“All-seeing” space-based reconnaissance and targeting system

Author Pavel Rumyantsev

 Since the mid-20th century, the striking power of Russia’s Navy is based on submarines and long-range heavy supersonic anti-ship missile (ASM) carriers. Russian ASMs are the most powerful anti-ship weapons able to efficiently counter the potential enemy’s shipborne air defence systems, including aircraft carrier groups.


The National Defense Management Center (NCMC) of the Russian Ministry of Defense


In addition to a system of various means and technological solutions intended to counter the enemy’s shipborne air defence systems, Russian ASMs feature a long flight range of up to a few hundreds kilometers. This allows to attack hostile ship formations in areas beyond the effective radius of the enemy's air defence and anti-submarine systems. Moreover, a long flight range of Russian supersonic ASMs has been the enemy’s Achilles heel in recent years.

USSR Navy’s Legenda system

Using an inertial navigation system, all modern ASMs are intended to fly to the point where the target is expected to be located, and then the active radar homing head is activated to detect and lock the target and to guide the missile. However, for efficient firing of ASM to cover a long range, we should know the position of the enemy's ships with the appropriate accuracy in order to guide the missile, give it the direction of flight and the coordinates of the point where the missile should seek the target, using its own guidance system. The task to locate the position of the enemy’s ships at a distance of some hundreds kilometers cannot be solved efficiently without technical means of the ASM carrier. That is why, as far as the late 1950s, the Soviet Navy required a system able to accomplish the following missions critical for naval forces:

  • timely detection of large ship formations of the potential enemy in any areas of the World’s ocean and continuous surveillance;
  • targeting data for supersonic ASM carriers for long-range firing, at any moment.

These tasks are still urgent for Russia’s Navy to this day. One of possible solutions is to use reconnaissance aircraft with radar and electronic reconnaissance equipment, but this approach has its great disadvantages. In the 1960s, the reconnaissance and targeting system Uspekh was deployed, including the long-range naval reconnaissance TU-95RTs aircraft and ship-based K-25RTs helicopters. However, it was practically impossible to ensure global surveillance over the potential enemy’s ship formations while the use of advanced fighter-interceptor aircraft and further development of air defence systems made the combat stability of such a system very unreliable.

The way out was found when the satellite constellation was developed and deployed for reconnaissance and targeting tasks. As far as 1965, the first prototype of the radar reconnaissance satellite went into orbit. By the early 1970s, the system was successfully functioning. In 1978, the system was officially accepted and put into service in full strength as the Naval SIGINT and Targeting System (Russian: MKRTs) named Legenda. The system comprised two types of satellites – the US-A radar reconnaissance satellites and US-P SIGINT satellites. The US-A satellites were equipped with a side-looking radar and a nuclear power source. The US-P satellites featured a simpler structure and were intended for detecting individual ships and ship formations by sensing the radiation of their electronic equipment. In addition to satellites, the MKRTs system included communications processing units, as well as data receivers installed on submarines and ASM carrier ships.

The Legenda system became the first radar reconnaissance and targeting system in the world, ensuring not only continuous surveillance over the potential enemy's ship formations, but also real-time transmission of data on their location to all ASM carriers.

At the same time, the Legenda system had a number of critical disadvantages. First of all, the resolution capability of radar reconnaissance satellites was insufficient and allowed to detect only large ship formations. Secondly, as the onboard equipment required an enormous quantity of power supply, developers had to install a nuclear power source on radar reconnaissance satellites and to reduce the orbit altitude. The US-A satellites flew around the Earth along the circular orbit at an altitude of 250–270 km only while the US-P satellites were operated at an altitude of 420–440 km. Due fast depletion of the nuclear power plant installed on the US-A satellites (normal service life – 1,080 hours), the satellite constellation should be renewed constantly. The mean lifetime of orbital radar reconnaissance satellites was about 45 days; actually, by the end of the 1980s, this parameter reached three months by upgrading the power plant. After the power plant lifetime was depleted, the US-A satellites were moved to so-called disposal orbit at an altitude of 800 km approximately. The operating time of the US-P satellites was considerably longer – from a few months at the initial stage of functioning of the Legenda system to two or more years during the last decade of its existence. At any time, 3-4 satellites (2 US-P and 1-2 US-A) were on orbit.

After the Legenda system had been officially put into service, 27 US-A satellites and 15 US-P satellites were launched. Launches of the US-A satellites were terminated in 1988 due to international treaties on prohibition of the use of nuclear power in space. The US-P satellites constellation was functioning and periodically renewed after the collapse of the USSR. The last US-P satellite was deactivated in 2006, leaving the Russian Navy without any space-based “all-seeing eye” and without any options for real-time surveillance over movements of the potential enemy's sips and for targeting heavy supersonic ASM carriers for long-range firing.

As submarines were able to provide targeting data for ASMs at distances of up to 200 km (depending on hydrological conditions) by means of the onboard sonar system (while being located at a safe distance from hostile ships), supersonic ASM surface carriers actually lost their striking performance because the Legenda system was no longer functional.

Russian Navy has received the advanced space-based reconnaissance and targeting system Liana

It is worth mentioning that as the Legenda system was deactivated, developers intensified their efforts to create a new space-based naval reconnaissance and targeting system, which was named Liana. Development works were started in the early 1990s, but insufficient funds for the armed forces made developers put the program on the back burner. In the second half of the 2000s, works to develop a new MKRTs system were resumed. Development of the system become one of top priority defence programs in Russia.

In 2009, the first experimental SIGINT satellite (Lotos-S) was put into orbit. The satellite launch was a failure – after entering orbit, more than 50% of the satellite systems were inoperative, requiring extra work to refine the system. The problems mainly caused by software issues were solved by 2012.


Космическое око_Лотос и Пион


Despite all the issues, the baseline design Liana satellite constellation was deployed for operational testing by 2013. The Liana space-based reconnaissance and targeting system comprises two types of satellites – the Lotos-S SIGINT satellites and Pion-NKS radar reconnaissance satellites. Two satellites of each type are included in the system.

The Liana system is designed as the 2nd generation space-based naval reconnaissance and targeting system and has excellent combat capabilities in comparison to the Legenda system. The progress in the development of solar batteries allowed to get rid of a large-size nuclear power plant installed on radar reconnaissance satellites. This allowed to considerably increase the orbit altitude. The operational orbit altitude for the Lotos-S satellites is 900 km; for the Pion-NKS satellites, the altitude is 500 km. In its turn, this allowed to multiply the viewing area in comparison to the Legenda system. The progress in radio electronics and radar ranging provided truly extraordinary capabilities for the Liana system.

The US-A satellites included in the MKRTs Legenda had a very low resolution capability; that is why they were able to track only large ship formations such as aircraft carrier strike groups (ACSG), large convoys, etc. Radar stations onboard the modern Pion-NKS satellites have the resolution capability of a few meters only. This allows to detect and track not only any types of ships, even the smallest ones, but also even individual small-size ground objects such as tanks or automotive vehicles. Actually, the Liana system is not only the space-based naval reconnaissance and targeting system, but also the global space ”all-seeing eye” able to ensure continuous surveillance over sea and ground surfaces and to detect any targets – ships, aircraft, automotive vehicles and armored vehicles.

The satellites’ lifetime has significantly increased; according to the manufacturer’s data, their operating time on orbit is not less than three years.

High efficiency of the Liana system being at its testing and combat operation phase was demonstrated in the course of the Russia' military campaign on the Syrian territory. The Liana system’s satellites provided targeting for Russian naval ships launching the 3М14 Kalibr cruise missiles. These missiles successfully hit hostile militants’ facilities. Also, during the military operation in Syria, the concept of so called “airborne and space reconnaissance strike complex” was developed. Real-time data received from different reconnaissance sources such as UAVs, special-purpose reconnaissance aircraft TU-214R and long-range radar detection aircraft A-50, as well as the satellite constellation (including data received from the Liana system's satellites) was collected and processed at the National Defence Operations Center (NDOS) of Russia's MoD. This allowed to deliver highly efficient strikes on terrorists' positions in almost real-time mode.

The Liana system successfully passed its combat testing phase. According to some data, the number of the Liana satellites is expected to be increased up to 6–8 satellites. Also, the system is expected to be integrated into the developed large-scale underwater surveillance system, which will comprise an extended network of active and passive sonars deployed on the seabed, close to the near maritime zone of Russia. Sonar data is expected to be transmitted to the Liana satellites, which, in their turn, will forward data to the underwater surveillance center.

For now, we may say that the Russian Navy has not only restored its capabilities for detection and tracking of the potential enemy's naval ships and formations, but also has managed to enhance such capabilities. In the course of modernization, the missile cruiser “Marshal Ustinov” was equipped with new receivers for data from the Liana system. These receivers are likely to be installed on all new or upgraded Russian naval ships and submarines.

The Liana system has allowed the Russian Navy to unlock the potential of the most advanced supersonic ASMs by receiving targeting data for firing to cover any distances to the target in the real-time mode.

The dream of Soviet admirals who always wanted to receive an “all-seeing” space reconnaissance and targeting system has become the reality for Russia’s Navy admirals.


New defence order. Strategy | 05 | 2018 

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