From Russia with nukes? Sifting facts from speculation about space weapon threat

White House spokesperson John Kirby today confirmed reports, first alluded to yesterday by Rep. Mike Turner, R-OH, that a new Russian anti-satellite weapon in the works is raising administration concerns. (Air Force/Brittany A. Chase)

White House spokesperson John Kirby today confirmed reports, first alluded to yesterday by Rep. Mike Turner, R-OH, that a new Russian anti-satellite weapon in the works is raising administration concerns. (Air Force/Brittany A. Chase)

By Theresa Hitchens,
Published by Breaking Defence, 15 February 2024

“Nuclear weapons in space are a really, really dumb idea,” said Jessica West of Canadian non-profit Ploughshares, but experts note that with Russia, nothing can ever be fully ruled out.

WASHINGTON — 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.

The New York Times today 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 Wednesday 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 today reported that it is unclear which of those two things is correct.

The most detail shared by the administration came in a press conference today, 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.

Nuclear Weapons in Space: Been There, Done That

Yes, nuclear weapons have been detonated in space before, by both the Soviet Union and the US during the early days of the Cold War. 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.

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, 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 — is affected,” explained Jessica West of Canadian non-profit Ploughshares in an email.

The 1962 Starfish Prime experiment launched from Johnston Atoll yielded a 1.45 megaton blast in space. (Defense Threat Reduction Agency)

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 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 I don’t think that 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,” West added.

Todd Harrison of the American Enterprise Institute agreed.

“There 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,” he told Breaking Defense in an email.

“Detonating nuclear weapons has also been banned by treaty since 1963, not that it would stop Russia from doing it,” he added. “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 creates a real mess that affects satellites indiscriminately.”

That said, it would be very hard to detect if any country decided to deploy a nuke on a satellites, said Henry Sokolski, executive director of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center. He told Breaking Defense in an email today that this verification problem was one of the key findings of an unclassified wargame the center conducted last spring on the use of a nuclear weapon in low Earth orbit.

“My hunch is that nobody wants to admit that this is the case. It’s a pretty important point,” he added.

Nuke-Powered Satellite: Old Tech, New Use?

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.

“The advantage is that a nuclear power source gives you power all the time, instead of being dependent on solar arrays pointing at the sun and charging batteries,” Harrison said.

NASA’s twin Voyager spacecraft are still headed into interstellar space, thanks in part to their on-board nuclear power source that provides electricity. (Photo: NASA)

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,” West said, which focus on safety and peaceful uses.

Still, she noted 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.”

Harrison explained that 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,” he said.

Secure World Foundation’s Brian Weeden, in a thread on X (formerly Twitter), said 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, as documented in a 2019 article in The Space Review. The satellite system in question, called Ekipazh, is being developed by KB Arsenal (or Arsenal Design Bureau) of St. Petersburg under a contract with the Ministry of Defense, the article asserts.

All that said, Harrison said that it is also possible that some other non-nuclear capability is at play.

“Of course, all of the speculation could be completely wrong and it could be some other type of counterspace weapon. Russia has tested crazy things in the past, like firing a machine gun in space,” he said.

“But until we know more, and knowing Russia’s history of ASAT weapon development and testing, it is certainly something to be concerned about. Our economy and military are heavily dependent on space, and Russia knows that,” he added.

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