At the end of the Cold War, the level of international tension has considerably declined for at least a decade, thanks to widespread multilateral disarmament bolstered by a variety of arms control regimes for conventional and nuclear armaments.
That decade also saw the rapid deterioration of Russia’s early warning and surveillance systems as satellites launched during the Soviet era exhausted their service lives and crashed into the atmosphere without being replaced. At first, this was either not seen as an urgent priority by Russian decisionmakers or, if it was, there were more urgent priorities for scarce defense funding in an era of a prolonged economic crisis.
Fast-forwarding a decade, we find ourselves in a radically different situation. There is no more “end of history” optimism in the air, nor is there a sense of durable US hegemony either that seemed so permanent in the 1990s. Unfortunately, history tells us that such shifts in the global balance of power are fraught with danger, as the fading hegemon has an incentive to resort to extreme, reckless measures to preserve that hegemony.
What makes the current situation unprecedented is this being the first hegemonic transition of the nuclear age. In the past, nuclear deterrence existed only in the context of relatively stable bipolar and then unipolar systems. Does nuclear deterrence mutually assured destruction still work under conditions of a multipolar system experiencing a hegemonic transition?
International relations theory has no answer to that question, but the US national security establishment appears to think that it doesn’t, particularly in an era of emerging technologies like artificial intelligence, drone and missile swarms, hypersonic delivery vehicles, and possibly even directed energy weapons.
Crash US programs in developing all of the above, far beyond anything that might be termed reasonable defensive sufficiency under conditions of the US spending far more on defense than anyone else in the world, do raise the possibility of long-term plans to prevail in the new round of great power competition through not only covert action and “hybrid warfare”, but also, if an opportunity arises, through good old fashioned strategic first strike which need no longer be delivered using nuclear weapons.
The point of Cold War-era nuclear arms treaties was not to limit the number of nuclear warheads for its own sake. Rather, it was to deprive the two superpowers of their ability to launch a disarming and decapitating strike which, given technologies of the era, could only be launched using nuclear weapons. That is still the case today, but may not be by 2030 should the US complete its planned rearmament with a large array of land-, air-, and sea-based long-range stealthy and hypersonic weapons.
Even the US Army, with its plans for “1,000-mile cannon” is once again getting into the game of strategic strike, to speak nothing of land-based hypersonic missiles. And strategic strike using non-nuclear warheads is a novel scenario in which the old “mutually assured destruction” calculations may not apply. Combined with the explosive growth of US anti-ballistic missile programs, if the rest of the world stands still, by 2030 US decisionmakers might find themselves tempted to launch such a strategic strike against even a major nuclear weapons state like Russia or China, to say nothing of mid-level powers like Iran or North Korea, particularly if they have no nuclear deterrent to begin with.
Except the rest of the world is not about to stand still, and the Liana space surveillance system is an important component of the Russian response to US initiatives. The imminent era of post-nuclear strategic strike demands strategic defense and stability cannot be provided solely by anti-ballistic early warning systems. They would simply provide warning of an attack once it was underway, and in view of the possibility that large numbers of hypersonic missiles could be launched very close to Russia’s borders from the territory of NATO member-states following a rapid and covert deployment, as well as submarines and stealthy bombers, that warning might come too late to make an effective response possible.
To make matters worse still, US drive to destroy the Open Skies Treaty that is supposed to prevent precisely that kind of a covert preparation for a first strike, is also indicative of what the long-term US plans are.
Liana is therefore intended to provide that kind of strategic early warning, as well as operational target designation, in the event of an attempted surprise first strike.
The satellite constellation is to consist of two types of satellites. The first, Pion-NKS, is a 6.5 ton satellite intended for a 67-degree, 500km orbit, with service life of more than three years. It’s development is nearly complete at the Arsenal Design Bureau. It is a high-resolution radar reconnaissance satellite, capable of positively identifying “car-sized” objects on the Earth’s surface.
The second component of the Liana will be Lotos-S, a six-ton satellite operating on a 67-degree, 900km apogee orbit, and performing passive detection, identification, and location of electronic emitters, including radio communications. It was developed by the Arsenal Design Bureau, in collaboration with several other scientific research institutions. Both types of satellites are expected to be launched from the Plesetsk Cosmodrome, using the proven and reliable Soyuz-2-1b launch vehicles.
The complete Liana configuration is to consist of two Pion-NKS and two Lotos-S satellites, and open-source information sources suggest the two satellite types have a fair amount of component commonality in order to allow them not only to complement one another, but to perform each other’s primary missions though in a degraded form. So far there have been three Lotos-S launches from Plesetsk, with the first 2009 one being a failure, and the 2015 and 2018 one a success. No Pion-NKS launches have been scheduled yet, but the satellite’s advanced stage of development suggests they will occur in the coming years.
Technological advances mean that once complete, Liana will serve as a replacement for both the Legenda naval surveillance and target designation satellite network, and the Tselina radioelectronic reconnaissance one, thus providing Russian decisionmakers with the ability to monitor troop deployments and electronic activity that would inevitably precede a strategic first strike. Liana will also no doubt prove itself useful in non-Doomsday scenarios as well.
The Syria experience revealed the need for reliable detection and target designation of NATO cruise-missile launch assets, including aircraft, submarines, and surface vessels. Liana’s capabilities mean both the assets themselves, other than submarines, and their communications can be monitored to reveal preparations for a strike and provide targeting information as well. It is not clear Russia would have been able to accurately strike at US warships launching cruise missiles at Syria had they been directed against Russian bases. The absence of radar surveillance satellites was a painful gap in Russia’s capabilities at that time, one that will be filled in the coming years.