Zarya (Korolev): Yuri Alekseevich, we’ve got a slight problem: when we sealed the hatch, we didn’t get confirmation from one of the circuits, so we’re likely going to unbolt it and re-seal it. How copy?
Kedr (Gagarin): Received. Hatch is open, they’re checking the signal circuits.
Zarya (Korolev): Well, great, good.
(I should mention that the hatch is held in place by 30 bolts, and that I’m omitting large portions of the transcript)
Zarya (Korolev): How copy? They should be putting the hatch back in now.
Kedr (Gagarin): Good copy. They seem to be finishing with the bolts now.
Zarya (Popovich): Yura, getting bored out there?
Kedr (Gagarin): Some music would be nice.
Zarya (Popovich): Gimme a minute.
Zarya (Korolev): Zarya-1 to Zarya. Grant Kedr’s request. Get him music, get him music.
Kedr (Gagarin): So, what are the medics saying – is my heart beating?
So yes, the Russians run on snark, even in space. Now, it’s time I get to business.
There are several organisational groups of spacecraft types, which depend on their functions in the overall orbital group.
14F153 IS-2 Space Defence System
The system operational since 1964 and on combat alert since 1978, and includes the IS-system interceptor vehicle and the DS-P-1M steel-armoured practice target satellite. Mounted atop the modified R-29RMU3 Sineva submarine-launched ballistic missile, modified for silo storage and launch, the tried and tested (e.g. Kosmos-185, Kosmos-249, Kosmos-252, Kosmos-886, Kosmos-1379), if somewhat dated manoeuvring interceptor vehicle is designed to engage targets in low Earth orbit.
It uses a mixture of ground-based radar, its own radar, and infrared seeker, and two directed explosive warheads to knock the target satellite out after no more than one orbit, and, if necessary, come back for another pass. The attack vehicle has a long shelf life, but the orbital kill vehicle has limited on-board power.
Low-Orbit Reconnaissance Satellites
The altitude of roughly 200-400 km (around the range of the dismantled ISS-1) is used simply because it’s close. The orbital period is in the range of hours, and the satellite cannot stay on the same spot for any extended period – instead, it’s very much like a TV schedule.
The Russians use the 11К97 Zenit-4 family of universal launchers for their standard spy satellite launchers, with varying booster types depending on the payload and target altitude.
A standard electro-optical reconnaissance platform using a new universal bus and sensor system. That means it packs a new electrical and CPU block, new solar batteries and an auxiliary radioisotope thermal generator, the communication suite, and a mixed ion thruster and gyro manoeuvring system; they are used to aim the mixed optical and infrared telescope, which has a narrow field of view and hence limits detection to pre-targeted locations.
Same bus as Vzor, but equipped with a complex of radio-technical recon systems designed to intercept electromagnetic signals over a wide spectrum. The systems designed to intercept radar emissions grant the best results, as they easily identify the unit type; the widespread use of tight-beam communications reduces the usefulness of classic SigInt in naval warfare; aircraft and ground troops still emit plenty of signals, but most of them are too weak and too heavily encrypted to give more than a basic idea that there is some activity going on.
A heavy-class Radar Oceanic Reconnaissance Satellite boasting a powerful high-resolution radar powered by the BES-9 low-gamma ray emission fission reactor system instead of solar panels. The radar system can pinpoint tank formations, but what is more lethal is its ability to detect most ships globally, explaining the hurry to deploy Lyndon Johnson-class destroyers. If that doesn’t sound disturbing enough, deployment of the new generation of RORSATs has allowed for Legenda system to be restored: a network of downlinks that interfaces with P-700 Granit and P-1200 Topaz AShMs, providing them with targeting updates in lieu of the missile’s on-board radar.
In addition to maintaining the Oko early-warning ICBM detector – supplemented by the UN equivalent POR – the Russians are saving up to deploy a network of geostationary-orbit relay satellites, namely the 12F136 Garpun, which will allow them to maintain real-time broad-band connection with their satellite battlegroup.
Geostationary orbit is invulnerable to conventional interceptor satellite systems, but requires a whole bigger, multi-stage launch vehicle topped by booster blocks. As a result the Russians have fallen back to the trusty R-7 system, variant Soyuz-2 (14A14) 4+1 lower stage system, the standard third stage, and slapped a heavy 14S43 Briz fourth-stage booster as well. Briz performs a full low-Earth orbit before activating and propelling the payload into geostationary orbit, granting the sole window for intercept.
14F182 Orbital Weapon System
Designed for deployment via Zenit, 14F182 Dozor resembles an ICBM bus, except it’s inserted into low orbit rather than reaching 1200 km and falling right back. Carrying battery power enough for only a few days, the bus mounts a solid-fuel booster and five 300 kg kinetic “spears” dropped in a tight high-velocity spread, each possessing the kinetic energy significantly greater than its weight in TNT. It’s still useless against group targets, and lacks a guidance system.
Orbiter and Logistical Support
The Space Shuttle and the roughly equivalent Buran are, by modern standards, overkill. For almost a decade humanity had to rely on the humble Soyuz (and Shenzhou, but that one wasn't taking hitchhikers). For reference, that's the size comparison. The situation changed with the Second Cold War - all three superpowers developed small multiuse optionally manned utility spacecraft.
Lavochkin La-26 is one of that craft: designed to be mounted atop a Zenit booster, this fat, small 10-ton shuttle with stubby upturned wings comes in three varieties: the core K with a tiny pressurized cockpit containing a single cosmonaut in a Strizh spacesuit on a Zvezda K-63RB ejection seat, and a Shuttle-style cargo compartment with a robotic arm. S-variant has no opening doors, but a large pressurized interior for a crew of six, each replaceable by a cargo rack, as well as a "male" docking system and multipurpose pressure tanks. G-variant has no pressurized interior whatsoever and is fully unmanned, and has maximized weight and volume capacity as a result.
Multi-use Booster System
Now, although the aerodynamic capabilities help reduce g-forces, and the landing via wheels helps protect the fragile heat shield, mounting this new craft on a slightly boosted Zenit seems wasteful, doesn't it? So, here's a choice: use a big booster, or use a big airplane and a small booster. And by big I mean MGA-1P: the gargantuan transport designed to carry 400 tons of cargo. Although it can carry three Zenit launchers, it is restricted to launches of a single mid-class payload at a time: because, even when stripped and under-fuelled, flying a 600-ton plane directly upwards while launching the payload in low stratosphere is no joke.
The benefit is lower cost per medium launch at the cost of a single large investment.
Heavy Modular Systems
Larger orbital payloads need larger launchers, but at some point the launcher becomes absurdly big to the point of impracticality. That point historically was Saturn V at 118 t to LEO. The Soviets didn't even go that far: the principal UR-500 Proton can only deliver 20 t, and the single-launch moonshot program failed after the amazing discovery that launching a rocket with 30 first-stage engines that had not undergone ground testing is a bad idea. So the Proton was and is (with the occasional mishap) the Russian booster for heavy unmanned launches (because the fuel is extremely toxic, and any malfunction generally becomes catastrophic faster). While the idea that you have to break you orbital weaponry down into smaller pieces is obvious, there is also the idea that you can't break it down into too small pieces: there is no-one at the endpoint to assemble it. Each launched module is hence a spaceship in its own right - such is the reality of the world without the Space Shuttle.
What are the implications of that for orbital weapon platforms? Another widely accepted design philosophy is to deploy a marginally capable weapon system and then to keep sending up upgrade packages. In some cases, some assembly is required (literally), and in addition to simply docking module to module, which is done automatically, there may be some interior work to be done by hand; that's why the station has to be marginally and briefly habitable. So the first launch deploys the weapon and bare-bones infrastructure, and then coke munitions, assembly crews, and more modules (arbitrarily, two more).
One last condition: all of these weapon platforms are remote-operated, so the satellite relay system must be in order.
Now that we're done with theory, let's see what the Russians cooked up. Their logic was that space warfare is a little bit like aerial combat in WWI: not enough to actually cause much damage, but a valuable reconnaissance tool. So, instead of bombing, the Russians built a better space-to-space platform...
The core system is not unexpected: the 11F77 Functional Cargo Block formed the basis for the additional modules of Mir and the first module of ISS-1. Basically it's the module for modular space stations, mostly because it includes its own power, communications and propulsion; ISS spent two years unmanned and uninhabitable until it literally chased down and docked with the Zvezda command module. The module used for Rubin is a lot less cosy, though: its internal volume is minimal, barely enough to have single docking ports on both ends, one of which is designed for permanent docking ("aft"), and the other is used for La-26 flights. The interior consists of electronics that heat it up to 50-60°C, and a primitive emergency power-independent life support system. The docking system also facilitates refuelling. The exterior is almost identical to Zvezda, with twin solar batteries, except for the numerous mounting points.
Two of them are used to dock 14F182 kinetic strike blocks, significantly prolonging their loiter time in orbit.
The other two each mount containers of six R-115 space-to-space missiles. The two are replaced by a single La-26G mission when necessary. R-115 uses active guidance and a vectoring nozzle to deliver a kinetic warhead, and has a flight time of 150 sec; defining range is tricky because of orbital mechanics. The station also mounts a targeting radar and infrared scanner.
The first upgrade package is an unpowered cylindrical add-on that contains a lot more fuel tanks and an airlock. It also carries behind it a large number of plates that need to be manually assembled around the primary module: they serve both as light armour and radiators. The additional antennae extend its own radar detection capability.
And the station is going to need radiators. The third package is self-manoeuvring, and quite insane. Its pressurized portion mounts two point-defence turrets containing a GSh-30-1MKO cannon each. Instead of the exotic Richter R-23K Kartech' previously tested in Shchit-1 fixed mounts on Almaz stations, this is a much more commonly-used cannon, retrofitted for forced liquid cooling, and equipped with new cylindrical armour piercing-tracer shells. Each turret is loaded with a 150-shell belt.
And the unpressurised section? It contains not one but two reactors at the extreme aft, behind a directional radiation shield, powering an array of advanced ion engines which grant a significant amount of delta-v that can be expended to change orbit.
So yes, it's a primitive unmanned space battleship that has about enough fuel for a few leisurely moon-shots.
In case your taxpayers are barraging you with mail and demanding you stop wasting their money on armaments, here's a more peaceful concept. After ISS-1 was scuttled and de-orbited in 2022, there was a vacuum for a few years (pun unintended). It was clear that ISS-2 was unrealistic. But after that brief stupor all three power endeavoured to build their own stations, and even make them profitable.
The Russians have unmothballed Mir-2 (again) in the form of Forpost. The resemblance is uncanny: the station is again built around a spherical six-port hub. The command and habitation module is a larger version of Zvezda, with space for a crew of four and all functions needed to maintain operability. The other crucial section is a variant of the Science-Power Platform, bolted onto an extended storage compartment. The remaining four serve the utility functions.
The first process the Russians decided to implement is to satisfy the ridiculous deficit stemming from their obsession with diamond-tipped drills. So they've designed a process that allows them to grow high-quality crystals in bulk... in zero-g and hard vacuum. As you may understand, the cruciform arrangement means that each module has excellent view of its neighbours. Unlike earlier Russian designs, Forpost has large unpressurized utility sections: one of the modules is dedicated to separate crystal growth chambers and storage racks, and the other module mounts the robot arms and contains the necessary workplaces.
That's diamonds, but there is a more ambitious and revanchist program. One of the modules is basically a fuel depot with an attached independent satellite, adapted specifically to serve as an atmospheric ram-scoop. It's supplemented by another module, which mounts an inflatable space dock: an unpressurized structure protecting from heat and micrometeorites, and encase a lunar lander for maintenance.
Wait, a lunar lander? Well, the Soviets did have a single-seat 11F94 lander as a part of their botched program, but this one is automated (and hence takes the slower trajectory), and designed for multiple runs via direct ascent (i.e. not leaving the landing platform on the Moon) with refuelling and minimum maintenance in Earth orbit. Several of the Luna series probes delivered samples in the range of 100 g back to Earth, and the Soviets almost did the same on Phobos (except bad things seem to happen to Mars probes); but this system is designed to process over 60 t of regolith per day, yielding a few grams of precious Helium-3 by microwaving the moon. Several of the larger Russian civilian fusion reactors can accept that fuel for increased safety and effectiveness of operation.