Opinion: Russia is behind in military space capabilities, but that only drives its appetite

Pavel Luzin*

As the U.S. Space Force develops, Russia continues to bolster its own military space assets, each challenging the other’s dominance in outer space, despite the two partnering in the domain on research and exploration. Specifically, Russia is working to expand its anti-access/area denial approach in outer space in the form of electronic warfare, increasing sustainability of its communication systems, and developing offensive capabilities against ground-based space infrastructure.

According to the Union of Concerned Scientists’ satellite database and space-launch reporting, there are more than 2,200 satellites in orbit, and over 1,000 of them belong to American companies, government services and scientific institutions, including 189 military satellites.

Russia has more than 160 satellites; this number includes about 100 military spacecraft. In comparison, China has more than 320 satellites, including almost 105 military spacecraft. Here, commercial communication and Earth-observation satellites may also be used for military purposes.

Russia’s economy is less dependent on space infrastructure than that of America or China, and for sure less dependent than that of Europe. However, Russia tries to maintain at least the third-largest military satellite constellation in orbit.

There is no official budgetary information on Russia’s military space program. Nevertheless, using governmental open sources and financial data from the state space corporation Roscosmos, it’s estimated that annual spending on the development of Russia’s military satellite constellation — satellites, launch vehicles and launches — is $1 billion.

Spending on Russian space navigation system GLONASS (currently made up of 27 satellites) in 2019 was $437 million, and spending on military launch site Plesetsk is at least $100 million annually.

All these efforts plus the cost of maintenance for other ground-based defense space infrastructure and personnel means that Russia’s military space program is about $1.6 billion.

The biggest part of Russia’s military satellite constellation involves 51 communication spacecraft, with 16 Earth-observation satellites. This differs from the American, Chinese and European ones, where Earth-observation satellites dominate. For instance, the U.S. has 56 Earth-observation satellites and 49 communication satellites, but China has 57 Earth-observation satellites and only three communication satellites.

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* an expert on Russian political and defense affairs, as well as a columnist at the online journal Riddle.

Source: DefenseNews