Russia Tests PL-19 Nudol Missile: ASAT or BMD Missile Test?

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Russia appears to have tested the PL-109 Nudol missile, billed by most commentators as an anti-satellite weapon test (ASAT). The source of the reports on this come from Bill Gertz, so you should be careful of the framework of analysis provided especially given the prevailing political climate.

Gertz, for the Washington Free Beacon, writes

Russia successfully flight tested a new missile capable of knocking out strategic U.S. communications and navigation satellites, according to Pentagon officials.

The test of the PL-19 Nudol missile was carried out Dec. 16 from a base in central Russia, and was monitored by U.S. intelligence agencies.

It was the fifth test of the Nudol missile and the third successful flight of a system Moscow has claimed is for use against enemy missiles, said officials familiar with the reports of the launch.

Gertz has his sources, so let us accept as fact that the PL-109 Nudol test occurred. CNN is reporting it as an ASAT test, however there was no actual intercept of a satellite but the attention grabbing headline suggests it was a whole box and dice ASAT test. Even Gertz limited himself to ASAT missile test.

Pavel Podvig also has a brief entry on the test, noteworthy for its crisp and matter of fact nature (as always).

According to Russia the Nudol is a ground based ballistic missile defence interceptor, and is meant to replace the old BMD system that was allowed the Soviet Union (and then Russia) under the now defunct ABM Treaty. The current A-135 Moscow BMD system is silo based. The Bush administration scuttled the ABM Treaty.

According to the United States the Nudol is part of an explicit counter-space system, and the BMD rationale merely serves as a cover for this. Of course, mid course BMD interceptors, such as the US SM3 and the GBI, can be used in a direct ascent ASAT role as was graphically demonstrated by the SM3, used to destroy a wayward military satellite amid much fanfare, during the Bush administration.

I am not in possession of any information, other than assertion, that could conclusively settle this. But Gertz’s article is pretty sloppy in this regard. So, he writes

The new anti-satellite missile is among several new strategic weapons systems being developed by the Russian military.

The Nudol is viewed by the Pentagon as a so-called “direct ascent” anti-satellite missile. Russia, however, has sought to mask the missile’s anti-satellite capabilities by claiming the missile is for defense against incoming ballistic missiles.

Notice above that the article speaks of the Nudol as having an ASAT capability, then later on the Nudol is explicitly part of an ASAT programme i.e. “the new anti-satellite weapon.”

But let us say the PL-109 Nudol, after both flight tests and testing of an exo-atmospheric kill vehicle, is deployed around Moscow in an ostensibly BMD role, ie in the same silos as the A-135, but claimed by Washington to be really an offensive counter space force.

The same accusation could quite easily be made of the SM3 and GBI deployments of the US.

The useful thing here is to pocket the concession by the Pentagon that ballistic missile defence can indeed act as a Trojan Horse for the weaponisation of space. Critics of BMD, such as myself, have been making that point from the get-go. Some of us, myself included, argued that BMD would be the first rung on a ladder leading to the weaponisation of space.

Things are heading in that direction.

It didn’t have to come to this. The ABM Treaty could have been preserved and an arms control regime covering space could have been negotiated after the end of the cold war, but it was the United States that prevented this. Try finding any sense of this in any coverage of the Nudol test.

You’ll have to try hard because I think a sighting of Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer would be more likely. If Rudolph exists I fear he might be struck by an EKV.