Russia has carried out another test of its PL-19 Nudol missile. The Nudol is an anti-ballistic missile interceptor that also functions as an anti-satellite weapon. The system ordinarily protects Moscow from missile attack but also doubles as a satellite killer capable of reaching up and shooting down satellites in low-Earth orbit.
Tests of certain elements of Russia’s latest S-500 “Prometheus” air defense system are in the final stages.
“We are completing trials of the S-500’s launcher, components of a multi-functional locator and missile defense locator, equipped chassis for a command post, and transport units for an early-warning radar system,” CEO of the Design Bureau of Special Machine-Building which is part of Almaz Antey company, was quoted as saying by Russia’s National Defence magazine on Thursday.
In June 2019, Russian Deputy Prime Minister Yuri Borisov said that phased tests of various elements of the S-500 anti-aircraft system are being carried out.
“Preliminary tests of the S-500 will begin in 2020 and the commencement of its serial deliveries to the troops was scheduled for 2025,” Deputy Minister of Defence of Russia Alexei Krivoruchko said in December 2019.
The missile, according to the Russian Strategic Forces Blog, was launched on April 15th from the Plesetsk Cosmodrome in Russia. The missile traveled 3,000 kilometers and splashed down in the Laptev Sea. Observers of Russian military activities were tipped off to the coming test on April 11 when Russia issued a Notice to Airmen (NOTAM) warning of “Hazardous Operations, Rocket Launching” in the splashdown area in the Laptev Sea.
NOTAMs are issued for a variety of reasons but particularly for military activities that could potentially interfere with aerial traffic.
The test was the eighth Nudol test since 2014. The first six flight tests, according to the Secure World Foundation’s Global Counterspace Report, failed but the last two flight tests are considered to have been successful. The missile is yet to be tested with warhead.
Nudol is developed and manufactured by Russian defense contractor Almaz Antey, which specializes in long range missiles. The weapon was developed from the A-235 anti-ballistic missile system designed to protect Moscow from nuclear attack. The A-235 was designed to destroy incoming missile warheads at very high altitudes, near if not in low-Earth orbit. A system capable of engaging such warheads could also intercept satellites, so Russia simply built both capabilities into a single missile. These types of anti-satellite weapons are known as direct ascent anti-satellite (DA-ASAT) weapons.
Sensors and radar are the same as the S-400
Two battery command post types are listed, the 55K6MA which is clearly an evolution of the S-400 55K6E battery command post, and the 85Zh6-2, which may refer to a command post for an extended battery. A number of battery components, including the command posts, are drawn with a new style of telescoping datalink antenna, which is cylindrical in shape.
The 96L6-TsP Acquisition Radar is a direct derivative of the 96L6-1 series used an a battery acquisition radar in the S-400. Its inclusion indicates that aerial targets will be part of the S-500 tasking, as this radar is not adaptable for ABM operations. This inference is further supported by the inclusion of the 40V6MT Universal Mobile Mast System in the S-500, a replacement for the 1970s developed Ukrainian built 40V6M/MD mast system used with the S-300P and S-400.
Two engagement radars have been disclosed, although it is unclear whether the associated NNT6 series designators refer to the radars, or to the missiles they guide. The available drawings suggest space fed passive phased array designs. The latter would be a low risk design strategy for Almaz-Antey, as this technology is yet to mature in Russia, whereas X-band AESA technology in high power-aperture applications is not.
There is little doubt that a new Nudol exo-atmospheric interceptor will be part of the mix. Existing S-400 SAMs such as the 48N6E3, 40N6 and 9M96 would all be options to address the SAM capability requirement in the system.
The 77P6 Self Propelled Transporter Erector Launcher appears to be based on the proposed 9A82MK TELAR for the S-300VMK 9M82M Giant missile.
Catching up to the US
Russia isn’t the only country with DA-ASAT weapons. The United States’ SM-3 series of ballistic missile interceptors and ground based interceptors are all designed to destroy incoming missile warheads in low-Earth orbit, making some anti-satellite capability certain if not likely.
In 2008, the guided missile cruiser USS Lake Erie destroyed a failing National Reconnaissance Office spy satellite in low earth orbit. The operation, code-named Burnt Frost, required reprogramming the SM-3 missile to engage the fast-moving satellite, orbiting the earth at 130 miles. The SM-3 is based on U.S. Navy cruisers and destroyers, giving it a global reach, while the Ground Based Interceptor is stored in silos in Alaska and California.
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