Capabilities Analysis

Inferior satellite capability limits military uses for Russia, Iran


The challenges Russia has faced due to its lackluster satellite capabilities have hindered its ability to use high-precision weapons in contested environments. This doesn't bode well for ally Iran.

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An Iranian Qassed rocket lifts off from a base near Shahroud, Iran with the Nour-1 reconnaissance satellite on board in April 2020. [Mehr News]
An Iranian Qassed rocket lifts off from a base near Shahroud, Iran with the Nour-1 reconnaissance satellite on board in April 2020. [Mehr News]

Russia's invasion of Ukraine has demonstrated the inferiority of its satellite technology -- challenges that Iran would also likely face in the event of a widening conflict in the Middle East.

Russia possesses a relatively small fleet of military satellites, hindering its ability to use high-precision weapons in contested environments and to act in near real time.

Military satellites can be used to maintain order of battle and situational awareness, monitor adversary activities and their own weapon and troop movements, develop highly accurate targeting data, provide indications and warnings, and perform battle damage assessments.

As of last May, Russia was estimated to have about 181 satellites in orbit, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists, which maintains a database of satellites.

Of those, some 137 were for military or military/commercial use.

By comparison, the United States had a total of 5,184 satellites, including 246 for military use.

Meanwhile, Iran has struggled to launch more than a handful of satellites into space, significantly limiting its capabilities.

"Russia has long been saddled with a small and inadequate fleet of communications and surveillance satellites" that cannot provide high-quality, real-time satellite imagery, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) reported in April 2022.

For example, Russia's two optical reconnaissance satellites in orbit as of 2022 were launched about a decade ago, meaning they are likely near the end of their working life. The maximum resolution of the satellites has long lagged behind that of even Western commercial satellites.

Russia has also built and deployed few remote-sensing satellites whose radars can penetrate cloud cover.

Meanwhile, Russia's Global Positioning System (GPS) alternative, GLONASS, has also failed to live up to expectations and is generally considered to be less reliable and precise for satellite-guided weapons than its US counterpart.

Limited capabilities

Numerous reports from the war in Ukraine have suggested that Russia's satellite navigation capabilities are limited.

British Defence Secretary Ben Wallace in May 2022 noted that the wreckage of Russian air force jets had been found with insecure, non-military navigation equipment.

"GPS receivers have been found taped to the dashboards of downed Russian [Sukhoi] Su-34s," Wallace said.

The lack of robust satellite capabilities has had severe implications for the Russian military.

Early in the war, Russia largely showed that it could only hit fixed targets like buildings with unguided artillery shells or rocket attacks, said US officials cited by the New York Times in May 2022.

Russian forces were incapable of quickly targeting Ukrainian troops and moving vehicles with laser- or satellite-guided bombs.

Russian guided ballistic missiles and air-launched cruise missiles fired at targets in Ukraine also missed their targets or even failed completely after launch, the officials said.

Russia was suffering failure rates as high as 60% for some of the precision-guided missiles it was using in the war, US officials estimated in March 2022.

Implications for Iran

Iran is even farther behind than Russia in satellite development, an indication that it would be unable to properly use precision-guided munitions in a potential conflict.

Tehran placed its first reconnaissance satellite in orbit only in April 2020. The reconnaissance satellite, dubbed Nour-1, was launched in orbit on a Qassed satellite carrier from a base near Shahroud, Iran.

Iran has suffered several failed satellite launches in recent years due to technical issues. The Simorgh, a satellite-carrying rocket, endured five failed launches in a row from 2017 to 2021 before having its first successful orbital launch in January.

Despite having made progress with the January launch, Iran's precision-guided weapons struggle to be effective without a robust force of navigation and reconnaissance satellites.

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