CO-ORBITAL SATELLITE FIGHTER DEVELOPMENT AND OPERATIONAL TESTING – 1963-1982

A US Defense Intelligence Agency diagram showing the various means by which one satellite might attack another.

There are 39 spacecraft flights that can be directly attributed to the Soviet Counter-Space Defence Satellite fighter (IS interceptor) Complex development and operational test programs. The first spacecraft that can positively be attributed to the development of an ASAT (Anti-Satellite) system was the OKB-52 (JSC MIC Mashinostroyenia) Polyet-1 manoeuvrable spacecraft, which was launched in 1963. This spacecraft, which effectively acted as a prototype for what would become the IS interceptor, was developed from experience gained in development of the MP-1 maneuvering in the atmosphere high hypersonic vehicle that was being developed under the Soviet Union’s orbital weapons programs. Whilst the Polyet-1 and Polyet-2 were launched aboard R-7 derived launch vehicles all other spacecraft launched under the ASAT development program were launched on Cyclone-2 (IS interceptors) or Kosmos-2 (calibration and target spacecraft) launch vehicles.

A maneuverable satellite launch failure on 25 January 1969 was recorded in intelligence document NIE 11-1-69, ‘The Soviet Space Program’, although this is not replicated in other records either in Russia or at NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration) from where the intelligence data apparently originated. The only Soviet space launch recorded on the date in question was Cosmos 266, a photo reconnaissance satellite launched on a Soyuz launch vehicle from Plesetsk cosmodrome. Therefore, the alleged 25 January 1969 launch failure is not entered in the chronological listing below. Other calibration spacecraft were employed in the development of the Soviet Union’s ICBM detection/near-Earth space monitoring and control complexes, but these, being incidental, are not recorded here.

At the same time as development of the IS system other maneuverable satellites were being developed in the Soviet Union for other roles such as reconnaissance, in particular the nuclear powered RORSAT (Radar Ocean Reconnaissance Satellite), which was designed to search vast ocean areas for NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organisation) shipping from a low-Earth orbit. The first of the RORSAT’s, Cosmos 209, was launched atop a Cyclone-2 launch vehicle on 22 March 1968.

By early 1968, western intelligence agencies, having had time to digest available evidence, were still divided as to the exact purpose of the Soviet maneuverable satellite programs, although it is clear from available intelligence documents that the finger of suspicion was motioning in the direction of an ASAT system. Intelligence document NIE 11-1-67 noted that the tempo of work on Soviet maneuverable satellite programs had increased. Two satellites were noted to be employed on maneuverable programs, one estimated at 4082 kg (9,000 lb.) mass and the other at 3175 kg (7,000 lb.). Although estimates of spacecraft mass were off by a considerable margin, almost double for the first and in the region of four times as large for the second type of spacecraft, it was becoming clear that the Soviets may be testing potential ASAT technologies, although a number of other potential roles were also identified. The evidence for this emerged from a series of manoeuvring satellite testing that appeared to be aimed at developing the ability to direct one spacecraft to pass within close proximity of passive and non-cooperating target satellites.

The above inference came from a series of missions that began with the launching of Cosmos 248 on 19 October 1968. This spacecraft, it was noted from orbital data, appeared to be acting as a rendezvous target for Cosmos 249 and 252, launched on 20 October and 1 November 1968 respectively. On the second orbit of Cosmos 249, the spacecraft maneuvered to pass within 70 miles of the Cosmos 248 target. During its third orbit Cosmos 249 was noted to be “tumbling or spinning and was accompanied by several fragments” (NIE 11-1-67), while Cosmos 248 remained in its orbit, enabling the spacecraft to be employed as a target for Cosmos 252, which, on its second orbit, was maneuvered to pass within 1 mile of Cosmos 248. It was noted in intelligence document NIE 11-1-67, “Unlike the previous operation, in this instance both Cosmos 248 and 252 were accompanied by fragments after the operation; our calculations indicate that this fragmentation occurred at about the time of the fly-by. Several orbits later, both vehicles were observed tumbling or spinning”. This led to an inference among in the intelligence community that Cosmos 252 had actively sacrificed itself to destroy Cosmos 248.

Although ASAT capabilities were one school of thought, statements circulated indicated that opinion was divided on potential roles for the maneuverable spacecraft being tested by the Soviet Union. One such statement within the text of intelligence document NIE 11-1-67 read “While we cannot determine the missions of the various satellite’s involved, the maneuverable satellite program could be intended to fulfill a number of roles, both military and non-military. We are not yet able to determine the most likely roles that will evolve. Some flights could be directed solely towards the development of a multi-purpose orbital propulsion capability, the techniques of which could support a variety of intercept or rendezvous mission’s. A close fly-by at high relative velocity would be a requirement for one form of an anti-satellite system. Alternatively, a close fly-by, but at lower relative velocity could indicate an intent to rendezvous or fulfill an inspection mission [It was noted that during the above noted fly-by missions, high-speed closure rates of some 365.76 m/s (1,200 fps) were recorded]. We believe, however, that the Cosmos 248, 249 and 252 operation is more applicable to an anti-satellite role that any other mission objective”. This assessment was in the ball park in regards to the Cosmos 248, 249 and 252 missions, however, as noted above, the Soviet Union was pursuing duel maneuverable satellite programs to facilitate the acquisition of an ASAT complex and its ocean surveillance satellite requirements.

Cosmos 252: The Cosmos 249 mission had allowed the development test team to go through a number of missions manoeuvres required for the IS interceptor mission, but had left the target, Cosmos 248, intact, allowing it be utilised in the Cosmos 252 IS interceptor test flight that was launched on board a Cyclone-2 launch vehicle from Baikonur cosmodrome at Tyuratam in Soviet Kazakhstan on 1 November 1968. Cosmos 252 was intended to be a similar test of the IS vehicle capabilities as had been conducted by Cosmos 249.

As had been the case with the Cosmos 249 interceptor mission, Cosmos 252 was placed into low-Earth orbit where it abandoned staging debris before it was maneuvered into a considerably higher eccentric orbit. As had been the case with Cosmos 249, the perigee of this eccentric orbit was similar in altitude to that of the near circular orbit of the Cosmos 248 adjustment and calibration target spacecraft. This facilitated the passing of the two spacecraft at a fairly close proximity. Western intelligence assessments conclude that such maneuvers were conducted at least once, although data furnished by OJSC ‘Corporation’ Space System Special, Comet indicates that the interception took place on the second orbit. The warhead carried (OJSC ‘Corporation’ Space System Special, Comet confirms that the IS was equipped with a fragmentation warhead on the 1 November 1968 flight) on-board Cosmos 252 was exploded, destroying the Cosmos 248 target. OJSC ‘Corporation’ Space System Special, Comet and JSC MIC Mashinostroyenia confirmed Cosmos 252 as the first successful interception of a satellite target.

The mission had an epoch start time/date of 00:28:00 UTC on 1 November 1968. The mission orbital parameters included a periapsis of 551 km, apoapsis of 2102 km, period 112.2 minutes, inclination 62.3° and an eccentricity of 0.10059. There is no reliable information as to a decay date for the remains of the spacecraft.

The following is an English language translation of a OJSC ‘Corporation’ Space System Special, Comet statement on the Cosmos 252 mission: “The system ‘IP’ [Istrebitel Sputnik (IS interceptor)] after receiving the targeting ensured high efficiency solutions spacecraft to intercept the task of preparing for the start of the carrier rocket with the spacecraft interceptor was performed for 1 hour, and this, despite the fact that it was necessary to perform an enormous amount of work. The solution of these problems with a given urgency was only possible due to maximum automation of all basic processes of preparation for the launch of space launch vehicle. Reached at the time efficiency had no analogues in the world. Interception of a target spacecraft carried out on the second filter coil [inferred as orbit] SC interceptor. In this means the command post system automatically performed measuring the parameters of its orbit and in view of clarification of the orbit of spacecraft-target according to TSKKP provided by the calculation and the transmission on board spacecraft interceptor.”

Cosmos 1009: Cosmos 1009 was a second generation IS interceptor spacecraft that was launched on board a Cyclone-2 two-stage launch vehicle from the Baikonur cosmodrome at Tyuratam in Soviet Kazakhstan on 19 May 1978. NASA documentation states that Cosmos 1009 intercepted Cosmos 970, but this must be erroneous as Cosmos 970 was de-orbited on 21 December 1977. The orbital parameters for Cosmos 1009 were more consistent with an interception of Cosmos 967. In the absence of other reliable data it seems reasonable to conclude that it was indeed the Cosmos 967 ASAT target that was intercepted by Cosmos 1009.

The mission had an epoch start time/date of 00:28:00 UTC on 19 May 1978 (conflicting NASA documentation states an epoch start time/date of 20:00:00 UTC on 18 May 1978). The mission orbital parameters included a periapsis of 971 km, apoapsis of 1378 km, period 109 minutes, inclination 66° and an eccentricity of 0.02693. The spacecraft was de-orbited on 19 May 1978.

The Soviet Union introduced a unilateral moratorium on ASAT testing, which came into effect at the conclusion of the Cosmos 1009 mission on 19 May 1978. This was a gesture aimed at improving the atmosphere of inter-superpower relations in advance of future arms control/limitation talks with the United States. By the time of the Soviet-American talks in Vienna on 23 April 1979, in effect the third round of Soviet-American space-warfare talks, the Soviets had not conducted ASAT testing for close to one year.

The main goal for the American side was to try and get a one year ban on such testing; in effect delay further Soviet testing until the United States was better positioned to respond with its own ASAT programs, none of which were, at that time, near the flight test phase. The most promising American program at that time was a Vought development nicknamed the ‘Flying Tomato Can’ in Pentagon circles. This system, which the Americans considered would be superior in operational capability to the deployed Soviet Co-Orbital Counter Space Defence Satellite Fighter complex as it was being developed a generation later, was expected to home in on a satellites heat signature and destroy it in a collision. Development and flight testing of the ‘Flying Tomato Can’ program had been approved by President Ford. However when President Carter took office there was a bit of foot shuffling as he contemplated continuing development, but not proceeding to flight tests status. However, in spring 1977, President Carter continued with endorsement of the program all the way to flight test status.

In 1979, the best available estimates were for initial flight testing to commence sometime in 1980, the Americans hoping for a unilateral Soviet ASAT test flight ban until then. At this time there seemed, despite the plethora of observational data available, either a genuine misconception of the altitude capabilities of the Soviet ASAT system, or a deliberate intelligence misinformation program. The evidence for this comes from advice from so called experts that stated that the Soviet system had a capability against low-orbit satellites operating at altitudes up to around 193 km, when, in actuality, the system had been tested up to orbital altitudes considerably in excess of this.

With intelligence assessments that the United States was pushing ahead with its own ASAT programs, the Soviets ended their unilateral moratorium on ASAT testing. Plans for a new phase of testing were dusted-off and prepared for implementation, which commenced with the launch of Cosmos 1171 on 3 April 1980.

Cosmos 1379: Cosmos 1379 was a second generation IS interceptor spacecraft that was launched on board a Cyclone-2 two-stage launch vehicle from the Baikonur cosmodrome at Tyuratam in Soviet Kazakhstan on 18 June 1982. The mission was designed to target and intercept the Cosmos 1375 ASAT target spacecraft launched almost two weeks before.

The mission had an epoch start time/date of 11:04:00 UTC on 18 June 1982 (conflicting NASA documentation states an epoch start time/date of 20:00:00 UTC on 17 June 1982). The mission orbital parameters included a periapsis of 552 km, apoapsis of 1027 km, period 100.3 minutes, inclination 65.8° and an eccentricity of 0.03311. Following a successful interception of Cosmos 1375, Cosmos 1379 was de-orbited later on 18 June, bringing to an end the flight testing of the IS interceptor spacecraft of the Co-Orbital Counter Space Defence complex.

The Cosmos 1379-Cosmos-1375 mission was the final live test demonstration of the Soviet and later Russian Co-Orbital Satellite Fighter capability. However, the system remained on alert status through the remainder of the Cold War, which it outlived, being retired from the space defence forces of the Russian Federation that had taken on the mantle of the space defence programs of the Soviet Union following the dissolution of the USSR (Union of Soviet Socialist Republics) on 25 December 1991. Following some two decades of operational service on alert status, the Counter-Space Defence complex was stood down in 1993, the harsh economic conditions that prevailed in the Russian Federation in the immediate post-Cold War years leading to the cancellation of the Counter-Space Defence complex planned successor. However, in 2016/2017, there have been a number of references to the establishment of a new space defence system, although whether this will be in the form of a terrestrial based direct assent missile system or a 21st Century incarnation of the Cold War era Counter-Space Defence interceptor.

2020: Both China and Russia, according to the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency, are developing military capabilities in space, from laser weapons to ground-based anti-satellite missiles.

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