19th Launch In 2023, Russia Fights Ukraine From Space; RuAF Goes On Recon Satellite Launch Spree

As a protracted war steadily moves towards its third year, there are reports that Russia has ramped up efforts to expand its watchful eyes in space. 

The Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) announced on December 27 that the Russian Aerospace Forces launched the Soyuz-2.1v launch vehicle from the Plesetsk Cosmodrome.

“At 10:03 from the State Test Cosmodrome of the Ministry of Defense of the Russian Federation in the Arkhangelsk region, the combat crews of the space forces of the Aerospace Forces launched a Soyuz-2.1v light-class launch vehicle with a spacecraft in the interests of the Russian Ministry of Defense,” the Russian MoD wrote on its official telegram channel. 

According to reports issued by the state-run media, the spacecraft had been successfully placed in its intended orbit. Further, the ground forces of the Russian Air and Space Forces, or VKS, were able to assume control of it. 

The military said that the spacecraft’s equipment operated normally and could maintain consistent connections with ground control. Although the state agency did not categorically mention it, there are reports that the Kosmos-2574 was the payload delivered by Roscosmos during the launch.

It seemed that the rocket rose following the typical ground track needed to reach orbit with an inclination of 97 degrees toward the Equator, according to the alerts the Russian authorities sent out to the air and marine traffic before the launch. The launch-related payload was then tracked by the US Space Force in an orbit of 348 by 361 kilometers.

This was the second Russian Air Force satellite launch of December 2023 and the 19th Russian rocket launch in 2023. Earlier on December 21, 2023, the Russian Aerospace Force (RuAF) used a Soyuz-2.1b to launch a Bars-M 5L (Kosmos 2573) surveillance satellite from Plesetsk Site 43/4 in Russia into low earth orbit (LEO).

Indian Air Force veteran and an avid watcher of Russian military affairs, Squadron Leader Vijainder K. Thakur, says the military uses the Bars-M series of satellites, which are electro-optical devices in Sun Synchronous Orbit (SSO), to combine high-resolution Earth photography with topographic data for cartography. “A total of 6 Bars-M satellites are proposed to be launched as part of a constellation. Russia already has 5 in orbit.”

Specifically, these satellites play a vital role in military cartography, providing high-resolution imagery for strategic topographic assessments essential to defense planning and operations.

Last year, Russia launched a satellite that sparked concerns among space experts as it moved closer to what is believed to be a US spy satellite. The Soyuz-2.1v rocket carrying the Kosmos-2558 satellite lifted off on August 1 at 20:25 UTC from the Plesetsk Cosmodrome in Russia.

At the time, there were speculations that the Russian satellite was looking to spy on another satellite launched by the United States around the same time.

Spy satellites are essentially used to monitor the adversary’s activity to aid military operations, so they have often been called ‘eye in the sky.’ During the Cold War, they gained notoriety and were launched by the US and the Soviet Union to track the enemy’s missile launches.

Spy satellites have also played a preeminent role in the ongoing Ukraine war. Moscow currently seems to be speeding up measures to expand its space technology capabilities to support military operations in the Ukrainian combat zone. At the same time, Ukraine strategically uses space-based intelligence support from Western allies in its protracted counter-offensive. 

The Russian Defense Ministry declared on December 1 that it would use high-resolution photos taken by an Earth-based all-weather remote sensing satellite system. According to the Ministry, these photos will help the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation achieve their operational goals. 

Some reports have noted that Russia’s launch of military satellites has not kept pace with its stated advancements. Assertions made by space experts noted there were too few Russian satellites and even fewer with high-quality capabilities. This might explain the need to saddle space with high-tech spy satellites now.

Russia Needs To Up Its Space Game

Experts and publicly available data indicate that Russia has long been stuck with a small and insufficient fleet of communications and surveillance satellites that frequently depend on out-of-date hardware or imported parts that are becoming more difficult to obtain due to Western sanctions.

Ukraine does not possess a satellite fleet. However, it has profited immensely from an unparalleled quantity of intelligence, including real-time data on Russian army movements and the extraordinary number of weapons and military hardware the United States has provided.

Whether high-resolution photos from spy satellites are included in that is unknown. At any rate, however, a profusion of Western technological innovations has led to an explosion in the amount of real-time, high-quality satellite imagery accessible to commercial and military intelligence alike.

Currently, Russia possesses about 100 military or dual-use satellites. Nineteen are categorized as remote sensing satellites, and their technology enables radio signal surveillance or optical imaging. It certainly needs more.

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The importance of these projects is demonstrated by the significant benefits that Ukrainian troops have reaped from having access to Western space-based intelligence. A strategic advantage is provided by high-resolution photography taken from orbit, which instantly provides insights into happenings on the ground.

Additionally, satellites have been essential in highlighting problems with Russian logistics, proving helpful in identifying the construction of new military facilities, sending out supplementary forces, or moving any existing forces.

High-resolution photos taken during the conflict—mostly from satellites run by private Western companies—have proven crucial in squelching misinformation and influencing public opinion. 

Additionally, these pictures have significantly given Ukraine an advantage in the war. Conversely, Russia has often lagged and found it difficult to use its space technology efficiently, even though it is seen as a space superpower. 

Bruce McClintock, a senior policy researcher at RAND Corp, previously highlighted, “With Glonass’s signals less reliable and precise for satellite-guided weapons, Putin’s generals have resorted to workarounds, including a massive new 3,300 pound (1,500 kilogram) bomb designed to use brute size to compensate for inadequate technology.”

Nevertheless, Moscow’s recent initiatives to enhance its space technology to nullify Ukraine’s advantage will enhance the situational awareness of Russian forces on the battlefield. The launch of newer classified spy satellites could be one significant step forward.