Economic disruptions created by the current Russian invasion of Ukraine has accelerated the decline of Roscosmos, the Russian government organization controlling all space program activities. Budget cuts mean Roscosmos has to delay construction of a new Russian Orbital Space station (ROS). It is designed to last for fifty years and function as a major space-based research facility. ROS will use three modules that were originally meant to be part of the ISS (International Space Station). Russia fell behind in building and placing these new modules into orbit and now plans to use them to assemble ROS. In the last few years Russia has fallen farther behind in delivering these new modules. Russia also lacks the money to build the ground control facilities to support their new orbital assets.
Nearly all the problems Roscosmos is having are related to budget cuts. The Ukraine War has a higher priority, and no one knows when Roscosmos will get its lost budget funds back. A lot of money is involved. Currently the missing funds amount to well over $10 billion and the amount will grow as long as the Ukraine War consumes so much of the Russian government budget. Recently Roscosmos reported that the government had agreed to restore the Roscosmos budget and planned to provide the nearly seven billion dollars needed to keep the Russian space station project on schedule. A lot more money will be needed before that space station is completed in 2032. This will be a major accomplishment for Roscosmos. Russia has fallen behind in most other aspects of their space program.
For example, Russia is no longer trying to compete with the innovative Americans firm SpaceX and its novel SLV (Satellite Launch Vehicle) operation. The business of building SLVs and successfully launching satellites was revolutionized by SpaceX. Few nations said they would try to emulate and compete with SpaceX. At least not yet.
Roscosmos did not keep up with new developments in SLV tech and has been in decline since its creation in 2015. Meanwhile the SLV future arrived unexpectedly in the form of SpaceX, a new firm that required no guaranteed government contracts or any government subsidies and did what previous government subsidized firms did but faster and cheaper. This was demonstrated during the first half of 2022, when the partially reusable Falcon 9 SLV launched 26 times, its total for all of 2020. The last three launches were carried out within 36 hours at the end of June. SpaceX carried out six more launches in July, exceeding the 31 achieved in 2021. One of the June launches involved a Falcon 9 booster that had been used 13 times. By June Falcon 9s had been launched 160 times since their introduction in 2012. The innovation was that Falcon 9 booster rockets land under their own power and are refurbished for reuse.
In Russia the situation is less positive. The Russian Space agency Roscosmos became a state monopoly in 2015 when it absorbed the few remaining space program entities it did not already control. Roscosmos was not helped when Russia threatened to cease all cooperation on supporting the ISS, but quietly suggested that a deal was possible if adjustments were made to the economic sanctions recently inflicted on Russia because of its current Ukraine invasion. Russian threats have accelerated efforts by American and European firms to build supply and crew capsules to replace the Soyuz capsules. SpaceX had developed a cargo capsule that has been in regular use since 2010 and its crew capsule was soon approved for regular use.
Roscosmos has long provided regular deliveries of supplies and transport of crew to and from the ISS. Russia uses its Soyuz SLV to put the Russian cargo and passenger capsules into orbit where they maneuver to and dock at the ISS. Russia and the United States are the major suppliers of new components to the ISS and use their own SLVs to get these components into orbit.
Despite the tension between Russia and the other nations responsible for operating the ISS, Russia is trying to maintain its duties up there. An early 2022 Soyuz crew capsule arrived at the ISS carrying three Russians, all wearing yellow and blue flight suits, which are the colors of the Ukrainian flag. Russia insisted this had nothing to do with the Ukraine War. These three Russians served on the ISS for about 30 weeks as part of the seven people who operate the ISS. Most Roscosmos personnel support expected continued participation in maintaining the ISS until ISS is retired in 2030. That is not going to happen as Russia in 2022 announced they would end support for and participation in the ISS program by 2024.
Some Roscosmos personnel also oppose the invasion of Ukraine but expressing that openly is now a felony in Russia and thousands of Russians have been arrested for demonstrating their opposition. The Russian ISS crew members went with their government’s explanation that the colors of the flight suits were a coincidence.
Despite the professionalism and dedication of many Roscosmos personnel, key officials continue to cause problems with mismanagements and corruption. This causes problems with the contracts it already has. For example, in 2018 a Soyuz rocket failed as it was attempting to take two men, a Russian and an American, to the ISS. The two passengers survived because of the emergency recovery system that is part of the manned rocket. The failed Soyuz rocket was another example of the continued management and quality control problems in the Russian space program. Previously there had only been two failures of a Soyuz manned capsule, in 1975 and 1983. The 1983 failure involved a rocket catching fire on the launch pad and the crew rescue system saved the passengers, as was the case during the 2018 failure. As in the past, the Russians recovered and carried out a successful launch to deliver three people to the ISS. Roscosmos has been burdened with corruption and mismanagement since its creation and has had six directors since 2015, with the latest one taking office in 2022.
There have been over 1,900 launches of a Soyuz SLV since 1966 and the success rate has been 98 percent. The failures include inability to reach the correct orbit. The Soyuz FG SLV, used to carry passengers, has been used 65 times since entering service in 2001 and all were successful until the 2018 failure. The Soyuz FG is a more advanced and, until the recent failure, more reliable version of the Soyuz SLV design. There have been some recent problems with the Soyuz models used to launch satellites. Russia insisted that Soyuz FG was different but the personnel and management problems in the Russian space program could not be completely avoided.
Cheaper and more reliable Chinese SLVs are taking business away from Roscosmos. Russia lacks the cash to compete with the much more affluent China. There is also the entrepreneurial approach that China and the U.S. share. This is why China is working on an SLV design that can duplicate SpaceX innovations. Russia prefers not to risk scarce funds on duplicating SpaceX tech. Economic sanctions imposed after the Ukraine invasion have caused layoffs and pay cuts for Roscosmos staff. Construction of SLVs and satellites is hampered by the sanctions, which halted the import of key components, especially electronic items. The Russian government warned Roscosmos that this situation would last at least two more years, meaning that Roscosmos will incur annual losses instead of a small profit.
Over the last few years SpaceX has been gradually eroding the Roscosmos monopoly on taking crews and cargo to the ISS. This became more urgent since a Soyuz passenger capsule that reached the ISS in 2018 was later found to have a tiny leak, which was apparently created during manufacture and not detected by quality control. The growing number of manufacturing defects in Russian spaceflight equipment is compounded by the growing failure to catch and repair defects. The problems with two Soyuz passenger capsules in 2018 were not just rare events but part of a trend that has gotten worse. The Soyuz SLV and crew capsule problems also reinforced the belief that more than one nation must be able to get people to and from the ISS.
The SpaceX Dragon passenger capsule had its first test flight in 2019. Boeing also had a manned capsule design (Starliner) but it is more expensive than Dragon, which has already been replaced by Dragon 2, which can be used to carry cargo or up to seven passengers. That means the Soyuz monopoly as a crew transport to ISS ended in 2022 when Dragon 2 began regular trips to the ISS with passengers. Dragon 2 costs a third less than Soyuz per passenger going to the ISS.
Russians have looked on with growing dismay as their space program, once a close competitor with the Americans, slips into bankruptcy and insignificance. But the Russians were already falling way behind when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 and since then the government has, with increasing frustration, sought to revive Russian space efforts and restore that program to its former fame and glory. The latest major move towards that goal occurred at the end of 2015 when Russia abolished its government federal space agency and transferred all the assets and responsibilities to the newly created Roscosmos. Over the next two years, it became obvious that the problems remained, seemingly beyond solution. To make that failure obvious, by the end of 2017 Russia had fallen to third place, behind the Americans and Chinese in space efforts. This was not a surprise because over the last decade Russian space efforts have struggled to meet military space needs, often at the expense of the more profitable civilian market.
In 2022 Russia made it illegal to publish details of Roscosmos problems without government permission. The ban included the Internet, where the bad news can still be found despite its disappearance from state- controlled media. The latest bad news involves the extent to which the new economic sanctions will prevent Roscosmos from freely importing foreign technology and the declining role Roscosmos plays in supplying SLV services.
All-Seeing, All Deceiving
November 30, 2023: The Ukraine War has been revealing a growing number of developments that were surprising to those who thought they had a good idea of how a modern war between near-peer (roughly equal) forces would proceed. That was not the case and there were a lot of surprises. Some of the more surprising revelations was the extensive use of UAVs (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles) as well as USVs (Unmanned seagoing vehicles). These unmanned systems are much cheaper than manned aircraft of ships and can be equipped with a wide variety of inexpensive payloads, including cameras, explosives and electronic systems like signal jammers that disrupt GPS accuracy and other forms of communication. Both Russians and Ukrainians have been developing these new systems and using them against each other.
On land that means you cannot hide. Cheap surveillance UAVs are everywhere all the time and reveal opportunities to use more specialized UAVs. For example, if the Ukrainians are using GPS guided weapons, Russia can send in UAVs equipped with electronic equipment that disrupts the GPS signals guided bombs require for their accuracy. This had made GPS guided weapons less reliable. At sea, the Ukrainian Sea Baby USVs have destroyed or neutralized most warships in the Russian Black Sea fleet. Ukrainian SUVs are difficult to detect and Russia has lost several warships to these remotely controlled vessels and their explosive payloads. Russian naval operations in the Black Sea have been under constant attack by Ukrainian missiles, UAVs and USVs to the point where the Russian Black Sea fleet has been damaged, destroyed or sent to more distant ports where they are no longer a threat to anyone.
This situation was not a sudden development and developed over the last year as both Russians and Ukrainians sought new ways to gain an advantage. This is one reason why, fourteen months after Russia invaded Ukraine, the Ukrainians are attacking and driving the Russian forces out. This was bad news for the Russian government, which was receiving growing criticism from its citizens about not merely the war’s cost, but the need for it at all. The government responded to the internal criticism and did so more effectively than their military efforts in Ukraine. Russia declared criticism of the Russian war effort in Ukraine illegal. Some arrests were made, and some critics went on trial. This discouraged many Russian critics but emboldened others. This sort of thing is common in Russia.
Throughout most of its history, Russia has been a police state. In addition to the secret police, Russia also intercepted and read mail and overheard radio and telephone conversations. Russia mobilized support inside Russia for detecting anonymous critics and threatening them with arrest if they did not curb their criticism.
This criticism made it obvious that the Russian government was losing the support of its own people, including a growing number of senior officers who spoke out, usually via encrypted messages on Telegram, a popular cell phone app in Russia and Ukraine. Early on many of these Russian Telegram-based military bloggers or mil-bloggers supported the invasion and were supplied with information by the Russian government, including opportunities to spend some time with the troops inside Ukraine. After a few months the Russian mil-bloggers were no longer reporting the official Russian version of events in Ukraine, but what was being reported by Russian veterans of the fighting.
After Russia announced a pause in offensive military operations in early July 2022, one of these mil-bloggers, a former general who had served in occupied Donbas before the invasion, reported a different reality. He insisted that Russia had suffered higher losses in eastern Ukraine (Luhansk province) than the Ukrainians, who were conducting a classic attrition defense. The Russians had suffered far more losses in men and equipment. Ukrainians were not driven out of Luhansk but withdrew slowly and deliberately to encourage Russia to keep attacking and losing troops and combat vehicles that could not be replaced. Meanwhile the Ukrainians were receiving more weapons and equipment from NATO and forming new units, including armed resistance groups in occupied Ukraine. This was not the official Russian assessment, but it was the reality that Russian troops in Ukraine were experiencing and some Russian mil-bloggers were reporting.
All this was nothing new. When the most modern and effective Russian forces were assembled to invade Ukraine in 2022, they quickly discovered they were not facing an inept, poorly trained and armed foe but one that was far more effective than the Russian invaders. The main offensive in the north, towards the nearby Ukrainian capital Kyiv, suffered heavy losses and within weeks was forced to withdraw back to the border. Russian troops were initially told that they had encountered NATO troops who were in Ukraine preparing to invade Russia. The surviving troops knew better because all they encountered were Ukrainians, usually armed with weapons similar to what Russia used as well as more effective ones they had received from NATO. The Ukrainians used more effective tactics and some new weapons that were based on Western models but Ukrainian-made. The Russian state-controlled media was ordered to ignore reports like this and stick with the official story that this was all a secret NATO operation to attack Russia via Ukraine.
While this information war played on, the Russian ordered everything they had, short of nuclear and chemical weapons, into use in an effort to salvage the situation. Russia was at war with a near-peer opponent and losing. Many Russians, civilian and military, figured out what was happening and openly criticized, or sometimes even physically attacked, their government because of the mess in Ukraine that was killing a lot of Russian troops. These Russian critics were often well-educated professionals in regular contact with Westerners, including more than a million Russians who had left since 2014 because of fears Russia was headed for what actually happened in 2022. Several hundred thousand more departed after the 2022 invasion. Despite this, the majority of Russians accepted the government explanation that Russian was defending itself in Ukraine and that what the government called the special military operation must continue. Russia refused to call what they were doing in Ukraine as war.
This attitude eventually began to demoralize Russians who figured out that was really going on. Widows and families of the dead soldiers received little information about their dead kin and many of those eligible for death benefits from the government did not receive that money because it was stolen by corrupt officials. This is typical of the Russian government bureaucracy and further eroded popular support for the war in Ukraine.
Ukraine War Revelations
November 29, 2023: The Ukraine War involved a lot of experimentation with new weapons and ways to use them. One of the most unique and effective of these new weapons consists of small UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles) armed with a thermobaric warhead that consists of an explosive gas sprayer and a detonator which ignites the ensuing cloud of explosive gas. Ukraine developed new thermobaric warheads before the Russians invaded in 2022 and have developed novel ways to use their thermobaric devices. One of the more innovative applications is to equip a quadcopter or fixed wing UAV with a five- or ten-pound thermobaric bomb and then have ground-based operators fly the aircraft towards a target and either crash into the target before igniting the thermobaric explosive or drop a thermobaric explosive onto a target and fly away. The thermobaric explosive can kill or wound troops and equipment in nearby trenches or buildings.
Twenty years ago, American troops used a 40mm thermobaric grenade launched from a launcher mounted under the barrel of their assault rifles. Firing one of these grenades into a cave or a building killed or wounded most of the people inside. In Afghanistan, American troops used these grenades to deal with enemy troops in caves or rooms of buildings. Often, just the threat of using a thermobaric grenade would induce surrender.
The Ukrainians have been successful with their tactic of delivering thermobaric bombs on a UAV to a distant Russian position. Even though many of the UAVs are shot down or miss the target, enough of them get through to cause casualties that machine-guns, mortars or RPGs (Rocket-Propelled Grenades) were unable to handle. The Russian troops are terrified of this weapon because it can show up even though the nearest Ukrainian troops are many kilometers away.
While the Russians pioneered the use of thermobaric weapons, they considered their thermobaric bombs artillery, not something carried long distances by UAVs that can change course while seeking an appropriate target. These innovative Ukrainian tactics have caused unexpected casualties on Russian troops far from the combat zone and not expecting to be attacked, especially by thermobaric weapons. These Ukrainian tactics have reduced their need for artillery ammunition and been able to reach enemy targets beyond artillery range. Another advantage is that the UAVs armed with thermobaric bombs are manufactured by the Ukrainians using locally available materials. Russia will probably soon start using its versions of these weapons, which will revolutionize infantry tactics.
At the same time Ukraine has opened factories for the production of munitions and missiles, especially anti-aircraft missiles that can also intercept enemy missiles. Russia has undertaken missile attacks on Ukrainian electrical power generation systems in an effort to reduce heating for Ukrainians civilians during winter. This is demoralizing for civilians, who the Russians hope will blame their government and be more willing to make peace on Russian terms. The Ukrainian government has been devoting more resources to repairing the damage to energy systems.
Ukraine is a democracy and popular attitudes matter. While Russia is more of a dictatorship, leader Vladimir Putin is losing support from key associates because of the economic sanctions and their impact on the fortunes of his wealthy allies. Russia has managed to minimize damage to standards of living for most Russians to foster continued support for the war, even though the growing number of Russian casualties are common knowledge to civilians and has more Russians questioning the justification for the war. The Russian forces are not winning, and families back home are suffering in other ways. And for what? The Ukrainians continue to resist, and the Russian strategy appears to be an endurance contest that gets a lot of Russians killed while trying to kill enough Ukrainians to make a peace deal, on Russian terms, seem attractive. The Ukrainian response is to find ways to keep their own casualties down while continuing to kill as many of the attacking Russians as they can.
Russia has run out of tanks and similar heavy weapons because of Ukrainian tactics which emphasize destroying armored vehicles. This has been successful and, while Ukraine is able to obtain more tanks from NATO countries, Russia has no such resource and Russian troops are not eager to take on Ukrainian tanks without effective anti-tank weapons. Ukraine is also receiving F-16 jet fighters from the United States and the many NATO nations that also use this aircraft. NATO nations are in the process of replacing their F-16s with F-35s and find Ukraine is eager to accept NATO F-16s headed for retirement. There is a massive effort in Europe and the United States to train Ukrainian pilots to operate the F-16s. It won't be until early 2024 that the many new Ukraine F-16 pilots will begin to show up. The F-16s are a major upgrade over the Russian warplanes the Ukrainians have been using, and Ukrainian pilots switching to F-16s notice the differences. Western economic sanctions have been particularly hard on the Russian aviation industry and few new warplanes have been built. When the Ukrainian F-16s start eliminating Russian warplanes, there won’t be any replacements. The Ukrainians will receive more and more F-16s, which are also good at ground attack and supporting troops on the ground.
Russia is running out of resources and options and the Ukrainians are taking advantage of that as quickly and thoroughly as they can.