Are reports of potential missile launch tests from Russia a cause for concern for civil aviation?

Missiles are always a concern…

That they are, particularly with the current level of conflict between the Russian Federation and the rest (most of the rest) of the world. But are these specific ones a cause for concern for civil aviation?

1. Where are they launching from?

The launch site is on a fairly remote northern bit of Russia – Yuzhny Island, in the Barents Sea. This airspace is not overflown by many aircraft, particularly not with the current sanctions and restrictions regarding operations in Russia.

Source: New York Times | Sentinal Hub satellite imagery

2. Where will the missile head?

The missiles being tested are rumoured to be nuclear powered with a theoretical range of several thousand miles. This is some cause for concern because they may cross airspace in which international traffic does fly. Additionally, debris from missiles could pose a potential hazard to aircraft.

However, surveillance of previous launches showed Russian military aircraft used for data collection parked 100 miles south of the launch site at the Rogachevo air base, and it is likely these tests will be conducted in a similar area.

3. Do Russia provide warnings?

Yes. While the program is extremely secret (well, apparently not so secret given we’re all talking about it), prior to the last tests in August, the Russian authorities issued an aviation notice for a “temporary danger area” advising pilots to avoid the Pankovo area – part of the Barents Sea off the coast and 12 miles from the launch site.

4. What other risks are there?

An increase in Russian military traffic in the vicinity of the launch site can be expected.

Russia often send their aircraft close to the airspace of Scandinavian countries, Alaska and occasionally the UK. An increase in military traffic in these areas as a deterrent to Russian aircraft may also occur.

Previous tests are reported to have been unsuccessful. There is a risk that a test may not navigate as intended and lead to potential conflict or debris fall out in civilian airspace.

Neighbouring countries may be on high alert leading to higher levels of military traffic and activity. Pilots operating in any of the adjacent airspace should maintain a good listening watch on frequencies, following ATC guidance and ensure they maintain communication at all times to enable identification.

5. What is the risk?

Without further information to suggest otherwise, the risk seems relatively small at this time. However, operators and crew operating in the area should take the following precautions:

  • Monitor Russian NOTAMs
  • Avoid operations in the area where possible, and strictly observe danger and restricted airspace
  • Monitor sites providing early warning alerts and security information
  • Monitor navigation system performance if operating in proximity to northern Russian airspace, and advise ATC if navigation performance is degraded
  • Monitor ATC frequencies at all times, particularly if operating in the vicinity of airspace close to Russia
  • Be aware of potential military traffic presence from Russia and neighbouring countries
  • Ensure you are in contact with neighbouring countries ATC, and check systems required for identification by military aircraft and defence systems are functional

Other missile threats

North Korea launch unannounced missiles with regularity, often in response to joint military exercises between South Korea and the USA. These generally cause little disruption, however, several have encroached on the Japanese EEZ, falling into the Sea of Japan, or have overflown Japanese territories.

The Pyongyang FIR is prohibited for most aircraft, however, major airways route in close proximity and can be impacted by the missile trajectories. South Korea and Japan try to issue NOTAMs regarding missile launches when they have information.

In 2022 the west coast of the USA went into a ‘ground stop’ – effectively ceasing all flight operations temporarily. This coincided with a launch of a North Korean missile.

Both China and Russia have conducted ASAT missile tests in the past – these are anti-satellite weapons. In 2022, Russia targeted one of their own defunct satellites. This resulted in a significant amount of space debris which can impact other satellites including those used for satellite navigation and communications by civil aircraft.

MANPADs (portable anti-aircraft missiles) remain one of the most concerning missile threats for civil aircraft. Tracking their positions and availability to non-state actors is challenging, and they are common in conflict zones. Since 1970, 40 aircraft have been damaged by MANPADs causing 28 crashes. All but one occurred in known conflict zones.

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