Fresh U.S. intelligence circulating in Congress reportedly indicates that Russia is developing an anti-satellite weapon in space with a nuclear component.
- Fresh U.S. intelligence circulating in Congress reportedly indicates that Russia is developing an anti-satellite weapon in space with a nuclear component.
- Others suspect a weapon that is nuclear-powered but not a nuclear warhead.
- Relations between the United States and Russia are at their lowest in decades, and Russia is currently waging a war of aggression in Ukraine.
- This list includes Russia, the U.S., China and India, although none currently field weapons in space.
Cold War schemes
The recent revelations about Russian space weapons raise the specter that countries may decide to deploy nuclear weapons in space at some point. Some have tried before. The U.S. and Soviet Union researched nuclear detonations in space during the Cold War. In the late 1960s, the Soviets tested a missile that could be placed in low Earth orbit and be capable of coming out of orbit and carrying a nuclear warhead to Earth.
- Moscow and Washington negotiated these treaties to contain the Cold War arms race.
- These treaties constrained behavior in the late Cold War.
Nukes in space
- But why would a country want space nukes?
- In theory, weapons from space could avoid early detection radars and missile defenses.
- However, there are significant disadvantages to firing nuclear weapons directly from space.
- Both precision-strike weapons and ground-based forces rely on satellite constellations like GPS or the Russian GLONASS system to find and reach targets.
- Countries may also want the ability to destroy an enemy’s space weapons, including space-based missile defenses.
- Nuclear weapons damage satellites because of a wave of gamma radiation that is created by a nuclear detonation.
- This radiation damages critical subsystems within a satellite.
New arms race?
- While there is not a universally accepted definition of strategic stability, scholars frequently define it as a combination of crisis stability, based on the risk of nuclear escalation during a military crisis, and arms race stability – when countries can avoid actions and reactions that spiral into a costly and dangerous arms race.
- Space-based nuclear weapons increase the risk that a country would resort to nuclear weapons during a crisis.
- Placing nuclear weapons in space could spark a new arms race.
- Escalatory pressures and the threat of an arms race exist even if the first mover places weapons in space defensively.
Spenser A. Warren does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.