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POLITICS

A Holey Dome: Issues in Russia’s early warning missile defense system exposed by jailed journalist Ivan Safronov were never addressed

In December 2023, the Russia-1 state-owned television channel aired a documentary detailing the case of Ivan Safronov, a journalist who in September 2022 was sentenced to 22 years in prison for high treason. In the documentary, FSB investigator Alexander Chaban claims that Safronov, an ex-employee of Kommersant, allegedly passed along information on reconnaissance satellites owned by the GRU, Russia’s military intelligence directorateBut while the broader issue of satellites may indeed have triggered the law enforcement inquiry into Safronov’s activities, prosecutors in the journalist’s case focused on a much more specific issue: EKS Kupol, the space-based early warning system Russia depends on to detect the launch of intercontinental ballistic missiles. Safronov’s journalistic work exposed massive flaws in the system’s functioning — flaws that still have not been resolved, as Kupol still features only four satellites placed in highly elliptical orbit out of the anticipated ten. But while the system may be of minimal military utility, it still ably performs its function as a vehicle for Kremlin-connected managers’ misappropriation of funds from the state budget.

Content
  • Ivan Safronov's case

  • EKS Kupol explained

  • Issues with early warning satellites

  • Why EKS Kupol has no practical value

RU

Ivan Safronov's case

Safronov worked for many years as a military observer and special correspondent for Kommersant Publishing House and Vedomosti newspaper. His father, Ivan Safronov Sr. was also a military columnist at Kommersant. (Safronov Sr. died in 2007 after, officially, “falling out of a window.”)

The younger Safronov's troubles began in the spring of 2019, when controversy arose over an article about Russian domestic politics. On April 17, 2019, Safronov and four co-authors published a piece in Kommersant outlining rumors that Putin ally Valentina Matvienko was set to be replaced as head of the Federation Council by Putin ally Sergei Naryshkin, the head of Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR). Matvienko personally complained about the story to the newspaper’s owner, the Putin-friendly billionaire Alisher Usmanov, and shortly thereafter, Kommersant’s entire politics department, including Safronov, left the organization.

After writing for the newspaper Vedomosti, in May 2020 Safronov accepted an offer to become information policy advisor to the head of Roscosmos, Putin ally Dmitry Rogozin. The next month, however, Safronov was arrested. According to the official version, the criminal case had been initiated based on the accusation that Safronov was “acting at the behest of a NATO member’s special services” to collect “state-secret information on military-technical cooperation, defense, and security of the Russian Federation.”

Ivan Safronov’s arrest, Jul. 7, 2020
Ivan Safronov’s arrest, Jul. 7, 2020
FSB Public Relations Center/TASS

The documents made public in Safronov's case suggest that the investigation had uncovered no tangible evidence of his guilt, as the “secret information” Safronov was accused of passing on was already available in the public domain. Even the documentary put out by Kremlin-aligned propagandist Eduard Petrov essentially refutes Vladimir Putin’s assertion that Safronov was not being persecuted for his journalistic work. The film cites a 2012 article about a fire on the nuclear submarine K-84 Yekaterinburg as the original reason for the security services' interest in the journalist. Furthermore, Alexander Chaban, the FSB investigator in Safronov's case, claimed that Safronov, while still with Kommersant, had been involved in gathering information on “certain aspects of activities in the space industry,” in particular, the status of satellites that were used by Russia's military intelligence agency, the GRU.

Chaban’s description of the case likely contains an element of truth — albeit an element of truth that in no way suggests Safronov had actually broken any laws. An FSB-affiliated Telegram channel theorized that high-ranking law enforcement officers could have had it in for the journalist due to the accuracy of his work, which had included a story about missed deadlines for the deployment of the space-based component of the Russian missile warning system, known as the EKS Kupol (Unified Space System “Dome”). Putin was ostensibly told that Russia had successfully set up the world's most powerful space-based early warning system, but Safronov's article showed the true state of affairs in this sphere, significantly damaging the political standing of Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and his deputy Ruslan Tsalikov.

Safronov's story revealed the true status of Russia's early warning system, significantly damaging the political standing of Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu

That article, which was originally published on February 11, 2015, has been removed from the Kommersant website. However, it is still accessible in the Internet archives. According to Wayback Machine, the piece was taken down between May 12 and June 23, 2015. Unlike Safronov's other articles, the disappearance of this piece did not draw much media attention. Notably, several other stories on the space-based early warning system suffered the same fate (1, 2).

The Insider has examined the current status of EKS Kupol and found that Safronov may indeed have hit a major sore spot.

EKS Kupol explained

The deleted Safronov article stated that the remaining few satellites of Russia’s Soviet-era space-based Oko-1 ballistic missile launch tracking system had stopped working in early 2015. This failure had occurred before the launch of a new “Tundra” satellite (also known as article 14F142) that was intended to play a key role in the modern Kupol system. In other words, a critical element of Russia’s nuclear deterrence mechanism had failed, despite being under the personal control of Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu.

A critical element of Russia’s nuclear deterrence mechanism failed, despite being under the personal control of Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu

According to the article, without the satellites, Russia’s ground-based radar stations would still be able to detect a ballistic missile launch. However, it would take the ground systems one full minute longer to do so.

The technical details are complicated, but important to understand. A ballistic missile early warning system consists of two elements: a space-based satellite constellation in geostationary and highly elliptical orbits and ground-based over-the-horizon radar stations. The system must timely detect the launch of an enemy ballistic missile, calculate its trajectory, and transmit the data necessary to make decisions on a retaliatory strike. Space satellites register infrared radiation emitted by a missile during its launch and flight in the atmosphere. The early warning satellite constellation is controlled from the Central Command Center in the military town of Serpukhov-15 in Kaluga Region.

Design of the payload module of the Tundra satellite
Design of the payload module of the Tundra satellite
Kometa Сentral Research Institute

Russia had been indicating its intention to upgrade its outdated systems for years. Plans to create a unified space system to replace the Soviet Oko-1 were announced in 1999. The modernized concept envisioned combining missile detection and combat control signal transmissions on a single spacecraft. As reports suggest, the combat control system installed on the Tundra can be used to order a retaliatory nuclear strike if necessary.

The key contractors for EKS Kupol are the Central Research Institute (TsNII) Kometa, which was responsible for the payload, and the Energia Rocket and Space Corporation, which developed the platform.

Issues with early warning satellites

In January 2008, Colonel General Vladimir Popovkin, commander of the Russian Space Forces, announced that the launch of Tundra next-generation early warning satellites should begin in late 2009. However, the first Tundra did not reach the orbit until October 2015.

In December 2016, Pavel Kurachenko, first deputy commander-in-chief of the Russian Aerospace Forces, announced plans to put 10 Tundra satellites into orbit by 2020. The deployment of a constellation of 10 spacecraft was later postponed until 2022.

A total of six Tundra satellites were launched between November 2015 and November 2022. The first two satellites operated in orbit for about five years and ceased operation at the end of 2020 and the end of 2022.

As of early 2024, EKS Kupol has only four satellites — rather than the anticipated ten — in highly elliptical orbit (along with several geostationary satellites). Pavel Podvig, a senior fellow at the United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research, told The Insider that deploying the EKS Kupol in its originally conceived form remains a major challenge:

“If Russia were to maintain the deployment rate of about one spacecraft per year with a service life of five years, 10 satellites would be difficult to provide. There will be six or seven tops. But both values are subject to change, so it may well be possible to deploy all 10 and keep the system that way.”

EKS Kupol officially became operational in August 2020 after the launch of the fourth Tundra satellite. Before that, the system had been on trial combat duty since December 2017. The Russian Defense Ministry claims that EKS Kupol is capable of detecting not only intercontinental and submarine-launched ballistic missiles but also launches of intermediate-range and shorter-range ballistic missiles, as well as launch vehicles. As of 2020, the system is said to have detected 64 ballistic missile launches (including 35 foreign ones) and 136 launch vehicles (including 97 foreign ones).

 Chief of the General Staff of the Russian Armed Forces Valery Gerasimov against the backdrop of a Kupol EKS presentation, Dec. 18, 2019
Chief of the General Staff of the Russian Armed Forces Valery Gerasimov against the backdrop of a Kupol EKS presentation, Dec. 18, 2019
Russian Ministry of Defense

The Russian Defense Ministry emphasizes that EKS Kupol can rival its American counterpart, the SBIRS (Space-Based Infrared System), by technical parameters. As Pavel Luzin, a visiting scholar at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy and senior fellow at the Jamestown Foundation, explained to The Insider, the Russian and American early warning satellite systems are in different leagues:

“The U.S. also struggles with political and bureaucratic inertia in its goal-setting but has long since shifted the focus of their space-based early warning system, where each satellite is very costly. Today, they are less preoccupied with the mythical launch of attacking ICBMs from Russia, Iran, DPRK, or China (although these countries give much cause for concern) but rather use the satellites as part of the space control system, monitoring what's going in Earth orbit, who does what in space, and whether it poses a threat to satellites and astronauts. Moreover, these satellites are also used for infrared airspace monitoring. Therefore, technological advances allow Americans to get practical benefits from a very expensive system. Meanwhile, Russia is still waiting for its satellites to see the torch of an insidious American ICBM launched in its direction.”

Why EKS Kupol has no practical value

Paradoxically given the harsh sentence handed down to Safronov for “treason,” Luzhin asserts that early warning satellites have no practical military value:

“For Russia, having space-based early warning capabilities can be considered a matter of political prestige within the concept of strategic weapons parity with the United States. Aside from the U.S., we should also keep in mind the USSR, which Russia has been trying to keep up with since the early 1990s.”

In addition, available data suggests that EKS Kupol, even if it were to be set up in its ideal form, does not meet the main requirement of space-based early warning systems in terms of launch warning time of attacking ballistic missiles, considering their approach time. To be fair, the Soviet Oko-1 system could monitor only ground-based missile launches – and for only 12 hours a day. Accordingly, launches from submarines, which account for a significant portion of the U.S. nuclear arsenal, were never within that system’s capacity to detect.

In addition, Oko satellites were prone to mistakes and could misidentify sunlight on high-altitude clouds as a missile attack. On at least one occasion, in September 1983, the satellite transmitted a false missile attack alert, but duty officer Stanislav Petrov at the ground command center correctly identified the error. This is largely why the key role in Russia’s ballistic missile early warning system has been given to over-the-horizon radars rather than space-based satellites. In the post-Soviet period, Russia successfully commissioned enough Voronezh early-warning radars to detect incoming missiles without relying on the use of satellites.

Oko satellites were prone to mistakes and could misidentify sunlight on high-altitude clouds as a missile attack

Pavel Luzin believes that modern-day Russia does not need a space-based component in its early warning system; therefore, its only purpose is to provide specific enterprises with lucrative government contracts and create additional jobs in the military.

“France, the UK, India, Pakistan, and Israel make do without such systems completely. China managed without one for decades, and only in recent years has it decided to create a ballistic missile early warning system – but opted for ground-based radars rather than satellites.”

Podvig agrees:

“Prestige considerations inspired by the idea of strategic parity with the U.S.(and with the Soviet past) may have played its part. From the military expediency standpoint, the situation is somewhat more complicated. Strictly speaking, the presence of early warning satellites does not make a big difference for Russia. Unlike in the U. S., the detection of missiles immediately after launch does not add much time for decision-making.
“There is also little opportunity for radar verification of satellite data. The Soviet decision-making system (which Russia mostly inherited, as I understand it) is structured somewhat differently from the American one. In particular, forces may be placed on maximum alert upon satellite warning. However, a definitive confirmation of an attack requires explosions to be registered within the country. Of course, satellites add some time for decision-making, but not a critical amount.”

In other words, the space-based component of Russia’s early warning system in its current configuration is more a costly element of political prestige than a pressing military necessity.

The space-based component of Russia’s early warning system in its current configuration is more a costly element of political prestige than a pressing military necessity

Nevertheless, the implementation of EKS Kupol has dragged on indefinitely. Available data suggests that project expenditures had already approached $614 million by 2010.

In October 2019, Ivan Safronov, writing for Vedomosti, cited space industry executives who said that the Russian Ministry of Defense had filed claims for $395 million against the Energia Rocket and Space Corporation, which had allegedly missed the deadlines for the delivery of a new booster for the Angara launch vehicle and was still struggling to develop its capacity to produce the Tundra satellites it had been contracted to provide.

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