Doubtless we have all seen the report of a sixth test by Russia of the Nudol, which the United States intelligence community assesses to be a direct ascent anti-satellite weapon or ASAT. The report comes to us courtesy of Ankit Panda of The Diplomat and is based on credible official US sources. Lending credence to the view that Nudol is an ASAT system is that, on April 1, Russia tested a modernised version of its Moscow based ballistic missile defence system. Furthermore, Nudol, according to Pavel Podvig, appears to be associated with the Chekhov radar, which in turn appears to be devoted to space surveillance.
The test is reported to have occurred on March 26 at the Plesetsk cosmodrome. A nice little detail from the report is that the latest Nudol test was from a TEL, apparently. It is not clear, however, whether the latest, sixth, test involved an attempted intercept or featured the kill vehicle in any way.
It’s a pity for the Russians that the wayward Chinese Tiangong-1 space station, which mostly burnt up over the South Pacific on April 2, wasn’t theirs as that way Moscow could have given us their version of “the shot.” Recall that the shot was an intercept of a wayward satellite by the US using the Aegis BMD system during the Bush administration. I wouldn’t be surprised if an actual intercept test of Nudol takes out a wayward Russian satellite, should the opportunity arise for such a high publicity stunt.
The other thing I would like to briefly touch upon is the possible relation between Nudol and US BMD. The Russian long-term response to BMD looks a lot like the planned Soviet response to BMD in the 1980s, and one aspect of that long term response was an ASAT capability.
That’s because Reagan’s SDI had space based components. Now the son of star wars has not featured so robust a space based component, in fact hitherto none such, however there has been increasing agitation by BMD advocates over recent times for space based sensors to support the BMD mission. Indeed, there has been a research project dedicated to just such a space based capability, that is for combat assessment of midcourse warhead interception attempts and warhead-decoy discrimination, known as the Space-based Kill Assessment (SKA) programme.
So, one asks, could Nudol also be a part of the Russian long term response to BMD in addition to the nuclear propelled cruise missile and such? Specifications on the Nudol are scarce, and as noted there appears to have been no intercept attempt as yet, however I have seen some analysis suggesting that Nudol at apogee could hit satellites to an 800km LEO orbit. Do note that this is an old report, and mixes up the Nudol with the modernised Moscow BMD system tested on April 1.
Now that’s interesting with respect to SKA. My understanding is that the plan for SKA is for it to be employed by commercial satellite constellations. Iridium Next has been spoken of in this context, and Irdium Next satellites are parked to 780km LEO orbits.
That’s a nice fit, going on the reported Nudol apogee above. It will be interesting to see what the Trump administration’s BMD and Space Policy reviews will say of Nudol, and how Nudol will be employed to support their policy framework.
One should say that Moscow wouldn’t need Nudol to knock out space based sensors to assure the viability of its nuclear deterrence. If Nudol is part of the long term response to BMD then it shares a feature which characterises that response, namely overkill.
Should the connection to BMD be there, and it being overkill, one naturally is interested to know how and why the ASAT programme really came about. Podvig has argued, with reference to the Katayev archive and the Soviet long term response to BMD, that the Soviet Union’s planned long term responses to BMD predated the 1980s. That is, the Katayev archive shows that the features of that long term response were discussed in the military-industrial complex in the 1970s, that is prior to SDI. Therefore, SDI can be said to have provided a political rationale for the Soviet military-industrial complex to pursue programmes envisaged before SDI.
There is surely a good element of truth to that thesis, however SDI itself owed its origins prior to 1980 as well and that is something that needs to be considered. One gets the impression that a sort of technological imperative is at play here. ASATs, BMD and so on were on the drawing board well before the 1980s. They were seen in the labs as the natural next step in technological development, and research programmes, in both the United States and the Soviet Union, existed before the 1980s in ways that went beyond the mere drawing board.
It would be wrong to assume that a technological imperative alone underpinned, and underpins, strategic weapons innovation. Herbert York, a former director of Lawrence Livermore, had the best statement that approaches this position and it’s a view that scientists themselves like to emphasise. Matthew Evangelista was surely correct when he pointed out that the case for a technological imperative is overstated, however I would argue that a complete dismissal of the technological imperative would also be overstated.
Strategic weapon programmes, such as BMD and ASAT programmes, reach a level of maturity when there comes about a favourable nexus between an underlying technological imperative and broader political-economic dynamics.
I think this is exactly what we are seeing now, in both Russia and the United States (but also China). Arms control has broken that dynamic before, and it can do so again.