In Russia's War On Ukraine, Effective
Satellites Are Few And Far Between
April 12, 2022
By all accounts, Russia’s war on Ukraine
isn’t going well.
The estimated death toll among Russian
soldiers is about the same as Soviet losses
for the entire 10-year Afghan war. Russian
forces have failed to achieve strategic
goals such as taking Ukraine’s capital,
Kyiv, or the major port city of Mariupol.
More than two-thirds of Russia’s battalion
tactical groups -- its basic fighting units
-- have been deployed. Its forces have been
plagued by major interoperability and
Another big item on the list of problems:
satellites -- there are too few of them, and
too few with high-quality capabilities.
According to experts and open-source
information compiled by RFE/RL, Russia has
long been saddled with a small and
inadequate fleet of communications and
surveillance satellites that in many cases
rely on either outdated technology or
imported parts that are now harder to come
by due to Western sanctions.
Ukraine has no satellite fleet of its own.
But it has benefited greatly not only from
the unprecedented amount of weaponry and
military equipment that the United States
has supplied, but also from an unprecedented
amount of intelligence, including real-time
data on Russian troop movements.
It’s unclear if that includes
high-resolution imagery from spy satellites.
But in any case, a proliferation of Western
technological developments has resulted in
an explosion of high-quality, real-time
satellite imagery available not only to
military intelligence but also private,
commercial companies. Russia has virtually
none of that.
“In principle, Russia is already practically
blind in orbit, " said Bart Hendrix, a
Brussels-based analyst and expert on Soviet
and Russian space programs.
According to a database maintained by the
Union of Concerned Scientists, a respected
U.S. nongovernmental organization, Russia
currently has around 100 military or
dual-purpose satellites. Nineteen of them
are classified as remote sensing satellites,
with technology allowing either optical
photography or radio signal surveillance.
The others serve other purposes.
Russia has two optical reconnaissance
satellites in orbit now, called Persona,
Hendrix said, but they were launched between
seven and nine years ago, meaning they may
be near the end of their working life.
Adding further to the problem: The maximum
resolution of the Persona satellites is
believed to be 50 centimeters per pixel,
By comparison, the best American spy
satellites, called Keyhole, are estimated to
have a resolution of around 5 centimeters
per pixel. At that resolution, the letter
“V” which is being painted on the roofs of
Russian military vehicles operating in
Ukraine would be easily and clearly visible
from the typical altitude where a spy
satellite was orbiting.
Commercial satellite companies like Maxar
and Planet typically have a maximum
resolution of around 15 centimeters.
“The Americans have at least five Keyhole-12
satellites, the Italians, the French and the
Spaniards have their own satellites, there
are an order of magnitude more,” Hendrix
Russia has also lagged behind in building
and deploying remote-sensing satellites
whose radars can see through cloud cover,
unlike optical satellites.
According to the Union of Concerned
Scientists’ database, Russia has only one
confirmed radar satellite in operation,
called Kondor. It was launched in 2014, and
with an expected lifespan of five years, it
may have already ceased to be operational.
In February, Russia’s space forces launched
another satellite, dubbed Kosmos-2553 or
Neutron. Little is known about its purpose
or capabilities, though it was built by
Mashinostroyeniye, a Moscow military
research institute which specializes
specifically in radar-sensing satellites.
“If Neutron is a radar satellite, then this
is the first such launch in almost 10
years,” Hendrix said.
"In terms of radar satellites, Russia also
lags behind NATO by an order of magnitude,"
The world’s most dominant system for
positioning technology is the U.S.-built
platform known simply as the Global
Positioning System, or GPS.
The technology is publicly available, and
widely used in everything from navigation
systems to handheld smartphones. But because
it is owned and operated by the U.S.
government, Russia has long chafed at the
system, and sought to build an alternative,
known as GLONASS.
But for the GLONASS network to be fully
functional, it needs 24 satellites. Russia
currently has only 23 deployed, and several
of them are nearing the end of their
lifespan in orbit.
Russia has struggled to build and launch new
units for the GLONASS network in part
because of the Western sanctions imposed on
Moscow for its seizure of Ukraine’s Crimean
Peninsula in 2014.
Experts said up to 90 percent of the
electronics -- which need to be resistant to
space radiation that can quickly destroy
sensitive equipment -- used in the next
generation GLONASS K-1 satellites are
imported. Russia has tried to design and
manufacture homegrown replacement parts, but
the result was a satellite that was twice as
heavy as the previous models and it has yet
to be launched into orbit.
"Half of the GLONASS satellites can fall out
[of orbit] at any moment. In principle, the
failure of the first three or four will only
affect the accuracy in a certain area. But
for normal coverage of the territory of
Russia, about 18 units are needed,” said one
expert who worked in Russian and European
aerospace industry and asked to remain
anonymous to discuss sensitive industry
"If the launch trend is not fundamentally
changed, the GLONASS system will fall apart
over the next few years,” he said.
Further complicating matters: Russia’s next
generation of military launch rockets -- the
heavy-lift Angara 5 -- has been plagued by
problems. It has been used in only three
launches since 2014.
problem is data processing, according to
Pavel Podvig, an expert on Russian armed
forces and a senior fellow at the UN
Institute for Disarmament Research in
“It’s one thing to have satellites, it’s
another thing to be able to use them. You
need a system that will allow you to quickly
transfer information from satellites to the
right people who will process it and
transfer it to people responsible, for
example, for target designation,” he said.
“The fact that Russia has some satellites
still flying does not mean that such a
system exists, and if it exists, in the case
of Russia it is difficult to say how good or
bad it is,” Podvig added.
“Even the Americans aren’t able to cope with
this task,” he said. “I don't see any
evidence that Russia is successfully solving
this task in the war with Ukraine."