical situation. The apparent ability of the Soviets to overcome unexpected obstacles—i.e., the delayed STS-3 landing—in real time and still meet other objectives attests to a substantial maturity in the Soviet system.

Weather, Communications—and a Soviet Shuttle

New Soviet spacecraft and operational changes to older ones were evident in 1982. The test of a small Shuttle-like vehicle in June caused quite a furor in the West. The spacecraft, Kosmos-1374, flew a normal flight profile out of the Kaspustin Yar launch facility atop a small SL-8 (SS-5 derivative) vehicle, but mistaken assumptions in the initial media reports regarding the size of the satellite implied a much larger vehicle never before seen at Kapustin Yar.

In retrospect, Kosmos-1374 seems to have been in the 1,000-kg class, obviously not capable of ferrying cosmonauts but possibly a subscale model of a larger design. Kosmos-1374 was successfully recovered in the Indian Ocean by a Soviet naval task force after slightly more than one orbit about the earth. The nature of the mission was reminiscent of American tests performed in the 1960s. The inference is that the Soviet reusable spacecraft program, much debated in the West, is still far from operational flights.

The first of a new series of improved Meteor-2 weather satellites also made its debut during this year. Meteor-2/8 was lifted into orbit apparently by a SS-9 derivative launch vehicle, in contrast to the SS-6 class vehicle that has been used on all other Meteor missions. In addition, the spacecraft entered a higher orbit (960 km by 940 km) than the earlier Meteor-2 satellites (900 km by 850 km). This marks the initiation of a new three-satellite constellation—to be deployed by 1985—that will employ steady-state plasma thrusters to synchronize the three vehicles and increase system efficiency.

In a related project, the Soviet Union announced that development work continues on the long-delayed Geostationary Operational Meteorological Satellite (GOMS). Consideration is also being given to placing weather satellites in polar orbits with twenty-four-hour periods to observe better the extreme northern and southern latitudes.

In the field of communications satellites, the Soviets experimented with three new super-high frequency (SHF) transponders during 1982. The geostationary Gorizont-5 finally tested the Luch (11-14 GHz) and Volna (1.5-1.6 GHz) transponders that are scheduled for wide distribution in the geostationary ring. Molniya-3/19, launched in August, carried a new SHF payload, possibly another Volna transponder (designed for maritime and aeronautical links) that the Soviets had tied earlier with future Molniyas. Another experimental SHF satellite, Kosmos-1366, was placed in geostationary orbit on a less publicized mission and is still maintaining its position at 80 degrees E, which is an announced location for the forthcoming Potok satellites.

Navigation and Early Warning Satellites

Improvements in the Soviet navigation network were also revealed. Kosmos-1383, the first Soviet navigation satellite to carry the new COSPAR search and rescue equipment, was instrumental in locating quickly the survivors of a downed aircraft in Canada and aided in several other rescues by the end of the year. An application filed with the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) disclosed that the Soviet Union will soon deploy a new generation of navigation satellites. Although designated GLONASS (Global Navigation Satellite System), a more appropriate name might be NAVSTARsky since the satellite will not only possess orbital parameters virtually identical to the present American NAVSTAR spacecraft, but will also transmit on nearly the same frequencies! A test launch of three satellites into this new orbital regime on October 12 appeared to be a partial failure.

The Soviet early warning satellite network continues to mature, and in 1982 completed a shift in satellite coverage. The nine-member constellation has been moved to the east, providing more complete coverage of the US on the satellites’ Pacific Ocean passes. On their Atlantic Ocean orbits the early warning satellites are still afforded an excellent view of possible SLBM staging areas and launches from the People’s Republic of China.

Despite their absence during the first part of the Falkland Islands war, Soviet ocean surveillance satellites experienced another record-breaking year with seven successful launches—four of the nuclear-powered radar class and three of the conventionally powered passive ELINT variety. A familiar sure of activity was again detected in late summer and early fall, when both NATO and Warsaw Pact maneuvers were under way. During this period (for the very first time in the history of the program) the Soviets had a pair of each type of satellite operational simultaneously. Unfortunately, one of the radar satellites (Kosmos-1402) launched at this time failed to maneuver its radioactive power supply to a higher storage orbit after its mission was terminated on December 28. Consequently, the nuclear payload began a gradual descent toward reentry in late January 1983.

The biggest surprise of the year in this program was the fragmentation of four inactive solar-powered types (one broke up twice three months apart). Occurring on a seemingly regular schedule (one a month from May to September), each event may have created as many as 100 pieces of space debris. Furthermore, an analysis of all such events—ten to date—revealed a pattern of apparently deliberate break-ups for reasons yet to be determined.

During 1982, the Soviets continued unabated their formidable earth satellite programs, conducting more than five times as many launchings as the US. Significant improvement of the operational utility of all space systems remains the dominant theme of Soviet activity. Moreover, there is no evidence that this trend—with its obvious implications for American national defense—will change in the foreseeable future.

Nicholas L. Johnson is Principal Technologist and Manager of Antisatellite Systems at Teledyne Brown Engineering. He served four years with USAF and saw action in Vietnam. He later attended the US Naval Nuclear Power School and was commissioned in the Navy, serving four years. Mr. Johnson holds a bachelor’s in physics from Memphis State University, and has done graduate work in space science at the University of Houston. He has recently completed a book concerning Soviet military strategy in space.