The big rocket is likely to be either a space-launch system or an anti-satellite weapon, and maybe even both
Russia’s recent adaptation of their Iskander tactical ballistic missile into an air-launched weapon made major headlines and was among the least technologically reaching of Putin’s new cadre of superweapons that are supposedly in development. The carrier aircraft for that weapon, named ‘Kinzhal,’ is MiG-31 Foxhound interceptor. The MiG-31, which evolved out of the MiG-25 Foxbat, has the ability to carry heavy loads to high altitudes and at very speeds approaching mach three. This makes it an ideal launch platform not just for ballistic missiles meant to strike targets on the surface of the earth, but also for small suborbital or even orbital payloads, and especially direct-ascent anti-satellite weapons. On September 14th, 2018 what appears to be just such a launch system was photographed at Zhukovsky Airport outside of Moscow by aviation photographer ShipSash.
Zhukovsky is a major testing base for Russian aerial weaponry, something very loosely akin to Edwards Air Force Base here in the United States, although Zhukovsky now has a small commercial terminal as well. At the heart of the airport is a huge runway measuring nearly 18,000-foot long runway, the second largest publicly accessible runway in the world. That long runway is there because the storied Gromov Flight Institute is also based at the airfield.
The institute operates a wide variety of aircraft for testing purposes, from Tu-154 transports to MiG-29s. One of these aircraft is a unique variant of the MiG-31, the same as is seen carrying this large missile aloft in the photo at the top of this article with the ’81 Blue’ bort number painted on its side. This particular aircraft started to appear in photos about a year ago. Initially, it seemed like a regular MiG-31BM, which is the designation assigned to the MiG-31s which have been progressively upgraded and modernized by the Russian air force. The MiG-31BM is easily distinguished by the periscope fairing on the cockpit canopy, as well as a large blade aerial on the bottom port side of the fuselage, close to the nose gear. It also features low profile missile pylons on the wings, which are meant to carry R-73 and R-77 missiles, replacing the wing mounted R-40 missile that older MiG-31 versions used to carry.
However, 81 Blue soon became a mystery since it had certain external features not present on standard MiG-31BMs. It lacked missile pylons completely and didn’t feature the large blade aerial. It did, however, have the periscope fairing, which suggests it went through a modernization similar to standard MiG-31BMs. It also featured two chin mounted blade shaped pitot tubes under the nose. Although there are some speculations, the purpose of the aircraft remained unknown.
Having a tactical asset like the MiG-31 that is able to take down satellites by surprise from pretty much any location that Russia has access to doesn’t just seem possible, it seems probable. It would make up a critically important tier of Russia’s layered anti-satellite weapons ‘complex.’ And since Russia has already spent decades developing similar air-launched systems, that research can be leveraged to rapidly get such a capability into an operational form.
The missile seen in the photograph is significantly larger than Kinzhal and appears to feature a set of folding fins at its rear. It is likely a two-stage system, or at least features a powered kill vehicle for anti-satellite duties.
We can’t stress enough, that above all else, being able to swat-down force multiplying American satellites in low-earth orbit with the inherent flexibility and surprise of an aerial launch platform would be very valuable to Russian forces, regardless of the consequences to the future habitability of low-earth orbit. On the other hand, being able to rapidly and unpredictably put up small satellites, especially to replace ones that are lost in battle, is also become increasingly important due to the growing proliferation of anti-satellite weaponry. It’s even possible that one system could be adapted for both roles. This could be just such a system.