Russia's satellite-killing capabilities make headway
Gen John Raymond, head of US Space Command (USSPACECOM), declared on 15 April that Russia has conducted another direct-ascent anti-satellite (DA-ASAT) missile test, although official US sources did not give specific information on whether the tests were successful or whether any targets were hit.
According to a USPACECOM statement, the Russian system is capable of destroying satellites in low Earth orbit, and the latest tests may be related to movements of Cosmos 2542 and Cosmos 2543 satellites in February, when they carried out manoeuvres near a US government satellite.
Information and hints about putative Russian anti-satellite and anti-missile weapons mainly come from Western sources who are concerned about the risks posed to their space assets. The topic is seldom mentioned by Russian officials.
In this case, based on analysis of all available information, it is possible to conclude that Russia was testing a mobile component (14TS033) of its upgraded Moscow A-235 missile defence system (pictured), which is being developed by Almaz-Antey within the framework of the Nudol R&D project (known as PL-19 in the West). The A-235 has undergone a series of tests, beginning in August 2014 and continuing at least until mid-2019.
The 14TS033 system, judging by details found in various annual reports from Russian enterprises, comprises: a 14P222 launcher on a chassis manufactured by MZKT; a 14P078 unit for C2; and a 14TS031 static radar station. It is possible that there is also a mobile radar targeting station. The system also includes the 14A042 interceptor missile, which is being developed by the Novator Design Bureau in Yekaterinburg.
The characteristics of the new missile are unknown, but it can be assumed that they are not inferior to the decommissioned 51T6 long-range missiles used with the Moscow A-135 system. Bearing this in mind, the Nudol should be able to hit targets at altitudes up to 500km, which is consistent with the tasks of intercepting warheads of ICBMs and destroying low-orbit satellites.
The A-135 employed missiles with nuclear warheads to engage targets, but it is known that new short-range PRS-1M (53T6M) silo-based missiles and 14A042 missiles no longer use high-altitude nuclear explosions to intercept targets.
However, in the case of Nudol, it is not yet possible to talk about a specific type of warhead. It is more likely that a kinetic intercept method would be used, similar to the US GMD and THAAD systems. The rejection of the nuclear intercept has been driven by new computing capabilities and an elemental base that provides much greater missile guidance accuracy.
It seems that the new Moscow A-235 system includes a combination of the PRS-1M (53T6M) and Nudol missiles, together with the new 14TS031 radar (which includes a digital adaptive phased-array antenna) and the new 14P078 command computing system. Such a system will have to cope with an attempt to deliver a limited nuclear strike against Moscow (such as in a hypothetical conflict with a novice nuclear state like North Korea).