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Military Space Activities


Military Space Programs

Since the last edition of this report was published, the Soviet Union has increased its efforts in space science and space applica­tions, learning from Western space programs about the potential profits to be made from the latter. The Soviets also have continued their strong program of military space activities, with evolutionary improvements in several systems.

Under General Secretary Gorbachev, much more information is now available about some aspects of the Soviet space program, no­tably space science, but the program is far from open by Western standards. The organization of the Soviet government for determin­ ing space policy and implementing programs is just as unclear as ever. Although a new space agency was created, its position in the Soviet government and its relationship to other space-related orga­ nizations is not well understood. Western observers still have no clear understanding of how much the Soviets spend on space activi­ ties. Finally, although the Soviets admit that they conduct military space programs, no information has been forthcoming about them (although this is not surprising and is unlikely to change).

military space programs

In 1985, the Soviet Union finally publicly admitted that it con­ ducts military space activities, emphasizing that these are for peaceful purposes such as verification of treaties. The most contro­ versial aspect of military space programs, of course, has been the prospect of weapons in space. No country bases weapons in space today, although both superpowers are performing research on space-based ballistic missile defense weapons. Whether either coun­ try will ever deploy such weapons remains to be seen. Gorbachev has publicly stated that his country performs such research, but only in the laboratory phase, and there is no evidence that the Soviets have a coordinated program such as that performed by the U.S. Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) Organization. SDI is not a space program, but a strategic defense program (that may or may not ultimately involve space-based weapons), and as such is not treated at length in this report. The superpowers are now engaged in arms control talks concerning space weapons, and the fate of the U.S. SDI program and Soviet research in these areas will remain uncertain until the talks are concluded. 5

Antisatellite weapons, which to date have not involved basing weapons in space, are also controversial. The Soviet Union conduct­ ed its last ASAT test in 1982, bringing to 20 the total number of such tests according to Western analysts. The Soviets admit that they tested an ASAT system, but only against points in space, not objects (satellites), in conflict with Western analysis. Continued Soviet misrepresentation of its ASAT activities does not improve the climate for arms control talks in this area, but the question has diminished in importance because of the Soviet hiatus in ASAT testing and the U.S. decision not to proceed with developing an air- launched ASAT of its own (although other ASAT systems are under study). 6 As with the ballistic missile defense systems, the future of ASATs depends at least in part on the arms control talks already underway.

In other military space activities, the Soviets have continued their evolutionary development of new systems for photographic re­ connaissance. Fifth generation satellites, which apparently use dig­ ital transmission of imagery, were launched beginning in 1984. These new satellites have not replaced the older film-return model, however, nor reduced their frequency of launch. The Soviets now have the ability to monitor the Earth on a continuous basis by launching a large number of the short-lived film-return satellites, with the longer lived fifth the same mission objectives as can be met by a handful of U.S. satellites. At the beginning of 1988, U.S. Secretary of the generation satellites as a complement. The need to launch as many as 25-30 photographic reconnaissance satellites each year is partially responsible for the high Soviet launch rate which so often leads to the misperception that the So­ viets are "ahead" of the United States in space because they launch so often. This high launch rate is primarily indicative of their technological shortcomings that requires them to launch many more satellites to accomplish Air Force Edward (Pete) Aldridge stated that the U.S. space program is "far ahead" of the Soviets technological­ ly and qualitatively. 7

Nevertheless, the high launch rate does give the Soviets an ad­vantage in reconstituting their space assets in times of crisis, as­ suming that their launch pads are not destroyed in the early part of any conflict. Under peacetime circumstances, however, the need for so many satellites and so many launches must prove to be a drain on Soviet resources. Although some Western observers postu­ late that with the addition of two new launch vehicles (see Part 1 of this study) the Soviets will launch more and more satellites, it is equally possible that with better technology, they will launch fewer and fewer, as did the United States.

One Soviet military space program that received considerable at­ tention in 1983 and 1988 is the nuclear reactor powered RORSAT (radar ocean reconnaissance satellite) series. The malfunction of Cosmos 1402 in late 1982 caused the satellite to reenter over the Indian and Atlantic Oceans in early 1983. Usually when a ROR SAT's mission is completed, the nuclear reactor portion of the sat­ ellite is boosted into a very high orbit from which it will not decay for hundreds of years and the radioactivity has subsided. This mechanism failed on Cosmos 1402, as it had on Cosmos 954 which spread radioactive debris over northern Canada in 1978. This time the debris fell over ocean areas and the incident demonstrated a technique apparently adopted after Cosmos 954 to eject the reac­ tor's core (the most radioactive part of the spacecraft) to ensure that it would vaporize during reentry. In 1988, yet another RORSAT, Cosmos 1900, suffered problems that threatened to result in radioactive material reentering Earth's atmosphere. In this case, fail-safe sensors on the satellite were able to trigger the boost to higher orbit even though the Soviets had lost communications with the spacecraft. This again apparently showed the Soviet ability to modify RORSATs to reduce the hazard from space nuclear power sources. 8

The success of the fail-safe systems probably will add to Soviet confidence about these nuclear powered satellites, but an interna­tional movement to sharply restrict the use of nuclear reactors in Earth orbit may create problems for the Soviets in this regard (they are the only ones who currently use reactors in space, al­ though the United States uses another type of nuclear power source for some planetary spacecraft). The Committee of Soviet Sci­ entists Against the Nuclear Threat, headed by Dr. Roald Sagdeyev (Director of the Soviet Institute for Space Research at the time) issued a press release jointly with the U.S. Federation of American Scientists in 1988 specifically calling for termination of the RORSAT program and recommending constraints on other nuclear power sources for spacecraft. Although the Soviet government does not seem to have adopted this resolution, it does underscore the growing concern about Soviet RORSATs from a safety perspective.

Determining future Soviet intentions with regard to military space activities is impossible from open source literature (and is probably extremely difficult even from classified sources). It is too simplistic to assume that their program development would paral­lel that of the United States. Thus, attempting to forecast future military space intentions is a fruitless task, other than to assume that existing systems will evolve as funding and technology permit.


A. SOVIET SPACE PROGRAMS: 1981-87, SPACE SCIENCE, SPACE APPLICATIONS, MILITARY SPACE PROGRAMS, ADMINISTRATION, RESOURCE BURDEN, AND MASTER LOG OF SPACEFLIGHTS, Part 2, April 1989, Printed for the use of the Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, U.S. GOVERNMENT PRINTING OFFICE, WASHINGTON, D.C. 1989, Committee print 1981-87- part-2

5 For a discussion of the U.S. SDI program, see: Moteff, John D. The Strategic Defense Initiative: Program Description and Major Issues. Washington, U.S. Library of Congress. Congressional Research Service, Oct. 25, 1988. CRS Report 88-721 SPR.

6 For a discussion of U.S. ASAT activities, see: Smith, Marcia S. ASATs: Antisatellite Weapon
Systems. Washington, U.S. Library of Congress. Congressional Research Service, 1988. Issue

Brief 85176. Updated regularly.

7 USA "Leads in Space." Flight . 30, 1988, p. 1

8 The word "apparently" is used because the Soviets have not stated when the core ejection system demonstrated on Cosmos 1402 or the fail safe systems on Cosmos 1900 were installed. It is possible they were on earlier satellites, like Cosmos 954, and failed, but it seems more likely that they were successively added to the RORSATs as a result of the Cosmos 954 and Cosmos 1402 failures.

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