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The Hidden History of the Soviet Satellite-Killer


Kosmos-2499

 

 

 

Rockot

A Rockot booster emerges from its launch container at a ground facility in Plesetsk, carrying a commercial payload. Credit: GKNPTs Khrunichev

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The Naryad program

After the retirement of its original anti-satellite system, USSR did not give up the capability to develop and deploy anti-satellite weapons. Following the end of the IS program, a brand new anti-satellite system was emerging on the drawing board during the first half of the 1980s. This time it was apparently considered as a segment of a comprehensive antimissile defense shield -- the Soviet response to Ronald Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative, or "Star Wars."

In May 1987, Mikhail Gorbachev, who succeeded Yuri Andropov and Konstantin Chernenko as the Soviet leader, arrived to Baikonur for a long-awaited visit. Among the technologies, demonstrated to Gorbachev at the site was the IS spacecraft and the prototype of a next-generation anti-satellite platform called "Naryad" (Sentry), also known as 14F11.

General Zavalishin, who showed Gorbachev around the exhibit in Baikonur, used the opportunity to advocate the resumption of the orbital anti-satellite tests. Zavalishin reminded Gorbachev about similar work in the US and he promised to cover up the ASAT launches so nobody would ever suspect the tests were actually taking place. As Zavalishin recalls, in response "...Gorbachev went into incoherent and wordy explanations, which concluded with a polite, but resolute refusal."(100) Ironically, only few days after this conversation, on May 15, 1987, the first heavy-lift Energia rocket blasted off from Baikonur, carrying the Skif DM (Polyus) spacecraft, which was later described as the prototype of a "battle station" in space. Among other things, the Polyus could reportedly carry anti-satellite weapons.

Like Skif battle station, the Naryad system was under development by the KB Salyut design bureau led by D. A. Polukhin, with E. G. Sizov as a leading designer of the project. (526)

Naryad would ride into space onboard a silo-based missile derived from UR-100NU and upgraded with a highly maneuverable upper stage, which was later declassified for commercial use under name Briz-K. In its turn, Briz-K was apparently designed to release one or several rocket-powered "kill vehicles" developed at Nudelman's OKB-16 design bureau and capable of intercepting orbiting satellites at altitudes of up to 40,000 kilometers -- much higher than the reach of the previous IS system.

OKB-16's interceptor would be released at its target under guidance from Naryad's launch platform. The interceptor could adjust its trajectory with short bursts of four liquid-propellant thrusters installed at the center of the vehicle perpendicularly to the flight path. Upon approaching its target, the interceptor would home in on it with the help of a self-guiding warhead developed at KB Geophysika. The interceptor would then switch to autonomous control with the help of its onboard computer. (526)

Along with destroying enemy satellites, the capability of the Naryad system to intercept ballistic warheads during various stages of flight or even hit targets on the ground was also rumored.

The government authorized the construction of several experimental vehicles for the project with the first tests planned around 1987.

Naryad propulsion system

To propel Naryad's Briz-K space booster, KB Salyut requested KB Khimmash design bureau to develop a new engine capable of multiple firings in space. KB Khimmash had an extensive experience in propulsion systems for prolonged operations in space, such as the 11D417 engine for Luna-15-24 lunar probes, 11D425 for Mars series and S5.92 for a new-generation Fobos platform. However KB Salyut's managers demanded from KB Khimmash even more thrust, endurance and an unprecedented capability for such a large engine to make as much as 75 firings in space, along with lower pressure in its propellant tanks. All these improvements had to be achieved with a simultaneous mass reduction in the overall engine, which received a designation S5.98. At the end of the 1980s, new propulsion systems went through a series of live-firing tests, before being shipped to Baikonur for actual launches. (526) According to multiple Russian sources, the first sub-orbital mission of the Rockot booster with the Naryad-V payload lifted off from Baikonur on November 11, 1990. The second Naryad mission flew in December 1991, just days before the disintegration of USSR. Although both missions were on ballistic trajectories, without reaching the Earth orbit, Naryad's maneuverable platform apparently demonstrated capability to conduct multiple engine firings.

Post-Soviet period

Although the large scale Soviet "Star Wars" program had never materialized, the Naryad project lingered on, even during the post-Soviet chaos.

By 1994, the Russian Ministry of Defense and the industry apparently made a decision to launch the last Rockot booster remaining in Baikonur in connection with the Naryad program. Since the military units responsible for Rockot operations had been virtually disbanded by that time, the 8th Testing Directorate and the 2nd Test Center in Baikonur had to form a special task force at Military Unit No. 55056 to conduct the mission. Nevertheless, the successful launch was conducted on Dec. 26, 1994, from a silo facility No. 175/1, reportedly delivering Radio-ROSTO and the Naryad anti-satellite into orbit, where the latter immediately exploded. The Rockot task force was then disbanded and all Naryad operations were officially transferred to Plesetsk. (525)

During the first decade of the 21st century, the real status of the Naryad project remained unclear, however small bits of information leaking into the open Russian press allowed to speculate that it has remained "on the table." For example, the account of President Putin's visit to Khrunichev enterprise published on January 23, 2002, in the Krasnaya Zvezda newspaper, the mouthpiece of the Defense Ministry, mentioned the availability of the Naryad system as a potential response to any US decision to withdraw from the antimissile defense treaty. The company's management reportedly promised Putin to quickly integrate the Naryad system in the nation's anti-missile defense network. The project was mentioned again during one of Khrunichev's anniversary gatherings in 2000s.

Although many military space projects from the Soviet period have been documented in open Russian sources, the history of the Naryad project remained mostly under wraps, beyond declassification of its existence and its name. In the meantime, reports from Russia have continuously showed that increasing military budgets have afforded Russian authorities to jump-start some dormant weapons development programs.

Advertising the system

In 2007, China conducted a satellite intercept and a year later, the US "responded" with a thinly veiled demonstration of the capability to shoot down orbiting satellites. These developments likely prompted the Russian government to launch a media campaign advertising the nation's old and new anti-satellite assets. In March 2009, the Kremlin disseminated through official media channels details about various programs, which the country could use for anti-satellite purposes. According to the Russian military officials, the country "retained basic assets" in Naryad-VN and Naryad-VR systems. There was no explanation what was the difference between two sub-systems. At the same time, a government-controlled Russia Today TV channel quoted deputy defense minister Vladimir Popovkin as saying that Russian military was developing anti-satellite weapons in response to US and China conducting the same activities. "We can’t sit and watch others do it. I can only say similar works are done in Russia too," Popovkin said. He added that Russia needed the capability to shoot down satellites in case "somebody put weapons into space."

In January 2010, the commander of the Russian space forces Oleg Ostapenko echoed previous statements, telling the official ITAR-TASS news agency that Russia would be able to respond to threats from space. "The USSR was developing inspection and strike spacecraft," Ostapenko said, "...Our policy - there should be no war in space, but we are military people and should be ready for everything. Our activities in this direction would be dependent on others, but trust me, we would be able to respond quickly and adequately."

Aircraft and anti-aircraft based systems

In addition to the IS and Naryad systems, Russian officials cited available assets of the 30P6 complex capable of intercepting low-orbiting satellites. The system was based on the MiG-31 fighter jet and used the 45Zh6 Krona facility for targeting. The system was reportedly capable of intercepting its targets over central Russia. According to official sources, the development of the system was stopped in 1995, however all elements of the complex including the aircraft, its command facility, the Krona guidance complex and a rocket-interceptor were undergoing upgrades, as of 2009. The introduction of the second Krona facility in the Russian far east, promised in 2012, would enable the system to track satellites taking off from Vandenberg air force base in the west coast of the United States, a key facility for military space launches.

Not unlike the US navy anti-missile system, which was used in the 2008 satellite intercept, Russian sources promised to add anti-satellite capabilities to the S-400 and S-500 ground-to-air systems, then under development. (Previously, official Russian sources quoted the capability of such systems to hit targets at the altitude of around 30 kilometers, way too low for any anti-satellite role.)

Obviously, it was impossible to independently verify either the actual status of existing Russian anti-satellite assets or how actively the current government was pursuing the development of next-generation systems.

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Possible Naryad flight tests:

Date Booster Payload Launch Site Launch Pad Orbit
1990 Nov. 20 Rockot/Briz-K Naryad-V anti-satellite Baikonur Site 131 Sub-orbital
1991 Dec. 20 Rockot/Briz-K Experimental, Naryad test? Baikonur Site 175/1 Sub-orbital
1994 Dec. 26 Rockot/Briz-K Radio-ROSTO, Naryad test? Baikonur Site 175/1 1,900 km/65 deg.

Page author and illustrator: Anatoly Zak; last update: October 30, 2014

Editor: Alain Chabot; last edit: February 24, 2008

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ASAT

A scale model of a Soviet maneuverable spacecraft, which could be used as an anti-satellite weapon or a missile interceptor, likely developed by Nudelman's design bureau within the Naryad, 14F11 project. Compare to the American EKV anti-satellite below. Copyright © 2001 Anatoly Zak


EKV

A 1:2 model of an early version of the Exoatmospheric Kill Vehicle, EKV, developed by Hughes (later Raytheon) to intercept long-range ballistic missiles beyond the dense Earth atmosphere in a direct "hit-to-kill" collision. EKV would be launched by the Ground-Based Interceptor, GBI, missiles deployed in Alaska and California. Copyright © 2011 Anatoly Zak


HOE

Circa 1980s, Homing Overlay Experiment, HOE, system developed by the US army would deploy a 4-meter web for a hit-to-kill destruction of the enemy missile. Copyright © 2011 Anatoly Zak.


The Rockot booster. The configuration on the left possibly incorporates the Naryad platform. Click to enlarge: 263 x 500 pixels / 28K Copyright © 2002 Anatoly Zak


A Briz upper stage during the assembly (shown upside down). Credit: Eurockot


S5.92

The S5.92 engine originally developed for the Naryad project was designed to fire as much as 75 times. Click to enlarge. Copyright © 2009 Anatoly Zak


EKV

In 1991, American engineers tested a prototype of the Light-weight Exoatmospheric Projectile Kinetic Kill Vehicle, LEAP KKV, in a special facility on the ground. Operational versions of the device were then fitted onto Standard Missile-3, SM-3, and deployed on US Navy ships with an official goal of protecting them from short- and medium-range missiles. However, in February 2008, the same system was used to destroy a satellite. Copyright © 2011 Anatoly Zak


Sizov

E. G. Sizov led the Naryad development at KB Salyut. Credit: GKNPTs Khrunichev