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Can Russia use nuclear warheads to destroy US satellites in space? Know here

The White House said that US intelligence officials have information that Russia has obtained the capability of an anti-satellite but that such a weapon is not currently operational. It said that by doing so, Russia might violate the Outer Space Treaty, which prevents orbital nuclear weapons.

Aveek Banerjee Edited By: Aveek Banerjee @AveekABanerjee Washington Updated on: February 16, 2024 20:55 IST
US, Russia, nuclear weapons, US satellites
Image Source : AP (FILE) Representational Image

Washington: The White House on Thursday said that Russia has obtained a “troubling” emerging space-based weapon that could be used against US satellites. Such a weapon, if deployed, could destroy civilian communications, surveillance from space and military command-and-control operations by the United States and its allies, according to the New York Times.

While the White House personally declined to comment on whether the weapon in question is nuclear-armed, CBS News reported that the weapon is armed with a nuclear warhead. The Republican head of the House Intelligence Committee, Mike Turner, has urged the Biden administration to declassify information about what he called a serious national security threat. 

White House national security spokesman John Kirby said US intelligence officials have information that Russia has obtained the capability but that such a weapon is not currently operational. “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,” Kirby said. “We’re not talking about a weapon that can be used to attack human beings or cause physical destruction here on Earth.’’

"President Biden has been kept fully informed and regularly informed by his national security team, including today. He has directed a series of initial actions, including additional briefings to congressional leaders, direct diplomatic engagement with Russia, with our allies and our partners as well, and with other countries around the world who have interests at stake," added Kirby, saying it would be a violation of the Outer Space Treaty, which prevents orbital nuclear weapons.

Russia has downplayed the US concern about the capability. In Moscow, Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov described the claims about a new Russian military capability as a ruse intended to make the US Congress support aid for Ukraine. “It’s obvious that Washington is trying to force Congress to vote on the aid bill by hook or by crook,” Peskov said in remarks carried by Russian news agencies. “Let’s see what ruse the White House will use.”

What happens if Russia uses nuclear weapons on US satellites?

If Russia indeed uses nuclear warheads to destroy US satellites, it could lead to a wide range of consequences. The use of such weapons could result in the failure of electrical and water systems in the US and aviation, rail and car traffic could also come to a standstill. Moreover, it can also disrupt cellphone services. These concerns have been heightened by recent reports suggesting Russia’s interest in space-based nuclear weapons.

The White House said it would look to engage the Russians directly on the concerns. Even as the White House sought to assure Americans, Kirby acknowledged it was a serious matter. “I don’t want to minimize the potential here for disruption,” Kirby said. White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan briefed lawmakers Thursday on Capitol Hill on the Russian threat.

Both Russia and the US have used nuclear warheads in space when the two countries, in the peak of the Cold War in the 1960s, knew relatively little about how new weapons of mass destruction would act in the Earth’s atmosphere. The Soviet tests were called Project K and took place from 1961 to 1962. 

Such efforts have been focused on highlighting plans for Russian misinformation operations or to throw attention on Moscow’s difficulties in prosecuting its war against Ukraine as well as its coordination with Iran and North Korea to supply it with badly needed weaponry. The US has frequently downgraded and unveiled intelligence findings about Moscow’s plans and operations over the course of its nearly two-year war with Ukraine.

History of nuclear weapons in space: Starfish Prime and Project K

Both Russia and the US have used nuclear warheads in space, when the two countries, at a bitter confrontation during the peak of the Cold War in the 1960s, knew relatively little about how new weapons of mass destruction would act in the Earth’s atmosphere. The Soviet tests were called Project K and took place from 1961 to 1962.

The Soviet Union conducted its nuclear test at a slightly lower orbit and “fried systems on the ground, including underground cables and a power plant,” according to Hans Kristensen, director of the Nuclear Information Project at the Federation of American Scientists.

Starfish Prime launched in July 1962, when the US sent up a 1.4-megaton thermonuclear warhead on a Thor missile and detonated it about 250 miles (400 kilometres) above the Earth. “The large amount of energy released at such a high altitude by the detonation caused widespread auroras throughout the Pacific” that left satellites in its path malfunctioning, according to a 1982 Department of Defense report on the tests.

The blast disabled several satellites, including a British one named Ariel, as radioactive particles from the burst came in contact with them. Radio systems and the electrical grid in Hawaii were temporarily knocked out, Kristensen said. The US and the Soviet Union signed a nuclear test ban treaty a year later, in 1963, which prohibited further testing of nuclear weapons in space.

What about attacks on satellites now?

John Ferrari, a non-resident senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, said the damage done during previous experiments makes it logical that the Russians would want to put a warhead in space, especially if they see their military and economy weakened after fighting a US-backed Ukraine for the past two years. A space-based weapon that could cripple US communications and the American economy could be an intimidating equaliser and the latest development from both Russia and China to weaponise space.

In the past few years, China has tested a satellite with a robotic arm that can maneuver to a system, grab it, and move it out of orbit. Russia has developed a “nesting doll” satellite that opens up to reveal a smaller satellite, and then that one opens to reveal a projectile capable of destroying nearby satellites. In 2019, the Russians manoeuvred a nesting doll near a US satellite.

Russia also generated headlines around the world when it conducted a more traditional anti-satellite test in 2021, where it shot down one of its own systems. As with the Starfish test, the impact created a large cloud of orbiting debris that even put the International Space Station at risk for a while.

The quickly evolving threat in space was one of the main drivers behind establishing the US Space Force, Pentagon spokesman Pat Ryder said at a briefing on Thursday. In the years since its 2019 creation, the service has focused on developing a curriculum to train its service members, called Guardians, on detecting threats from space and wargaming scenarios on what conflict in space would look like.

The creation of the Space Force elevated spending on satellite systems and defenses. Previously, when space needs were spread among the military services, spending on a new satellite would have to compete for funding with ships or fighter jets — and the services had a more immediate need for the aircraft and vessels, but more work needed to be done, said Ferrari. The revelation that Russia may be pursuing a nuclear weapon for space raises critical questions for Congress and the Defense Department, he added.

“How do you respond to that? You have no good option. So now it’s a question of, ‘What is the deterrence theory for this?’," he said. A former official said that the US currently does not have the capability to counter such a weapon and defend its satellites.

(with inputs from AP)

ALSO READ | Russia is creating space weapon capable of jamming US satellites that transmit trillion bytes of data: Report

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