MOSCOW — Russia launched its sixth Tundra early warning satellite in November and has four more to go before reaching its goal of 10 total by 2024. But sources say production problems and sanctions are among the issues delaying the space program.
The Defence Ministry’s Kupol constellation of satellites — an integrated space-based detection and combat control system — was designed to help the country track ballistic missile launches. Also known as EKS, Kupol serves as a replacement to the Soviet-era Oko and Oko-1 systems, which were operational from 1982 to 2019.
Russia wants at least 10 Tundra satellites in high-elliptical orbit — as well as a number of geostationary satellites — to support EKS. In late 2016, then-First Deputy Commander of the Aerospace Forces Lt. Gen. Pavel Kurachenko said the service planned to have all 10 in orbit by 2020.
But that year, the government-published newspaper Rossiyskaya Gazeta reported the Defence Ministry had plans to deploy a total of 10 by 2022. And around the same time as that report, a ministerial newspaper cited the commander of the Russian Aerospace Forces, then-Col. Gen. Sergei Surovikin, as saying the deployment of a group of orbital spacecraft for EKS is envisaged by 2024.
“The launch rate will be dictated by the need to replace aging or defunct satellites,” according to Bart Hendrickx, a longtime observer of Russia’s space program. “The minimum constellation they need for round-the-clock coverage is four. But it’s always good to have some redundancy, not only to safeguard against satellite malfunctions but also to reduce the chance of false alarms.”
Following the launch of the fourth Tundra satellite in May 2020, the general director of local aerospace company Energia announced the EKS constellation had reached “the minimum standard strength.”
While development of the EKS system began in 2000, it wasn’t until seven years later that the government signed a contract with Energia to supply the system. But repeated changes by the ministry to tactical and technical requirements caused production delays, according to the company.
Hendrickx said the main reason for delays “must be production issues.”
“And one can be fairly sure that these have to do largely with the sanctions,” he told Defense News, referring to economic restrictions placed on Russia as a result of its ongoing invasion of Ukraine.
Russia launched its first Tundra satellite in November 2015 on a Soyuz-2.1b rocket with a Fregat upper stage. The country planned to launch two satellites per year, but only launched one each in 2017, 2019, 2020, 2021 and 2022.
Part of the production problem involves microelectronics, which are critical for satellites. Russia is heavily dependent on foreign components for space technology, which in and of itself causes delays, a manager of a Russian defense company told Defense News.
“Due to constant changes in suppliers and components, it is necessary to conduct new tests of systems every time, and evaluate them for the required characteristics of the Defence Ministry. This entails delays,” the source said, speaking on the condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the topic.
“At first it was Western electronics; after 2014, it became electronics from China and Southeast Asia to a greater extent,” the source said. “In some cases, Chinese devices were purchased, from which microelectronics were extracted and installed on Russian devices.”
In January, the head of Russian space agency Roscosmos, Yuriy Borisov, claimed that despite Western sanctions preventing the supply of microelectronics to the country, China has agreed to sell components meant for rocket and space-related technology. As for completely replacing foreign equipment on satellites, Nikolai Sevostyanov, adviser to the director general of Roscosmos, estimated it will take at least five years.
Another issue for the Russian government is the quality of the Soyuz-2.1b rocket’s Fregat upper stage, which has encountered at least five technical problems over the past nine years.
Pavel Luzin, an independent expert on space militarization, said it’s unlikely Russia will deploy the entirety of Tundra satellites by 2024.
“Rather, one launch per year will be continued. That is, they will complete the launch of satellites into the Molniya orbit no earlier than 2026,” he predicted, referring to a medium Earth orbit best for observing high latitudes.
According to NASA, a satellite in that orbit takes 12 hours to complete its orbit, but spends about eight hours of that over one hemisphere. In the Molniya orbit, a satellite moves in an extreme ellipse with the Earth close to one edge.
An integrated space system, like the EKS, performs best with satellites both in a high-elliptical orbit and a geostationary one. According to Surovikin, “the deployment of a high-orbit space reconnaissance system should begin from 2023.”
But Russian production of geostationary satellites is lagging behind other advanced nations. In Energia’s annual report for 2017, the company suggested the satellites were still in their design stage.
“Geostationary satellites seem to have a different payload and may even have a fundamentally different design. That may also be causing problems,” Hendrickx said.
The Angara vehicle
Russia chose the Angara launch vehicle to send the EKS constellation’s geostationary satellites into space to complement the Tundra systems. In 2020, the Defence Ministry signed a deal with space launch vehicle manufacturer Khrunichev Center for the production of four Angara-A5 rockets during the 2022-2024 time frame.
But when the ministry didn’t receive any rockets in 2022, it sued the center. The courts have so far ruled that the company pay the government nearly a third of the ministry’s monetary claim.
The ministry also sued Energia in 2019 over development disruptions related to a new Persei-KV upper stage for the Angara-A5. The court has since ruled in the government’s favor, though not to the extent sought by the ministry.
During the last launch of an Angara-A5 in 2021, the designers tested a Persei upper stage, but it was unsuccessful.
In September 2022, a representative of Khrunichev Center said full-fledged serial production of the Angara family would begin in the city of Omsk by 2024.
It was announced in 2015 that production would move from Moscow to Omsk. Vladimir Nesterov, who provided design services to Khrunichev and died late last year, wrote in his book “Space rocket complex Angara: History of creation,” published in 2018, about the impact of the move.
“The established production cycle was disrupted, three large enterprises numbering about 16,000 people were withdrawn from the developer, production ties were undermined, development work suffered,” according to the engineer.
But despite delays and the absence of geostationary satellites for EKS, Russia’s defense minister said the launch of the sixth Tundra satellite means the country can now continuously monitor priority areas “in the Northern Hemisphere” — a subtle reference to the United States and its North Atlantic allies.
“At the same time, the current generation of satellites has a guaranteed period of at least seven years,” Luzin said. “But they can serve further beyond the warranty period.
“The problems are likely to be with their planned renewal, which in any case will need to start [around] 2025-2030.”
Maxim Starchak is a Russia correspondent for Defense News. He previously worked as an editor for the Russian Defence Ministry and as an expert for the NATO Information Office in Moscow. He has covered Russian nuclear and defense issues for the Atlantic Council, the Center for European Policy Analysis, the Royal United Services Institute and more.