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Co-orbital ASAT

The principal and only dedicated ASAT system was referred to as the Co-orbital ASAT in reference to its engagement profile. Developed by the Kometa TsNPO under Academician Savin, the Co-orbital ASAT was based on the Tsyklon-2 booster and was tested 20 times in space during the period October, 1968-June, 1982. For each test a dedicated target vehicle was first placed into a low Earth orbit (the first two by the Tsyklon-2 from Baikonur and later targets by the Kosmos-3M from Plesetsk). The Co-orbital ASAT would then be launched from Baikonur on either a 1-revolution or a 2-revolution intercept. The interceptor was 1,400 kg with a principal diameter of 1.8 m and a length of 4.2 m, while the target was a 650-kg polyhedron with a diameter of 1.4 m.

The co-orbital plane requirement meant that launch opportunities occurred as the orbital plane of the target satellite passed through the Tyuratam launch site twice each day. In practice, only one opportunity per day was acceptable to prevent launches toward the PRC. From an initial, low-altitude parking orbit, the Co-orbital ASAT would quickly maneuver into a transfer orbit with a greater or lesser orbital period than the target to permit an intercept over Europe after one or two complete circuits about the Earth, i.e., approximately 90-200 minutes after launch. Within minutes of the actual attack, the Co-orbital ASAT would maneuver a final time to establish the required end-game conditions. A conventional warhead would then be detonated to effect the negation.

The initial test phase of the Co-orbital ASAT program was conducted during 1968-1971 with an assessed five successes out of seven attempts. In all but one case, a cloud of debris caused by the breakup of the Co-orbital ASAT at the time of warhead detonation was left in LEO. This series of tests validated the operational envelope of the weapon from as low as 230 km to a height of 1,000 km.

Between 1976 and 1982 13 more tests were conducted, primarily to perfect a more rapid intercept profile and to evaluate a new acquisition sensor. Whereas the first seven tests had all required two revolutions, tests 8 nd 9 attempted single-revolution attacks as did tests 12 and 13. In both cases the first attempt was judged a failure and the second attempt a success. The last of these tests demonstrated a reach to an altitude of nearly 1,600 km.

Several of the other missions in the Phase 2 test program reportedly employed an optical or IR sensor for target acquisition rather than the standard radar seeker. All attempts with the new sensor are believed to have failed. However, a radar-equipped Co-orbital ASAT was flown on a 2-revolution profile in 1977 to prove that a target at an altitude as low as 159 km in an elliptical orbit could be successfully negated.

All missions after 1970 were flown at inclinations near 65.8 degrees to satisfy range safety restrictions at both Plesetsk (target) and Baikonur (Co-orbital ASAT).

The lack of testing after 1982 raised some questions about the current operational status of the Co-orbital ASAT. The Tsyklon-2 was flown frequently in support of ocean reconnaissance programs and in August, 1989, the US Secretary of Defense claimed "conclusive evidence" existed that the system was "in a constant state of readiness." Nearly three years later a Russian publication appeared to confirm its operational status (Reference 107). Two launch pads were available at Baikonur, each capable of supporting several ASAT missions per day (Reference 108). Although the Co-orbital ASAT has never been launched from Plesetsk, the assumed commonalty of Tsyklon-2 and Tsyklon-3 launch pads would have mad such operations feasible.

In 1983, As part of its response to the Reagan Strategic Defense Initiative, the Soviet Union declared a moratorium ASAT testing in 1983, and is not known to have tested an ASAT since. The post Soviet status of this system is obscure. The 2001-02 Jane's Space Directory lists the Russian ASAT program as "inactive" though there is no apparent attestation in the open literature as to when the system was inactivated.


By Charles S. Sheldon II*



Plesetsk Targets for Interceptors

 There is one other small class of C-l flights different from all the rest whose mission can be established. These occurred in 1971, and perhaps in 1972 (Kosmos 521) when payloads were put up at several different altitudes, but all at 65.9 degrees inclination, later to become targets of F-l-m launched interceptors from Tyuratam. See comments below on Kosmos 752.


The newest of the Soviet space launch vehicles to come into use has been that derived from the SS-9 Scarp very large ICBM. In at least one of its versions, it may be carrying an upper stage which was paraded in Moscow as the final stage of the SS-10 Scrag which itself

never entered the operational missile inventory. But the SS-10 appellation as "global" used in parade descriptions ultimately was transferred to the SS-9 and this may have been brought about by salvaging for further use this final stage. The F series of launch vehicles is unique in that not one has been applied to any civilian program. There have not even been accounts of supplemental scientific payloads. Further, this larger vehicle, capable of carrying up to 4,500 kilograms of payload, and unlike the awkwardly shaped A class vehicles with their cryogenics, uses storable propellants, and can be placed in a silo launch facility.

With its size and general flexibility, the vehicle has been used for several quite different kinds of missions, indicated by the marked differences in flight mode among each of the groups and even with these groups. Also, with inertial guidance almost certainly a feature, these vehicles have shown some versatility in being launched at a greater variety of azimuths from a given launch facility. All the space launches with the F vehicles have come from Tyuratam.

Table 6-5 which follows summarizes all the F class flights.

Military Interceptions for Inspection and Destruction

Although the F class vehicles had come into weapons-related use possibly as early as 1965 and certainly by 1966, these have all been classed as using the F-l-r type of vehicle with its retro-package which at least in the case of FOBS was used to bring back a dummy warhead before natural decay would occur.

On October 27, 1967 , a new type of vehicle appeared, the F-l-m, marked by use of a maneuvering stage with a multiple burn capability. As further flights of this launch vehicle occurred, there was a considerable variety of uses or patterns, as sometimes the whole assembly seemed to maneuver as a unit, and sometimes there were abandoned rocket stages and launch platforms before the final payload ended up in still another orbit. In some cases maneuvers occurred so promptly the original orbit was not readily detected by the regular Western sensors; other times, there was a lapse of time. All of this makes it difficult to be absolutely sure how many operational modes have been observed, and how many times the apparent differences were occasioned more by getting data readings at different times during the flights. The first major grouping of F-l-m flights is summarized in Table 6-7.

Kosmos 185, the first of the F-l-m flights, was put into a slightly eccentric low orbit, and then both the payload and the accompanying-carrier rocket maneuvered upward to a somewhat higher, still eccentric orbit, which was the one announced prosaically by the Russians. No purpose was given for the flight.

Kosmos 217, launched April 24, 1968 , was announced as being in an orbit similar to the initial orbital pattern of Kosmos 185. But Western sensors found only debris in a low orbit, similar to that of a FOBS flight. There was a suspicion that the payload may not have achieved sustained orbit at all. Presumably the announced orbit was the one intended as the initial orbit, even though not attained. It raised questions as to why a patently not achieved orbit was made public.

On October 19, 1968 , Kosmos 248 was put into an orbit like that announced for but not attained by Kosmos 217. It may have started in a lower initial orbit, but that is not clear.

A day later, Kosmos 249 was launched, probably leaving a rocket casing in a low orbit reminiscent of FOBS which decayed the next day. Then Kosmos 249 was maneuvered into a markedly eccentric orbit whose perigee was very close to the average attitude of the Kosmos 248 orbit. It was adjusted to come into close proximity to Kosmos 248. The initial Soviet bulletin on this flight added new phraseology: "Scientific investigations under the program have been carried out." Indeed, what happened was that after the satellite had made its high speed close inspection of Kosmos 248, it moved away again, and was exploded into a cloud of debris.

On November 1, Kosmos 252 was put into orbit in a pattern virtually identical to that of Kosmos 249. Again, it made a high speed flyby of Kosmos 248, moved away, and was exploded into many fragments. The initial Soviet announcement said: "The scientific research envisioned by the program has been fulfilled." Because the orbits of Kosmos 249 and 252 were so placed that they would have lasted many years, the prompt announcement of program completion was a pretty good indication that the explosions coming as they did in a pair were planned.

This made evident that the Russians who had practiced cooperative rendezvous and docking with Kosmos 186 and 188 and again with Kosmos 212 and 213, were now conducting inspections of what could be non-cooperative craft. The explosions of these two payloads could mean that they carried instrumentation and other devices the Russians did not want to leave in orbit for some future generation of curious inspectors of another nationality to find; or they could have been exercising the destruct mechanism, presumably at a safe distance so as not to destroy their own target.

Now it was possible to go back and put into context other statements and attitudes. It was interesting that during the period the Russians were criticizing the United States for having an MOL (Manned Orbiting Laboratory) plan, they credited MOL with a capability of

inspecting and destroying the satellites of other nations. This was carried in Red Star in 1965, and was one of the more preposterous things credited to that unwieldy, long tank with its human crew at one end. and its limited propulsion capability. (33)

The Russians were aware that at one point the " United States had under early development an unmanned system called Saint which was supposed to co-orbit with potentially dangerous foreign satellites to inspect them. This program, as well as MOL, was abandoned by the United States . Apparently, by contrast, the Russians went ahead with their parallel system, and added a destruction capability to the inspection phase.

With the experience of Kosmos 248, 249, and 252. it was possible to go back through earlier flights and to discover that Kosmos 217 and 185 had enough characteristics in common that they were either precursor engineering tests or were parts of systems, presumably targets, which failed before any interceptors could be sent up.

In this same time period, there was an East German reference to such a capability:

Under combat conditions it would undoubtedly be possible to stop the extensive radio communications required for navigational purposes; moreover, It would not be too difficult to put the satellites out of operation with the help of weapons systems which, for example, the Soviet Army has at its disposal. And thus the entire system would, of course, be ineffective. (34)

The Russians themselves made an oblique reference to destruction of satellites in October 1969. An attack was made on plans for a NATO communications satellite. The charge was made that the real purpose of the satellite was espionage rather than communications:

Why does NATO have to extend its space program? The crux of the matter is that whereas before aircraft and ships were considered fairly satisfactory vehicles for collecting intelligence Information about the socialist countries in Europe and Asia, they are no longer satisfactory . . . Everyone is aware of how a U-2 reconnaissance plane was shot down over Soviet territory. This year a new Intelligence aircraft, the BC-S-121 was shot down over North Korea . All this forced NATO to change its tactics. . . . The new NATO tactical satellite program suggests that the United States is dragging its NATO pact allies into its strategy of total espionage and is successfully ferreting considerable funds out of them to cover the cost of constructing espionage centers in various countries. The rejoinder of the armed forces of the Warsaw Pact member countries is to undertake reliable measures to protect themselves from the aggressive Activities and aspirations of the NATO pact. (35)

On August 6, 1969 , Kosmos 291 had been put into low eccentric orbit, where it separated a carrier rocket. There was no further maneuver, and it may have been a target for further interceptor tests which were cancelled, when it failed to raise its perigee to match Kosmos 248, or to go still higher like the vehicles of the following year.

On October 20, 1970 , Kosmos 373 may have started in low orbit, but was first detected in a stable orbit with a fairly high apogee and moderately low perigee. Very shortly the apogee was lowered to circularize the orbit at virtually the same level as Kosmos 248 of two years earlier. It left its carrier rocket in a more extreme orbit, with about the high perigee of the payload before its downward maneuver, and its perigee much lower than any measured perigee of the payload.

Three days later, Kosmos 374 was launched into the same kind of initial orbit as Kosmos 373. Then it maneuvered again to raise its apogee twice as high, but leaving its perigee at the average orbital altitude of the final orbit of Kosmos 373. It was in this final orbit that it separated from its carrier rocket. It made a close pass by Kosmos 373, moved away, and was exploded into many pieces of debris. The now familiar language of the initial Soviet press bulletin included the news that the envisaged program had been completed.

On October 30, Kosmos 375 was launched in a virtual repeat of the steps followed by Kosmos 374. The initial orbit was the eccentric one like the initial orbits of both Kosmos 373 and 374. The next major maneuver greatly raised apogee, and here the carrier rocket was separated. It made its near pass by Kosmos 373, moved away and was exploded. The TASS bulletin initially released also announced the experiment planned had been completed.

There is not too much doubt that the two sets of triplet flights, each involving a double intercept were all of a pattern, but there are many unanswered questions about staging and procedures, as the visible record has inconsistencies which are not readily resolved.

In the absence of any Soviet discussion of the flights or findings from "experiments", there has been speculation in the West about the operating modes and purposes of the Soviet interceptor tests. A few people saw them as purely benign for space rescue purposes. It seems

unlikely that the Russians would go to such expense to develop a humanitarian system without open discussion of it, to take some credit for their generosity. Other people were convinced that the F-l-m target vehicle was the destroyer craft, reasoning that since the interceptors, not the target were being destroyed, this would be a proper interpretation. Supposedly if the U.S. Saint project had been seen through to completion, and it conducted a passive inspection in co-orbit with a sensitive Soviet^ military pay load, then the ability to destroy the Saint could be a possible Soviet countermove against such inspection. Since most estimates are that the explosions in the inspectors took place at some considerable distance from the targets, it seems more likely that the explosions were generated in the F-l-m inspectors, whether to preserve the secrecy of their possibly advanced technology hardware, or in exercise of an ability to shower a simulated target with shrapnel through self-destruction, after a real interception and inspection had been conducted. In real combat, if the interceptor-gathered data suggested the target was a threat, ground controllers could send a command to the interceptor to explode while within range of the target.

It would be interesting to know why a vehicle as large as the F-l-m was used to launch the targets, unless nothing smaller at that time could be placed in the same orbital plane as the interceptors. In any case, a new feature was introduced into the program in the flights of 1971.

On February 9, 1971 , Kosmos 394 was launched from Plesetsk using a C-l vehicle in a brand-new inclination—65.9 degrees. It was put into a circular orbit about 600 kilometers above the Earth, where it was separated from its carrier rocket.

On February 25, Kosmos 397 was launched from Tyuratam using the F-l-m again, also on a new inclination for this vehicle—65.8 degrees. It started out in low orbit, where it dropped its carrier rocket. It then moved to an eccentric orbit very much like those of Kosmos 249, 252, 374, and 375. It made an inspection of the target, moved away, and was exploded.

Kosmos 400 was launched by a C-l at Plesetsk on March 19, 1971 , but this time was placed in a circular orbit about 1,000 kilometers up, where it separated from its carrier rocket.

On April 4, 1971 , Kosmos 404 was launched at Tyuratam with the F-l-m vehicle. It left its carrier rocket in an intermediate eccentric orbit, then climbed to a near-circular orbit ranging from about 1,000 to about 800 kilometers, where it made quite a different pass by its target. Where other interceptions had been made with a considerable differential in velocity, this was more of a lingering inspection. There was another change. After the inspection, the interceptor was not exploded. This time the perigee was lowered sharply so that the orbit ranged from 799 kilometers to 169 kilometers, and 'a controlled deboost brought it to decay over an ocean area with deep water where it could not be recovered. This had the 'advantage of not cluttering near Earth space with scores or even hundreds of shards of metal.

On November 29,1971, Kosmos 459 was launched at Plesetsk using the C-l, and it was put into the lowest orbit ever flown by that launch vehicle—about 250 kilometers, roughly circular. It separated from its carrier rocket.

Kosmos 462 was launched on December 3, 1971 'at Tyuratam, using the F-l-m. Its carrier rocket was abandoned in a highly eccentric orbit, even more extreme than those of Kosmos 397 and 404. With minor adjustments, the payload after separation maintained essentially that same eccentric orbit, and at its perigee swept by Kosmos 459 for a high speed inspection, before moving on and then exploding.

As in every one of the seven successful interceptions, the Soviet initial bulletin also announced the completion of the test with the attainment of its intended objectives, never stated.

On September 29, 1972 , Kosmos 521 was also launched from Plesetsk using the C-l vehicle, and it flew at the inclination of 65.9° used by all the Plesetsk target craft and by no other C-l craft. There was no follow-up interception. Was such a flight planned but can-celled? We do not know. This same inclination finally came into use again in 1975 when Kosmos 752 was launched on July 24, 1975 . Like the FOBS flights, the interceptor flights ended in 1971, perhaps in connection with the SALT talks although these items were not formally negotiated as activities to be dropped. As indicated, the Kosmos 521 flight almost a year later may or may not have been an incomplete continuation of this program, a target without a seeker. Kosmos 752 after almost three more years looks even less like a target despite its inclination, although this remains to be resolved.

Some people have noted that the three known interceptions of C-l class targets afforded the Russians an opportunity to demonstrate they could make interceptions at altitudes often put to use by electronic ferret payloads, weather satellites, navigation satellites, and military recoverable observation satellites. Many people were sure that we would see similar tests against targets at 36,000 kilometers altitude, but it seems unlikely any such have been carried out, and it is also unlikely the same interceptor payloads could be carried that high by an F-l-m launch vehicle, so that instead the D-l-e civilian launch vehicle would have to 'be adapted to military use, to achieve a similar inspection at so high an altitude.



Antisatellite tests were carried out in 1981 and 1982, but rather surprisingly, not at all in 1983. The first of the 1981 tests was monitored in some detail by Sven Grahn.

Kosmos 1241, the target satellite, was launched from Plesetsk on January 21, with orbital parameters of 65.8°, 1012-978 km, and 105 min. Basing his calculations on data from the 1980 test, Grahn deduced that the most probable time for an interception would occur early in the morning of February 2. By January 30, he had monitored Kosmos 1241 and discovered that its signals were of a pulsed radar type. On the morning of February 2, he picked up these signals again between 0345.49 and 0346.35 GMT. He immediately commenced a search for signals from the expected interceptor and discovered them at 0358.20 on a frequency well used by F-launched payloads. These were AM pulse position modulated signals and lasted until 0402.40. Kosmos 1243 had been launched from Tyuratam at around 0225 into a 65.1°, 308-61 km, 88.2 min. orbit and these signals were received at the end of its first revolution. At the time of the launch, Kosmos 1241 was southbound near the Kamchatka peninsula. With its lower orbital period, Kosmos 1243 began overtaking Kosmos 1241 and, on reaching the Equator at the end of its first orbit, fired its maneuvering stage to produce a small plane change and establish a transfer orbit with para meters of 65 8° 1017-297 km, and 97.9 min. By the start of the third orbit, the time difference had been reduced almost to zero and Kosmos 1243 began its climb to rendezvous with the target near apogee. Grahn picked up signals from both spacecraft simultaneously shortly after 0530 and lost them both when they fell below his eastern horizon at 0544.56. Kosmos 1243 was deorbited following this flyby, but a second interception was made by Kosmos 1258 on March 14. On that occasion there were reports that a Pentagon source had claimed that the target satellite had been successfully knocked out" the interceptor exploding near to it in what has come to be called a "hot metal" kill as opposed to use of a directed energy beam weapon. However, no fragments were cataloged by NORAD sensors.

Following the launch of Kosmos 1375 in 1982, with similar orbital parameters to those of Kosmos 1241, it was reported that Kosmos 1243, employing a new unjammable optical guidance system, was judged to have failed in its mission but that Kosmos 1258, with the older onboard radar guidance, had probably been successful.

The June 18, 1982, test appears to have been a carbon copy of the 1981 tests, Kosmos 1379 making a pass close to Kosmos 1375 before being deorbited. NORAD data for the rocket of Kosmos 1379 shows that the orbital planes were matched and the TASS announcement gave numbers showing the Kosmos 1379 apogee at the height of Kosmos 1375's circular orbit. However, in the absence of NORAD data for the Kosmos 1379 payload, it is not possible to estimate how close it approached the target. On this occasion Grahn failed to discover radio transmissions from the target, but received signals from Kosmos 1379 at the end of its first revolution.

Apparently Kosmos 1241 had been active during March and May 1982 since Branegan reported the "familiar spread-spectrum test signals with their covert telemetry around 144.3 MHz." (66) He continued, "Tests proper began on June 6 (the launch date of Kosmos 1375) and continued until June 18 in a series of about 10 tests carried out, culminating in two (sic) tests where target telemetry ceased abruptly (a point subsequently confirmed by U.S. Secretary Haig). (67) The reference to two tests by the Secretary of State drew attention to a large-scale strategic weapons exercise of which the ASAT test was only one feature, occurring over a 7-hour period. The "nuclear war scenario" began with the ASAT test and was followed rapidly by the launching of two ICBMs, an SLBM from a submarine, an IRBM and two ABMs, and were said by Secretary Haig to be "integrated" and "unprecedented in their scope. "On the day following the statement, speaking on ABC TVs This Week with David Brinkley," Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger, agreeing with Secretary Haig, said that this was "just another piece of evidence to display the fact that they believe a nuclear war can be fought and won." (68)

Two Kosmos satellites, a navsat failure (Kosmos 1380) and a high-perigee photographic reconsat (Kosmos 1381), were launched on the same day as all these weapons tests. Johnson points out that both of these launches occurred between the time of launch of Kosmos 1379 and its interception of Kosmos 1375 and notes that never before had any satellite launch taken place during the conduct of an ASAT test. He speculated that both of these flights may have simulated replacement of Soviet satellites negated by Allied forces during the war scenario. (69)


At the end of October 1981, a report appeared in the Washington Roundup column of Aviation Week to the effect that the Soviet Union was operating in low Earth orbit an antisatellite battle station equipped with clusters of infrared-homing guided interceptors that could destroy multiple U.S. spacecraft. "The podded miniature attack vehicles provide a new U.S.S.R. capability for sneak attacks on U.S. satellites." (Aviation Week's emphasis) (70) In the following week's column it claimed that Defense Department officials were checking for signs that the space station would be expanded for ballistic missile defense purposes and went on to say that the Soviet Union was expected to launch additional spacecraft equipped with infrared-homing kill devices which could be applied to a new ballistic missile defense system. (71)

Additional details were provided in the same column at the end of November.

“ . . . The Defense Department is concerned that future operational spacecraft like Cosmos 1267 will be launched into geosynchronous orbit to threaten U.S. communications and missile early warning spacecraft. . . .

. . . Cosmos 1267, docked to Salyut 6, is equipped with firing ports to eject 1-meter-long miniature vehicles guided by infrared sensors. The possibility also exists that radar homing may be employed. Docking of this antisatellite weapon platform with Salyut 6 means the U.S.S.R. would be able to use a manned Salyut to direct antisatellite attacks against U.S. spacecraft or to protect Soviet satellites against a U.S. retaliatory attack.

U.S. officials said the data on the new killer satellite system, which first appeared in an intelligence report September 17, are now "very hard from a variety of sources and methods; harder than anything we've seen for a long time." (Aviation Week's emphasis)” (72)

Analysts without access to classified sources were mystified by these reports. Granted the ability of KH-11-type satellites to obtain imagery of orbiting satellites, which has been widely reported, (73) it seemed incredible that such precision could be obtained. Now, with the publication of drawings of Kosmos 1443 in Soviet magazines, it is possible to hazard a guess as to how the reports originated. The reader's attention is drawn to figure 2 of part 2 of this study which was based on such drawings. It will be seen that cylindrical tubes with hemispherical ends are located beneath a protective covering surrounding the main section of Kosmos 1443. One can understand that these might well be the "podded miniature attack vehicles" of the Aviation Week reports. However, in a labelled cutaway drawing of the Kosmos 1443-Salyut 7-Soyuz-T 9 complex these are shown as fuel tanks (74) and the cover picture of the same magazine shows them together with the associated "plumbing." The protective covering was seen to be solar cell panels.



33. Viktorev, G, The olive branch and apace arrows, Red Star, Moscow , September 21, 1965 .

34. Otto. Major Manfred, National Zeitung, East Berlin , September 14, 1968 , p. 6.

35. Radio Moscow , October 13, 1969 , 2030 GMT.


66. Braneean, J. Oscar News No. 40, Jan. 1983, p. 4.

67. Aerospace Daily, vol. 115, June 22, 1982, p. 283.

68. Idem.

69. Johnson, N.L. The Soviet Year in Space: 1982. Teledyne Brown Engineering, 1983.

70. Aviation Week and Space Technology, vol. 115, No. 17, Oct. 26, 1981, p. 15.

71. Aviation Week and Space Technology, vol. 115, No. 18, Nov. 2, 1981, p. 15.

72. Aviation Week and Space Technology, vol. 115, No. 22, Nov. 30, 1981, p. 17.

73. Aviation Week and Space Technology, vol. 115, No. 14, Oct. 5, 1981, p. 17.

*Dr. Charles Stewart Sheldon II [1917-1981], was Chief, Science Policy Research Division, Congressional Research Service, The Library of Congress.

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