Nuclear weapons in space

Nuclear weapons in space

In last february where national security has taken center stage in Washington, the White House confirmed on Thursday (Feb. 22) that it had evidence that Russia was developing a space-based nuclear anti satellite weapon. Since the invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022, the level of international tension between Russia and the West has reached worrying levels, for stability and peace in the world. So, according to US intelligence, Russia is developing a nuclear-armed satellite. Is this threat credible? At least, that’s what Republican Mike Turner, chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, suggests. According to his U.S. intelligence sources, Russia is developing a nuclear weapon to destroy satellites in space. This would be a serious threat, but one for which there would be no urgency. The United States is said to have expressed this concern to its European partners.

However, the preparation of such a « nuclear » weapon would be surprising. Conventional weapons fired from the ground could be more than enough to neutralize enemy satellites. Indeed, this is what Russia did in November 2021 to destroy one of its old satellites. This operation also endangered the International Space Station (ISS) due to a cloud of debris. In other words, the collateral damage to its own satellites and those of its allies could be counterproductive for Russia. In the 24 hours since a cryptic, but scary, warning from Ohio Rep. Mike Turner, the chair of the House Intelligence Committee, of a “serious national security threat,” mainstream and social media sites alike have been chock-a-block with breathless, and sometimes contradictory, speculation about what might be going on. Even as other members of Congress and the White House sought to play down Turner’s statement, leaks began to fill the press that the situation involves some sort of Russian nuclear capability in orbit.

On february 14, The New York Times quoted officials “briefed on the matter” as saying that the Biden administration has “informed Congress and its allies in Europe about Russian advances on a new, space-based nuclear weapon designed to threaten America’s extensive satellite network.” PBS News Hour, on the other hand, on last february said that sources characterized the new weapon as a nuclear-powered satellite carrying an electronic warfare payload, which is a very different beast than a nuclear weapons-carry satellite, but reported that it was unclear which of those two things is correct. On the 15th of february, the most detail shared by the administration came in a press conference[1], where White House spokesperson John Kirby confirmed that the threat in question is “related to an anti-satellite weapon that Russia is developing.” He also noted that it is not an “active capability that has been deployed,” and that “there is no immediate threat to anyone’s safety.” However, Kirby refrained from providing more specific details. Moscow, predictably, has issued a blanket denial. Whatever the exact nature of the new threat is, the White House and President Joe Biden are “taking it seriously,” Kirby said, with briefings planned to Congress, as well as allies and partners. Further, he said, the administration is undertaking “direct diplomatic engagement with Russia” on US concerns. To be clear, any type of Russian on-orbit anti-satellite (ASAT) would be a bad thing. But all things considered, a nuclear weapon in space would be worse than a nuclear-powered satellite carrying a disruptive EW payload, although for a number of reasons much less likely to be what Moscow is up to. It’s more likely that electromagnetic weaponry, like the famous Goldeneye, would be far more effective. Unless Russia intends to deploy nuclear weapons against land targets to reinforce its deterrent. Such a scenario remains debatable, since it would violate a space treaty dating from 1967, which prohibits any object carrying weapons of mass destruction, including nuclear ones, into orbit. The problem is that, depending on what type of weapon this is, the consequences of using it could be indiscriminate — threatening everyone’s satellites and causing a breakdown of the vital services that come from space infrastructure.

Nuclear weapons have been detonated in space before, by both the Soviet Union and the US during the early days of the Cold War. As usual, the largest was done by the US in 1962. After a series of failed tests, the United States conducted the Starfish Prime experiment, setting off a 1.45 megaton nuke at an altitude of about 450 kilometers (about 280 miles) above sea level. The blast created an electro-magnetic pulse and lingering radiation belts that ultimately killed eight of the 24 satellites that were then on orbit, including one owned by the United Kingdom, according to a 2022 report by the American Physical Society.[2] There are around 7,000 active satellites on orbit today, as well as 10 humans aboard the International Space Station and China’s Tiangong station. Thus, a nuclear explosion on orbit likely would create even more havoc than Starfish Prime, including, almost certainly, for Russia’s own assets.  Nuclear weapons in space are a really dumb idea, first because they are banned, but also because they have immediate and long lasting indiscriminate effects on the space environment which means that everyone, including the deployer and its allies, could be affected. Moreover, putting nuclear weapons into orbit would run counter to the space treaty. This international treaty, ratified in 1967 on the exploration and use of outer space, calls for the non-militarization of the Moon and other celestial bodies, and prohibits the placement of nuclear weapons in orbit.

The 1967 Outer Space Treaty, to which both Russia and the US are parties, was created by the United Nations precisely to ban nuclear weapons in space. Some people, mostly american, might say that Russia doesn’t care about this because its space capabilities are waning so it has a smaller stake in the game. But in fact,  any state can aim for functionality let alone ‘great power’ without being able to exploit outer space. There are also easier (and currently legal) ways of having large scale effects on the space environment such as the use of destructive weapons and dirty bombs. In fact, here is no need to place nukes in orbit. Keeping nukes on Earth atop ICBMs is less expensive, more flexible to operate, easier to upgrade and maintain, etc. But what if your intent is to use the nuke in space (e.g., an EMP blast)? It is still better to base it on the ground. Detonating nuclear weapons has also been banned by treaty since 1963, not that it would stop Russia from doing it, but why did the US and USSR agree to this ban so long ago and stick to it for all these years? It’s because popping off a nuke in space would creates a real mess that affects all satellites indiscriminately. That said, it would be very hard to detect if any country decided to deploy a nuke on a satellites, because this type of verification was one of the key findings of an unclassified that some analyts have conducted on the use of a nuclear weapon in low Earth orbit. Several experts said that Russian development of an anti-satellite (ASAT) weapon being carried on a nuclear-powered satellite, one using a small nuclear reactor to generate on-board electricity, is a more likely scenario. This is because both NASA and Russia’s Space Agency Roscosmos, have used nuclear power for space systems in the past. Indeed, NASA’s famous Voyager spacecraft carry nuclear power generators. Russia in the 1970s launched a series of naval reconnaissance satellites, called RORSATs for Radar Ocean Reconnaissance Satellites, equipped with a small reactor. Infamously, one of them crashed into Canada’s Northwest Territories in 1978, scattering radioactive debris for miles. Thus, the UN has “adopted principles regarding the use of nuclear power sources in outer space,” which focus on safety and peaceful uses. Still, that obviously the use of nuclear anything in space is fraught with safety concerns, and when this is combined with a military capability, it adds on security concerns and fears that it could also be used as a nuclear weapon. And a nuclear power source could be used to operate a number of payloads capable of disabling satellites. A nuclear power source could be used for a lot of things, like powering a radio frequency jamming payload to block signals or a high-powered microwave payload that could potentially fry the circuits on a satellite. Both of these applications would make a lot of sense from space.

A nuke-powered EW satellite is likely what the Russians are working on, especially considering that there is evidence that they have been developing such a technology. And the Americans probably already have this type of equipment in space. it is also possible that some other non-nuclear capability are at play. And if that were the case, this type of satellite, which is possibly nuclear-powered, will have an electronic warfare capability to target American satellites that are essential for U.S. military and civilian communication. There was no evidence that they have made a decision to go forward with doing anything in space either. If Moscow did decide to go ahead with the programme it would be contrary to the Outer Space Treaty which 130 countries have signed onto, including Russia. The treaty prohibits « nuclear weapons or any other kinds of weapons of mass destruction » in orbit or stationing weapons in outer space « in any other manner« . Anti-satellite weapons are nothing new. China launched a weapon to destroy a non-operational weather satellite in January 2007. While the temptation to launch a nuclear strike in space may seem alluring to nations looking to challenge US dominance in the domain, such actions come at huge risk. It is not necessarily the destruction of objects in space from Earth that should be the primary concern when it comes to anti-satellite weapons more generally, but the effect they have in space. The destruction of any celestial object creates a mass of debris varying in size from a few millimetres to several centimetres. Currently, there are hundreds of millions of tracked pieces of space debris orbiting the Earth. The speed at which this space debris is travelling makes it a major hazard to other satellites and entities in space such as the International Space Station (ISS), which has to change course in order to avoid collisions which can cause widespread damage. The ISS has had to changed course 32 times since 1999. Once space debris has been created, it is almost impossible to control the trajectory after the strike or the orbital pattern it will take around the Earth. This can put a nation’s space assets — such as its satellites — at the same risk of destruction as that of an adversary. This situation has been described in similar terms to that applied to nuclear weapons on Earth, in terms of mutually assured destruction.

If a nuclear strike were to be conducted by a nation in space with the intention of destroying satellites and also to demonstrate both an ability and willingness to use nuclear weapons more generally, it would be next to impossible to control the consequences of such an action. It would be fairly certain that such a strike would have the intended effect in reducing the space capabilities of an opponent. For example, an attack on US assets could disable the satellite-based global positioning system (GPS) that is relied on by western nations. There is, however, the very real possibility that it would also destroy the space assets of the nation behind the attack, as well as allies and friends of that same nation. This could lead to tensions being raised and lead to a loss of that country’s support.

[1] White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre and NSC’s John Kirby hold a briefing – 02/15/2024. CNBC White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre is joined by NSC Coordinator for Strategic Communications John Kirby at a briefing on Thursday.

[2] « Sixty Years After, Physicists Model Electromagnetic Pulse of a Once-Secret Nuclear Test ». December 2022 (Volume 31, Number 11). By Liz Boatman | November 10, 2022.,for%20nearly%20half%20a%20minute.