The Nuclear Option – Russia’s Newest Counter Space Weapon?

Devastating impact: a nuclear detonation in space would have indiscriminate and long-term effects on the orbit in question. Image: 7oanna / Adobe Stock

Russia appears to be developing a nuclear weapon to be placed in outer space. Such a weapon has the potential to indiscriminately destroy and damage a range of military and civilian satellites, including Russia’s own. What is the calculus behind creating such a capability?

Last week, Mike Turner, chair of the US House Intelligence Committee, shared vague news about a new Russian nuclear counter space capability. The statement did not disclose whether the asset in question is simply nuclear powered or whether it is an actual nuclear weapon. While nuclear propulsion carries the risk of malfunction – as it did in 1977, when the break-up of a Russian satellite spread radioactive debris over northern Canada – it is the idea of a nuclear weapon that is the most worrisome. While further details have yet to be released officially, CNN, citing sources familiar with the matter, has since clarified that it is in fact a nuclear-based weapon, rather than simply a nuclear power source. It has been highlighted by the US administration that the weapon is ‘not yet operational and does not pose an imminent danger’.

Available Tools in the Counter Space Capabilities Arsenal

There are numerous anti-satellite weapons, which range from electronic means, such as jamming/spoofing signals, to the disruption of services via cyber attacks, to kinetic anti-satellite weapons that physically destroy satellites in orbit and cause space debris, which in turn endangers other satellites for up to years after the attack. While cyber attacks and electromagnetic disruption are now part and parcel of modern warfare, kinetically destroying another state’s satellite is a red line that remains uncrossed. As such, direct-ascent anti-satellite weapons (missiles started from Earth to hit targets in space) have only ever been tested against states’ own satellites. The detonation of a nuclear device in space would be even more destructive. Unlike a direct ascent anti-satellite attack, which would seek out an individual satellite to target, a nuclear explosion would have indiscriminate and long-term effects on the orbit in question. Unless satellites are hardened against electromagnetic pulses (EMPs) and radiation, the EMP would immediately affect satellites in the area, and the detonation would leave behind a high-radiation environment that would mean non-hardened satellites in the affected orbit degrade faster than usual.

No space power, whether long reigning like the US or quickly growing like China, will be appreciative of a nuclear co-orbital threat hanging over their heads

This means that the attack would have a blanket effect on the surrounding area, depending on the size of the warhead – including on Russia’s own systems. It is true that Russia has fewer satellites than the US – and indeed China – but it would be wrong to conclude that Russia would not also sacrifice its own way of life. Regardless of space power status, everybody loses in such a scenario. Depending on the orbit affected and the level of hardening on satellites, everyday necessities such as navigation, banking and emergency services could be disrupted. Using a nuclear weapon in space has been done before – the most famous incident is known as ‘Starfish Prime’, a 1962 test in which the US detonated a 1.45 megaton warhead at an altitude of 400 km. The resulting electromagnetic pulse affected electricity 1,000 miles away and knocked out several satellites – at a time when there were very few satellites in lower Earth orbit. The Soviet Union conducted similar tests as part of ‘Project K’. Treaties to prevent further such tests were signed soon afterwards.

The Legal Fallout

The placement, let alone use, of a nuclear weapon in space would be a grave violation of the 1967 Outer Space Treaty (OST). Russia is a signatory of this treaty. The OST stands among a handful of UN treaties that specify the laws in space and is often seen as the basis for future such laws. The OST only forbids the placement of WMDs, and does not mention conventional weapons. There have been multiple efforts to ban the use and placement of conventional weapons in space as well, though multilateral efforts have so far been unsuccessful in gaining consensus for a new treaty or an addition to the OST. In fact, it was Russia itself that, in coordination with China, tabled a proposal in 2008. The proposal simply calls for no first placement of weapons in outer space, but it did not find broad consensus for a number of reasons, including the lack of verification measures.

The detonation of a nuclear weapon in space would not only violate space treaties, it would also violate the 1963 Limited Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, which was signed shortly after American and Soviet forays into high-altitude nuclear detonations. It could also break the New START Treaty (valid until 2026), specifically the clause on Non-Interference with National Technical Means, which forbids interference with technologies that act as means of verification and monitoring – this specifically refers to satellites that enable missile early warning and tracking, which the US has placed in both geostationary and lower Earth orbits.

The Political Fallout

The violation of arms control and space treaties is not the only consequence that Russia would face after placing, let alone using, a nuclear device in space. There is evidence that other states, including China, are conducting research into the effects of high-altitude nuclear detonations on satellites. However, no space power, whether long reigning like the US or quickly growing like China, will be appreciative of a nuclear co-orbital threat hanging over their heads (and satellites). It is likely that the placement of a nuclear weapon in space would further alienate Russia from the rest of the international community.

Placing a device in orbit with the intent of indiscriminately destroying and damaging satellites would alienate Russia even further, and risk losing it the few friends it has left

The US has been upholding sanctions against Russia since 2014, and has renewed these again, with a particular focus on the aerospace industry. But with the larger-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022, the potential reaction of China, too, should not be overlooked. Russia and China were set to work together on a number of new space projects, including continued lobbying for their treaty against the placement of weapons in outer space. Advocating for a new treaty while breaking the existing basis for such a law would diminish Russia’s credibility further, especially since laws and current deliberations are predicated on a mutual understanding that space is vital to our modern way of life. China, like the US, would see many of its assets at risk from the deployment of such a weapon, and could be set to lose satellites if the weapon was used. At a time when Russia stands isolated from the West, on whose components it depends most, it cannot afford to also lose allies such as China. Placing a device in orbit with the intent of indiscriminately destroying and damaging satellites would alienate a weak space power even further, and risk losing it the few friends it has left.

When is the Time to Go Nuclear?

Why would Russia go to the lengths of researching, investing in and developing such a weapon, when it can achieve the same effect with a nuclear-tipped inter-continental ballistic missile (ICBM)? There might be several reasons for putting such a weapon into space when the same effect can be achieved from the ground. These include the increased deterrent effect of signalling that it can destroy an orbit at the press of a button. Further, if an ICBM was launched during an ongoing war, its launch and the resulting infra-red signature might be interpreted as an incoming nuclear attack on Earth, in which case the US might respond in kind.

The severity of the weapon and the consequences of its deployment raise the question of which type of scenario Moscow would have to find itself in to make use of the weapon at all. Its use, though it would never be rational, would only come at point when Russia saw itself as having exhausted many other options, and when the loss of allies was no longer a relevant deterrent.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.

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Juliana Suess

Research Fellow, Space Security

Military Sciences

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