For the first time in many years, the Russian Navy received a real tool for aiming its long-range missiles at enemy ships. According to a number of reports, the Pion-NKS military satellite is finally on combat duty. How did it happen that this device took so long to create and why is its work critical for the security of all of Russia?
The USSR, which did not have the opportunity to build a large, commensurate ocean fleet, was looking for asymmetric options for the US response. Since the late 1950s, long-range anti-ship cruise missiles (ASCs) have become the main means of combating the Soviet fleet against the US Navy. Their carriers were aircraft, surface ships and submarines.
Large, heavy and fast anti-ship missiles of these machines, with a powerful warhead, which could also carry a nuclear warhead, solved the tasks of the operational level. For the US Navy, this was a big problem. A salvo of anti-ship missiles with a high probability pierced the air defense of a US Navy naval unit. The long range of the missiles made it possible to attack the target from a long distance.
But there was a problem. And her name was – target designation.
Target designation and aerial reconnaissance
If we approach the issue very simplistically, then it is as follows. When launched over a long distance, the rocket must eventually get to the point from which its homing head (GOS) can detect the ship on its own.
A ship that can be attacked usually travels at high speed. For example, at 28 knots, in 15 minutes a warship will leave the point where it was located for 12 kilometers. Is 15 minutes long? This is about as much as is needed to strike the P-35 anti-ship missiles from the Project 58 missile cruiser from a range of 300 kilometers. To this were added errors in determining the coordinates of the target (which then significantly limited the possibility of issuing target designation from aircraft). That is, there was a risk that with a large error in generating data on the target, the missile would simply miss. Her GOS will not “capture” the target.
How to send a rocket exactly to its destination? You need the most accurate (with minimal errors) target designation in order to send a missile to the so-called preemptive target location. It was in such conditions that Soviet commanders would have to solve combat missions in the 1960s.
How to be?
First, the “Success” naval reconnaissance and target designation system came to the aid of Soviet commanders. The system included tools capable of obtaining accurate data on a target at a great distance – a Tu-95RTs reconnaissance-target designator and a Ka-25Ts helicopter of a similar purpose.
Both of these aircraft, equipped with powerful radar stations, could detect enemy ship groups, determine their movement parameters (course, speed) and automatically transmit data to the shore or on board the missile weapon carrier. It was a flexible system. Together with the next generations of Soviet missiles, which had a higher speed and the ability to program different altitude flight profiles, it made it possible to solve the most difficult tasks.
The problem, however, was that the Tu-95RTs had to fly long distances to some potential ocean areas, and in some cases through dangerous zones. Ships in the North Atlantic or the Mediterranean would have to wait long hours for target data, at the risk of never receiving it. Increasing the range of anti-ship missiles required other means of control. Therefore, even before the acceptance of the MRSC “Success” into service, in 1960, it was decided to take the means of reconnaissance of sea targets into space. So the system “Legend” was born.
“Legend” in orbit
Unlike the MRSC “Success”, which was quickly developed and put into service (from 1959 to 1965), the “Legend” was created for a long time. It has been 18 years since the decision to create and before the start of work. The system has been in operation since 1978.
It included both passive electronic intelligence satellites (US-P), which detect the radiation of electronic weapons (REV) of ships, and the most interesting – US-A radar intelligence satellites. The latter were unique products; nuclear reactors were used as an energy source for the radar station on board. Only a nuclear reactor provided enough power for the craft’s radar. The US-A satellites were operational for a very short time after launch (tens of days). But even in this state, they often provided the command of the USSR Navy with all the necessary information about foreign naval groups.
“Legend” ended its existence in its intended form even before the collapse of the USSR. It was a truly expensive pleasure – 39 almost disposable (service life from 8 to 130 days) satellites with nuclear reactors, one of which fell on Canada, polluting a large area with radiation. Yes, and the West pressed, demanding to stop dangerous launches. After 1988, new satellites with radar stations were not launched, and the ground-based infrastructure of the Legend was used with electronic intelligence satellites and for other purposes.
The collapse of the USSR brought colossal problems to the Navy. There was no space reconnaissance, the Tu-95RTs were decommissioned, the Ka-25Ts was gone for a long time. The most powerful Soviet anti-ship missiles were left without target designation. In fact, they were now completely useless.
In 1993, the creation of the Liana system, the successor to the old Legend, began. The system was conceived to be more rational than its predecessor, its satellites were supposed to have a service life measured in years, not months. It was assumed that the space constellation of the system would consist of five electronic reconnaissance satellites that detect operating ship radar stations, and two radar reconnaissance satellites, which themselves would have radars for detecting ships. The creation of the latter was very much delayed.
But on June 25, 2021, the first radar reconnaissance satellite in many years, Pion-NKS, part of the new Liana system, was successfully launched into orbit. It took more than a year to test it. And finally, on September 10, 2022, the satellite took up experimental combat duty and began to be used to perform real tasks. One of two satellites in orbit, which means that Russia has limited capabilities to detect enemy ships from space.
Pion-NKS and the Liana system
The 14F139 Pion-NKS artificial Earth satellite is a large and heavy 6.5-ton apparatus with two large radar antennas and solar panels. Its development began back in 1993; it is one of the most important long-term space construction projects in our country. The construction of the already developed satellite also took many years. It was a really difficult project.
Unlike the old US-A, the Pion orbit is higher than 195-466 kilometers, and it should last at least four years from the moment it was put into orbit. An orbital period of 90 minutes and an inclination of 67.15 degrees indicate that critical areas in the North Atlantic and the northern seas washing Russia are viewed from the satellite with sufficient frequency. The coverage, it must be said, is insufficient, which is why it was envisaged that there would be two Peonies, but this is already a huge step forward.
What does the satellite provide? Firstly, an enemy ship group that has fallen into the line of sight will be promptly detected by the Russian Navy. If everything is specially planned, then it is possible, having ready-made carriers of missile weapons, to immediately strike according to satellite data taken from the moment of flight.
On the other hand, if it is known that the enemy is, in principle, somewhere in the area of interest, and the satellite flying over him did not detect him, then in any case, information from the satellite becomes the starting point for the reconnaissance operation. We know exactly the places where there is no enemy, which means we also know the places where he can still be, and we know where to look. Without Pion, this was impossible; much more vast spaces would have to be “weeded”.
It gives even more that the system, of which Pion-NKS is a part, partially functions exactly as a system – together with Pion-NKS, four satellites of the Lotos series, which are part of Liana, are already in orbit, from five provided. Where the Pion radars do not see something, the Lotuses may detect radiation from enemy ships.
The downside for real military operations is the incomplete composition of the satellite constellation, and if it is quite possible to hope for another Lotus within a few years, then the second Pion-NKS is in question. These satellites are very complex, and the first of them was assembled for a very long time. When there will be a second satellite is unknown, but it is needed to obtain sufficient coverage.
The most important
With all the gigantic opportunities that the Liana system gives to the fleet, it is worth taking into account what it can really give. Both the Liana system and the individual Pion-NKS can provide the fleet with target designation for an attack “here and now.” Or they may not provide. Intensive training is needed on the joint use of ships, aircraft and satellite constellations, including in imitation strikes against NATO ship groups, which must first be detected. All taking into account the air and underwater threats, as in life.
And then it turns out that the fleet not only has a new, very useful and necessary satellite, but can also use it. And the state is required to ensure the rapid construction of the second Pion-NKS. Relations between Russia and the West are escalating every day, and no one knows when all of the above may be needed.