Russo-Chinese relations continue to improve as both countries’ ties with the United States have grown increasingly strained. Moscow and Beijing describe their bilateral relationship as a “strategic partnership,” constantly adding new adjectives to emphasize its evolving strength. The People’s Republic of China (PRC) has insisted it does not formally ally with anyone. But recently, Russian President Vladimir Putin has begun publicly speaking about an “alliance”—first in front of a domestic audience on September 6, 2019, in Vladivostok, and then, on October 3, 2019, in Sochi, in front of an international gathering of the so-called Valdai Club.
During the Valdai proceedings, Putin lauded the “unprecedented level of mutual trust and cooperation in an allied relationship of strategic partnership.” Moreover, the Kremlin leader listed a number of prominent Russo-Chinese joint technological projects, pointed to growing trade, and notably disclosed that the Russian defense industry is helping the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) build a modern missile-attack early-warning system (Systema Preduprezdenya o Raketnom Napadenii—SPRN). According to Putin, only Russia and the US have a fully developed SPRN; and now, the PLA will, too, with Russian help, “seriously expanding the PRC’s defense capabilities.” Putin denounced as hopeless US attempts to constrain China by economic pressure and by building up Asia-Pacific alliances with other local states. According to the pro-Kremlin news site Vzglad, Moscow and Beijing will not be signing a formal military/political alliance treaty anytime soon; but de facto the two countries are allies already, closely coordinating their activities in different areas, building together a new world order that may lead to the eviction of US influence from Asia.
Reportedly, at least one $60 million contract has already been signed to develop software for a future PLA SPRN network. Apparently, hopes abound in Moscow that more cooperation agreements of this type may follow. And though there are no immediate plans to create a joint Russo-Chinese SPRN, the involvement of Russian defense entities in contributing to a future PLA SPRN network is seen as especially noteworthy. China was the first foreign country to buy Russian S-400 anti-aircraft systems, which also have a limited missile-defense (MD) capability. Russian defense officials claim they are close to beginning production and deployment of the more powerful and longer-range S-500 missiles as the basis of a future comprehensive national MD system. If China buys the S-500 in addition to S-400s, Russia would be in a position to help build and influence the architecture of a future integrated PLA SPRN and MD network in addition to earning billions in the process.
In the US and Russian cases, their respective SPRN systems represent a strategic stabilizing factor, providing reliable information on potential enemy missile launches. In the absence of such capabilities, Washington and Moscow would be blind nuclear powers, frequently tempted to launch nuclear weapons by mistake or by accident. The Russian SPRN consists of powerful long-range radars of several different types: Daryal, Volga and Dnepr, together with the new-generation Russian-built Voronezh, which may detect incoming ballistic missiles and warheads and calculate their possible impact points. Moscow also possesses SPRN satellites designed to detect the launch of US ballistic missiles. After the collapse of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) in 1991, the Russian SPRN suffered problems of technical degradation, neglect and lack of adequate financing; moreover, some stationary SPRN radars built close to the borders of the former USSR became the property of newly independent states that did not need them. As part of Putin’s rearmament program, newly built Voronezh SPRN stationary radars (six are functioning and two are still planned) have provided Russia with a capability to detect possible incoming ballistic warheads and missiles from different direction. The Voronezh radars also detect aircraft but not low-flying cruise missiles or jets.
The commander of the Russian Aerospace Forces’ 15th Special Designation Army (in charge of the SPRN), General Anatoly Nesterchuk, recently boasted in a radio interview that Russia’s system can guarantee the military/political leadership “tens of minutes” of reliable early warning of an imminent missile strike before impact, allowing for “appropriate decisions” to launch the country’s nuclear missiles in a reply salvo. The exact early-warning time the SPRN will provide depends, according to Nesterchuk, on the type of attacking missiles and from where they were launched—say, from a US nuclear submarine in the mid-Atlantic or from a silo base in the continental US. A knowledgeable guess suggests over 20 minutes. In fact, an early–warning time could feasibly be extended to more than 40 minutes; however, the Russian SPRN still has a serious glitch in that its space echelon is not working properly.
The Soviet-produced Oko and Oko-1 SPRN satellites were primitive, unreliable and have since been mothballed. A new Tundra constellation of ten SPRN satellites was planned to be deployed by 2020—but remains incomplete. The Tundra satellites were designed to detect the launch of US ground silo–based and submarine-based ballistic missiles and to provide preliminary information on their trajectories and possible intended impact targets, supplementing and enhancing the Voronezh radars. Only three of the ten Tundra satellites are in orbit, with the last one launched on September 26, 2019.
Current planning foresees the Tundra satellite system coming fully online in 2022, but that is still a guess. Days after the last Tundra satellite was launched, it was reported that the Russian Ministry of Defense is suing the mammoth RKK Energia space corporation in arbitration court for 5 billion rubles ($78 million) in damages because it failed to fulfill its contract obligations to build a modernized space booster rocket and put on line the production of Tundra-14F142 SPRN satellites. Media coverage later revealed that the defense ministry is in fact seeking 36 billion rubles ($550 million) in damages from RKK Energia. Most of the country’s defense industry is presently hovering on the brink of insolvency; thus, RKK Energia could go bankrupt if the defense ministry actually tries to collect. Apparently, the main issue is not financial but political: When Putin (who seems to be gladly marketing Russia’s SPRN technology to China) begins asking questions about the dysfunctional Tundra system and who is to blame, the generals can point to RKK Energia while claiming the defense ministry did all it could—even taken the company to court.