Flashpoints | Security

Managing the Military Problem of Space: The Case of Russia

Rather than establish a separate space force, Russia has determined that space should be integrated with other aerospace assets.

Managing the Military Problem of Space: The Case of Russia
Credit: Pixabay

Alongside the United States, Russia has the world’s longest and most distinguished history of military and civilian activity in space. Russia recognized the importance of space to military operations during the Soviet period, and after the interregnum of the 1990s resumed diligent work on increasing its space capabilities. 

The Soviet space program rose out of World War 2 to boast many of the most important achievements of the space era, including the launch of the first ICBM, the placement of the first artificial satellite in space, and the first successful human spaceflight. The primary military institution during the Soviet period was the Strategic Rocket Force, a branch of the Soviet armed forces dedicated to the development and deployment of long range missiles. Other military space assets were included under the Strategic Rocket Forces umbrella. 

Russia experimented with a variety of institutional constellations for its space capabilities during the Soviet and early post-Soviet period. For a time, a quasi-independent space unit was separated from the Rocket Forces and placed under the Ministry of Defense directly. A space force responsible for launch, space defense, and long-range monitoring was established in 1992, although lines of authority in the post-Soviet chaos were mutable and ambiguous. In 2011 the space forces were integrated into the Aerospace Defense Force, an organization whose portfolio included air defense. In 2015 Russia established a Space Forces branch within the larger Russian Aerospace Forces, which encompasses both traditional air force responsibilities and air defense responsibilities. 

The Russian Aerospace Forces thus integrates a number of key functions in space warfare, including ballistic missile defense, space observation and surveillance, space launch, and global communications. It carries out these functions alongside the more conventional air force responsibilities of the rest of the organization, representing a model similar to that which the United States discarded in 2019. Rather than establish a separate space force, Russia has determined that space should be integrated with other aerospace assets. 

Since the Soviet period, Russia has demonstrated a tremendous degree of institutional flexibility regarding its military forces, and thus it would not be particularly surprising to see another reform that would once again realign the lines of authority over Russian space assets. However, there can be no doubt that Russia places a tremendous value on its space forces, and that it enjoys some of the most sophisticated such forces in the world. Russia continues to regularly engage in anti-satellite tests, indicating that it has no qualms about threatening the space infrastructure of its competitors.