Concern about Russia wanting to put anti-satellite nuke in space raises key questions

Russia and the U.S. have used missiles to destroy their own satellites before.

February 15, 2024, 4:29 PM

New reporting about intelligence related to Russia wanting to put a nuclear weapon into space, possibly to use against satellites, raises key questions about the country's intentions and the potential ramifications of an orbital detonation.

The Outer Space Treaty of 1967 -- signed by Russia, the U.S. and numerous other countries -- technically still bans putting any weapons of mass destruction in outer space, including nuclear arms.

One question appears to be what Russia might be considering deploying that falls short of that ban.

"First, this is not an active capability that's been deployed. And though Russia's pursuit of this particular capability is troubling, there is no immediate threat to anyone's safety," White House spokesman John Kirby said on Thursday. "We're not talking about a weapon that can be used to attack human beings or cause physical destruction here on Earth."

At the same time, Russia has broken from other nuclear agreements: Russian President Vladimir Putin said early last year that the country was suspending its participation in the New START treaty, first signed in 2010 and extended in 2021, which implements caps on the number of nuclear weapons deployed by Russia and the U.S. and inspections of nuclear sites.

Russia, along with the U.S. and China, has also used missiles to destroy its own satellites before. The U.S. did so in 2008, with a ship-based interceptor missile, and Russia did it in 2021 to take out an aging satellite.

A 2023 threat assessment from the U.S. director of national intelligence said Moscow was continuing to "field new antisatellite weapons to disrupt and degrade U.S. and allied space capabilities."

"It is developing, testing, and fielding an array of nondestructive and destructive counterspace weapons—including jamming and cyberspace capabilities, directed energy weapons, on-orbit capabilities, and ground-based ASAT capabilities—to try to target U.S. and allied satellites," the report reads.

The Biden administration has taken a different course. In 2022, the US became the first world power to sign onto a voluntary moratorium on the destructive testing of direct-ascent anti-satellite missile systems.

PHOTO: PACE Satellite.
PACE Satellite.

Space experts warn against using missiles to take out satellites because it creates voluminous debris in space that could hurt other key vessels like weather satellites and satellites powering communication networks.

But there's another worry: Could a nuclear effect be triggered to paralyze a constellation of satellites, such as communications satellites?

"These systemic threats ... merit further consideration," notes one assessment from the nonprofit Center for Strategic and International Studies, which warned of digital vulnerabilities as well: "Cyberattacks against a constellation's control systems or nuclear detonations in space could disable many satellites at once."

The CSIS assessment noted, too, that a "growing density of space debris" was "an additional cause for concern, and one that is increasingly difficult to mitigate."

Putin has taken issue with one specific vast constellation of satellites -- SpaceX's Starlink -- which has been used by the Ukrainian military plan and carry out attacks almost since Russia's invasion began.

According to intelligence unveiled during leaks last year, the U.S. assessed that Russia was trying to use its secretive Tobol electronic warfare system to disrupt the Starlink network -- attempting to turn a program that was previously believed to have been put in place to protect Russia's satellites into one that might be used to attack adversarial satellites. It's unclear whether Moscow ever had any level of success with this.

Russian leadership has also openly threatened to target commercial satellites like those belonging to SpaceX and another company, Maxar Technologies, calling them "legitimate targets."

The chief of space operations of the United States Space Force, Gen. Chance Saltzman, testified on Capitol Hill last year that disabling a constellation like Starlink's satellites would require taking down a large number of them in low orbit.

That obstacle created a deterrent effect because it poses "targeting problem," Saltzman said then, raising "the escalatory threshold is raised to the point where they probably wouldn't [attack]."

Both the White House and lawmakers have sought to allay apprehension about the intelligence regarding Russia -- which first became public after House Intelligence Chairman Mike Turner warned of a "national security threat" related to a "destabilizing foreign military capability."

"We are going to work together to address this matter, as we do all sensitive matters that are classified," House Speaker Mike Johnson told reporters at the Capitol on Wednesday afternoon.

"But we just want to assure everyone steady hands are at the wheel," he said.

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