From The Editor | March 15, 2024

The Latest On Russia's Nuclear Space Weapon

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By John Oncea, Editor


Russia and the U.S. both have more than 1,000 nuclear weapons that could reduce any foe to an ash heap in a matter of minutes. Recent reports suggest Russia is working toward putting a nuclear space weapon capable of targeting satellites into orbit. How close are they and what can be done about it?

The U.S. has, according to lots of sources, warned Russia not to deploy a nuclear space weapon that, when detonated, would destroy satellites by creating a massive energy wave.

Russian President Vladimir Putin responded by saying the allegations were unfounded and the U.S. has blocked a Russian proposal drafted 16 years ago that would prevent the deployment of weapons in outer space.

And it was Don Henley and Danny Kortchmar who wrote, “There’s three sides to every story, baby. There’s yours and there’s mine and the cold, hard truth.”

Codifying The Use Of Outer Space

“Outer space, extraordinary in many respects, is, in addition, unique from the legal point of view. It is only recently that human activities and international interaction in outer space have become realities and that beginnings have been made in the formulation of international rules to facilitate international relations in outer space.”

The United Nations General Assembly created the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA) in its resolution 1348 (XIII) of December 13, 1958. UNOOSA was designed to be a small expert unit within the United Nations Secretariat to service the ad hoc Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space.

UNOOSA, which works to promote international cooperation in the peaceful use and exploration of space and the utilization of space science and technology for sustainable economic and social development, was moved to work under the Department of Political and Security Council Affairs in 1962.

It was transformed into the Outer Space Affairs Division of that Department in 1968 and, in 1992, the Division was transformed into the Office for Outer Space Affairs within the Department for Political Affairs. A year later it was relocated to the United Nations Office in Vienna and assumed responsibility for substantive secretariat services to the Legal Subcommittee, which had previously been provided by the Office of Legal Affairs in New York.

UNOOSA has been instrumental in the adoption of several multilateral treaties that the United Nations General Assembly has adopted to enable the orderly conduct of activities in outer space. These include:

Keeping Weapons Of Mass Destruction Out Of Earth Orbit

But it’s the Outer Space Treaty of 1967 – also known as the Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies – that is central to the accusations being made by the U.S. toward Russia today.

This treaty forms the basis of international space law, as well as allows for the freedom of exploration and use of space for the benefit and interest of all countries and the non-appropriation of outer space, including the Moon and other celestial bodies.

It also, in Article IV, proclaims, “States Parties to the treaty undertake not to place in orbit around the earth any objects carrying nuclear weapons or any other kinds of weapons of mass destruction, install such weapons on celestial bodies, or station such weapons in outer space in any other manner.

“The moon and other celestial bodies shall be used by all States Parties to the Treaty exclusively for peaceful purposes. The establishment of military bases, installations, and fortifications, the testing of any type of weapons, and the conduct of military maneuvers on celestial bodies shall be forbidden. The use of military personnel for scientific research or any other peaceful purposes shall not be prohibited.”

What We (Think) We Know

We know that the 114 countries that are parties to the Outer Space Treaty – including the U.S. and Russia (ratified as the Soviet Union) – and the 22 that are signatories agree that weapons of mass destruction should not be placed in Earth orbit, on the Moon or any other celestial body, or otherwise stationed in outer space.

But, c’mon.

Several nations including the U.S., Russia, China, and India have deployed orbital surveillance networks to observe other nations or armed forces. Going back to the Cold War it is known that orbital weaponry systems were designed by the U.S. and Soviet. And, as far back as 1945, Nazi Germany was developing plans for the Sun gun, an orbital mirror that would have been used to focus and weaponize beams of sunlight.

So, acknowledging the likelihood that some types of weapons might already be circling the Earth, what are the U.S. against Russia making the implications of the accusations?

First, the weapon Russia is alleged to have is a new kind of weapon, according to CNN. “Known generally by military space experts as a nuclear EMP, (it) would create a pulse of electromagnetic energy and a flood of highly charged particles that would tear through space to disrupt other satellites winging around Earth.” More than that, the Biden administration said, “It would cross a dangerous rubicon in the history of nuclear weapons and could cause extreme disruptions to everyday life in ways that are difficult to predict” if used.

It's not yet clear how advanced this technology is, a concern compounded by several recent nuclear-related incidents involving Russia that have raised safety concerns. In 2019, for instance, seven Russians died during an attempt to recover a nuclear-powered cruise missile that had crashed in the White Sea during a faulty test.

However, a recent intelligence assessment on Russian progress vis-à-vis this space nuclear weapon has caused alarm among some lawmakers. Members of the House were briefed on the issue and a public statement was later released. The exposure of the intelligence was damaging, as the source was sensitive.

There is disagreement within the 18-agency U.S. intelligence community about what the Russian capability is and what Putin’s plans are, according to Foreign Policy. “Russia indeed likely plans to launch something into space, but it could be a nuclear weapon or a dummy warhead.

“What seems clear enough, so far, is that Russia isn’t building the equivalent of land-based tactical or strategic nuclear weapons in space that could lay waste to large military units or major Western cities.”

Even though Putin has stated that Russia respects the 1967 Outer Space Treaty and opposes placing nuclear weapons, the mere possibility of launching a space weapon into orbit has raised concerns and is enough to cause anxiety.

What A Nuclear Detonation In Space Might Look Like

According to, “A nuclear detonation in space could have both immediate and long-lasting effects in Earth’s orbit. In the immediate aftermath, nuclear explosions could cause a multitude of damaging effects; pulses of high-energy radiation such as heat, X-rays, and other radiation ‘can damage nearby satellites and blind their sensors,’ according to a 2023 study by the Center for Strategic & International Studies (CSIS).”

According to a report published in 2008 by the Commission to Assess the Threat to the United States from Electromagnetic Pulse (EMP) Attack, the naturally occurring belts of radiation surrounding our planet could capture radiation released from a nuclear explosion. This could create long-lasting radiation belts that would adversely affect satellites, both in orbit and those launched soon thereafter.

This phenomenon was observed in 1962 after the U.S. conducted a nuclear test called “Starfish Prime” at a high altitude. This test was conducted by the Atomic Energy Commission, which was a precursor to the Department of Energy, and saw a 1.4-megaton device detonated 250 miles above the Pacific Ocean near Hawaii.

“The destruction of any celestial object,” adds The Conversation, “creates a mass of debris varying in size from a few millimeters to several centimeters. Currently, there are hundreds of millions of tracked pieces of space debris orbiting the Earth.”

The high velocity at which space debris moves poses a significant threat to other satellites and space entities, such as the International Space Station (ISS) which has had to alter its course 32 times since 1999 to avoid potentially catastrophic collisions. Once space debris is created, it becomes increasingly difficult to control its trajectory and predict its orbital pattern around the Earth putting all space assets, including its satellites, at an equal risk of destruction. This scenario has been likened to the concept of mutually assured destruction, which is often associated with nuclear weapons on Earth.

“If a nuclear strike were to be conducted by a nation in space to destroy 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,” The Conversation writes. “It would be fairly certain that such a strike would have the intended effect of reducing the space capabilities of an opponent. For example, an attack on U.S. assets could disable the satellite-based global positioning system (GPS) that is relied on by Western nations.”

The Impact On Earth

“The U.S. and its allies depend heavily on a constellation of space-borne command and control satellites for critical military communications as well as intelligence gathering and targeting,” Foreign Policy writes. “Perhaps most crucially, if a conventional war turns nuclear, satellites are important to ensure that the White House and the Defense Department know where the United States’ nuclear warheads are and that they’re tamper-proof.”

Experts say the use of a nuclear space weapon could potentially wipe out these constellations, like SpaceX’s Starlink, which has been successfully used by Ukraine in its ongoing war with Russia.

A nuclear explosion in space is not just a military issue; it poses a threat to commercial satellites as well. Regardless of the target, the consequences of such an event would be far-reaching and could have a profound impact on our way of life here on Earth.

“A nuclear explosion in space would create a series of devastating effects, including an electromagnetic pulse, and longer-lasting radiation that would circle the earth and dramatically compromise satellite communications worldwide,” Jon Wolfsthal, the director of global risk at the Federation of American Scientists and a former senior director for arms control on the U.S. National Security Council, wrote. “Some hardened assets might survive, but other unshielded military and almost all non-shielded commercial satellites would be potentially vulnerable. The global economic and communications system could be shut down or destroyed for years, and some orbits made hazardous — if not unusable — for an extended period due to space debris.”

Long story short: goodbye internet and smartphones.

A New Arms Race?

According to PBS, “Placing nuclear weapons in space could spark a new arms race. Because one purpose of space weapons is to destroy an adversary’s space weapons, the U.S. may respond to Russian weapons with their own. Russia may then counter with new weapons to maintain its advantage. Others, like China, may react to American weapons, which could prompt a response from India, followed by one from Pakistan.”

The deployment of space weapons for defensive purposes can lead to the escalation of tensions and a potential arms race, even if the first mover intends to use them only in defense. According to international relations experts, this can create a security dilemma where actions taken to enhance the security of one country may make another feel more insecure.

The problem is that defensive and offensive weapons can be similar, making it difficult to distinguish between them. The same weapons that could be used to protect a country against space-based missile attacks could also be used to target nuclear command, control, and communication systems. Even if a country is acting defensively today, there is no guarantee that it won't use those same weapons offensively in the future.

The Biden administration is making efforts to persuade Russia to halt its program of testing new weapons. However, the arms control agreement between the U.S. and Russia, which was established during the Cold War, has significantly weakened over the past several years.

The only remaining nuclear treaty between the two nations is the New START, which was implemented during the Obama administration and limits the number of deployed missiles, warheads, and launchers (both deployed and nondeployed), including heavy bombers. This treaty is set to expire in two years.

“Talks to establish a successor to New START were underway when Russia invaded Ukraine, bringing them to a halt,” Foreign Policy writes. “And Russia is still insisting that it won’t engage with the U.S. on arms control while the Biden administration is providing military support to Ukraine. Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu even alleged that the entire brouhaha over Moscow’s nuclear space plans was partly an attempt by the West ‘to push us so clumsily into restarting a dialogue on strategic stability’ — a reference to the New START successor talks.”