FlashREPORT: Russia's nuclear weaponization of outer space: exploring the line between reality and speculation

MAR 2024

Global Horizon

Date: MAR 2024
Analysts: MF

Executive Summary

in mid February, Representative Michael R. Turner, a Republican from Ohio and the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, called on the Biden administration to declassify information regarding Russian advancements in a new space-based nuclear weapon specifically designed to pose a threat to America's extensive satellite network. He also mentioned that the new intelligence, although not described in detail, raised serious concerns about whether Russia was considering abandoning the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, which prohibits the deployment of nuclear weapons in orbit.

The deployment of a nuclear weapon in outer space would not only represent a significant technological advancement for Russia, but also a violation of international space law. Such an action would have far-reaching implications for the relationship between nations with space capabilities and pose a serious threat to the national security of the United States.

Although there may not be publicly verifiable information confirming Turner's statements at the moment, it is widely recognized that not only Russia but also other countries are actively developing their extraterrestrial programs. These programs officially do not involve the deployment of nuclear weaponry in the so-called fourth dimension. However, they do encompass the development of civilian and commercial space infrastructure that can be utilized for both peaceful and military purposes.

In this concise report, we will provide an overview of these capabilities and offer a brief analysis of the possibility of Russia or other space-faring nations developing space-based nuclear weapons and abandoning international outer space treaties.

Legal background

The first and most significant international agreement in the field of outer space activities was adopted in 1967. Officially 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, it is commonly referred to as The Outer Space Treaty. In addition to promoting the non-sovereign status of outer space, which prohibits individual states from claiming ownership, the treaty also prohibits the placement of nuclear weapons in orbit. Specifically, in Article 4, it is stated that: "States Parties to the Treaty undertake not to place in orbit around the earth any objects carrying nuclear weapons or any other kind of weapons of mass destruction, install such weapons on celestial bodies, or station such weapons in outer space in any other manner. Moon and other celestial bodies shall be used by all State 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". In addition to other treaties, such as the Partial Test Ban Treaty (1963), the Rescue Agreement (1968), the Agreement Relating to the International Telecommunications Satellite Organization "Intelsat" (1971), the Liability Convention (1972), the Launch Registration Convention (1975), and the Moon Agreement (1979), these treaties were all adopted to prevent the nuclear weaponization of outer space. Despite originating from the Cold War, which ended 35 years ago, they continue to serve as the cornerstone of international space law. They provide guidelines within which space-faring nations are developing their space programs. However, the existing legal framework does not restrict space actors from developing civilian infrastructure and capabilities in outer space that can have dual-use applications. Russia and China advancements serve as valid examples in this regard.

Russia's and China's dual-use outer space capabilities

Russia and China have been developing their outer space capabilities and infrastructure for decades. While Russia has been actively participating in international cooperation and focusing on developing rocket systems to transport astronauts to the International Space Station, China has had to develop its entire space program independently. This was due to its isolation from international cooperation following the events of the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989. That provided China with an opportunity to build the entire structure, from rocket technology for transportation to its own space station.

Over time, both countries have developed various capacities for civilian purposes, which can also have dual-use applications. These systems can serve both civilian or commercial purposes, as well as military and security functions, either simultaneously or in an alternating manner. This alternate use is sometimes referred to as being dual-capable. Initially, dual-purpose objects were primarily designed for non-military functions, such as debris removal or on-orbit servicing. However, concerns have arisen about certain features or capabilities, such as possessing a robotic arm or being highly maneuverable, which raise the potential for these objects to be repurposed for use against other space systems. In other words, there is a genuine risk that they could be modified to cause harm to other space objects, resulting in varying interpretations of the intentions of their operators.

The development of these capacities has been particularly noticeable in the last decade and a half. For instance, in November 2021, Russia successfully destroyed a Soviet-era satellite in low Earth orbit using Nudol', a mobile, ground-based missile. This test not only demonstrated Russia's ASAT capability but also resulted in the creation of over 1, 500 pieces of trackable debris and tens of thousands of non-trackable objects that could pose a threat. Furthermore, Russia has deployed multiple prototype orbital anti-satellites, such as COSMOS 2504, COSMOS 2519, and COSMOS 2536, in low Earth orbit to test their kinetic kill capabilities.

On the other hand, China has also demonstrated its ability to develop similar capabilities. For instance, in 2013, China launched an object on a ballistic trajectory, reaching an altitude of 30, 000km. This suggests that they may possess a missile capable of destroying satellites in geostationary Earth orbit. Furthermore, China is actively developing satellite inspection and repair systems that have the potential to function as weapons. It has already launched multiple satellites to test orbital maintenance and debris mitigation capabilities. For instance, in January 2022, China's Shijian-21 successfully towed a defunct Chinese geostationary satellite into a graveyard orbit. Additionally, China has the Shijian-17 satellite equipped with a robotic arm, which could be utilized in a future system for grappling with other satellites.

However, the most concerning Chinese space endeavor to date occurred in July 2021 when China conducted the world's first fractional orbital launch of a hypersonic glide vehicle. This system, known as FOBS (fractional orbital bombardment system), incorporates concepts from an old Soviet Union system. It traveled an impressive 40, 000 kilometers, equivalent to the Earth's circumference, and remained airborne for over 100 minutes, setting records for a Chinese land attack weapon. According to scientists, this system has the potential for the operator to launch a nuclear payload into orbit, leave it there for a period of time, and then deorbit it at their discretion. Essentially, it is a system that enters orbit and then de-orbits towards a target. Scientists explain that by using this approach, traditional ICBM trajectories can be avoided, making it a way to bypass defense systems and missile warning systems. It is important to note that the delivery of space-to-ground weapons, also known as orbital bombardment, could hinder reliable missile warning systems and complicate defense engagements. This is one of the main reasons why China's FOBS test raises doubts about the peaceful development of space activities.

In addition to what has been mentioned, it is crucial to acknowledge that both Russia and China are also developing capabilities that could be utilized as directed energy weapons and for electronic warfare. For example, China possesses various ground-based laser systems with different power levels that have the potential to blind or damage satellite sensors. It is presumed that by the mid-to-late 2020s, Beijing may possess higher-power systems capable of causing damage to satellites. It is also highly likely that China is developing jammers to target a wide range of satellite communications that support government and military operations. Chinese military exercises regularly involve the use of jammers against satellite communications, space-based radars, and satellite navigation systems such as GPS. On the other hand, Russia possesses a number of ground-based lasers capable of jamming and blinding satellite sensors. Since 2018, Russia has deployed the Peresvet laser system to five strategic missile divisions. This laser system is specifically designed to obscure missile deployments by disabling satellite sensors. It is believed that Russia is likely to deploy more powerful lasers in the mid-to-late 2020s.

Considering the potential of these assets, if they were to be exclusively used for military purposes, it raises doubts about Turner's claims regarding Russia's intention to target American satellites with nuclear weapons. The underlying reasoning is that Moscow (as well as Beijing) already has the capability to carry out such actions using its existing means, as explained above. However, in the following section, we will briefly analyze the theoretical probability of this scenario and evaluate the advantages and disadvantages of such a possibility.

Probability of employing nuclear weapons in outer space

Considering the fact that Russia has been facing threats from satellites in its war in Ukraine, finding a way to neutralize this challenge could lay the groundwork for utilizing additional measures. Ukrainian forces have been utilizing SpaceX's Starlink constellation on the front line for communication and targeting purposes, resulting in significant advancements in both their defensive and offensive capabilities. Starlink, with its vast network of thousands of satellites, presents a challenge for adversaries attempting to neutralize it using direct-ascent weaponry. This leads to the consideration that nuclear weapons in space could potentially offer an advantage in this context.

It is worth noting that in 1962, prior to the implementation of the Outer Space Treaty, the U.S. conducted a test called Starfish Prime, where a 1. 4 megaton nuclear weapon was detonated high above the Pacific Ocean. This test resulted in the generation of an electromagnetic pulse (EMP) that caused disruptions to electronics and communications. The impact was significant, with street lights being knocked out as far as 900 miles away. Furthermore, the test also led to the creation of an artificial radiation field that caused damage to numerous satellites in low Earth orbit in the subsequent days and weeks.

Taking this into consideration, scientists believe that a weapon of this nature could pose a threat to satellite constellations like Starlink. They argue that nuclear weapons would be a more effective means of attempting to destroy these constellations compared to other methods. However, it is important to note that such a weapon would likely cause collateral damage as well. This could potentially result in the destruction of multiple satellites instead of just the intended target. As one scientist explained, "This would have significant repercussions on Russian and Chinese satellites as well. It's safe to say that the Chinese would not be pleased with such an outcome."

With this in mind, scientists believe that the option of Russians developing a space-based nuclear reactor is more probable. The reactor could potentially be used to power electronic warfare equipment in orbit. Specifically, Russia has already been working on the development of high-powered space-based nuclear reactors in recent years, leading to speculation that they might be utilized for space-based electronic warfare. The concept revolves around using the reactor to power a jamming device or other weaponry capable of disabling satellites. However, all of this is still in the realm of speculation.

Concluding remarks

While Russia has not officially indicated any intention to withdraw from the Outer Space Treaty, which makes the deployment of nuclear weapons in outer space highly unlikely in the near future, we should not completely dismiss the possibility in the long term.

The Russian extraterrestrial program has a long-standing tradition, and in theory, Moscow possesses the potential to undertake such an endeavor. After all, this idea has been elaborated on by the Soviets since the 1960s. Currently, Russia's invasion in Ukraine is facing various challenges, one of which is the impact on the Starlink satellite network utilized by Ukrainians for their military activities. Finding solutions to overcome these challenges can serve as a significant motivation for taking action.

Furthermore, Russia, China, and more recently, North Korea have been strengthening their cooperation, expressing dissatisfaction with the current world order. Their intent to challenge the current state of world affairs, such as expanding the BRICS, may pave the way for further advancements in this regard that could extend to the realm of outer space. In fact, China is currently the closest among all countries to potentially deploying a nuclear arsenal in orbit, as demonstrated by its FOBS test.

Finally, regarding Turner's remarks about the possibility of Russia abandoning the Outer Space Treaty, there may be some justification to them, to a certain extent. This is particularly true given Moscow's recent announcement of its intention to leave the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly and its history of acting against certain international agreements, such as the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, the Open Skies Treaty, and the Incidents at Sea Agreement. However, it is important to note that taking such action would not only raise concerns about the international legal framework that has been in place for over 70 years, but also disrupt the current development of outer space and undermine the progress made in exploring the so-called fourth dimension. This could potentially lead to unforeseen consequences.


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