What is Russia’s mysterious new space weapon?

8 Min Read

Much of the initial reporting is contradictory, with some outlets describing a nuclear-powered spacecraft and others a nuclear-armed one. There are essentially three options: a “pop-up” nuclear weapon designed to destroy satellites, which would be stationed on the ground and launched only when it was about to be used; a nuclear weapon that would be stationed in orbit; or a nuclear-powered satellite which would not be a bomb itself, but instead used nuclear energy to power some other sort of device.

If Russia plans to deploy a nuclear weapon in full orbit—rather than a “fractional” one in which it does not completely circle the Earth—it would be breaking the Outer Space Treaty of 1967. Nuclear detonations in space are also banned under the 1963 Partial Test Ban Treaty, to which Russia is a signatory. Legality aside, it would be a destructive and indiscriminate weapon.

On Earth the intense radiation from the nuclear explosion not only does damage itself but also creates a huge blast wave, starts fires and creates fallout. In the vacuum of space, radiation is the whole game. The electromagnetic pulse created by an orbital explosion could damage the electronics on satellites across much of the sky. When America conducted a high-altitude nuclear test in 1962, known as Starfish Prime, it not only damaged satellites in line of sight but also those on the other side of the Earth because the radiation was channelled by the planet’s magnetic field. The elevated radiation eventually damaged or destroyed about a third of all satellites then in low Earth orbit (LEO).

If Russia were to conduct a similar detonation today, with some 8,300 active satellites in LEO, it would affect not just American satellites but also those of Russia, China and other countries. It could also affect the International Space Station, which currently has three Russians aboard, and the Chinese one, Tiangong, which currently has a crew of three. American military and intelligence satellites, in particular those used for nuclear command and control, tend to have their electronics hardened to resist such pulses. Commercial satellites do not. In short, an attack of this kind seems better suited to desperado states like North Korea and Iran, which have few space capabilities of their own to protect and, in a crisis, may feel they have nothing to lose.

Russia’s purpose in sending a nuclear bomb into orbit, rather than using an existing ground-based missile, could be to reach geosynchronous orbit (GEO)—an important band about 36,000km from the Earth’s surface, compared with LEO below 2,000km—notes Matthew Bunn of Harvard University. Satellites in GEO circle the globe once a day, and so appear broadly fixed in the sky, which is useful for broadcasting, missile-warning and more. Many valuable American surveillance and military communication satellites are located there. Existing nuclear missiles cannot reach that altitude, Mr Bunn points out.

A second theory of what the weapon might be, reported by PBS NewsHour, is that Russia intends to deploy a nuclear-powered satellite with electronic warfare (EW) capability. The purpose of an electronic attack is to jam or spoof the signals being sent or received by the target satellite; most such attacks are temporary and reversible. Many countries, including America and Russia, have ground-based electronic warfare platforms that can target satellites. Doing it from space is harder, but might allow more focused and persistent attacks, especially if the weapon can be placed close to the target.

Russia is known to have explored such systems. A report on global anti-satellite capabilities published last year by the Secure World Foundation, an NGO, noted: “New evidence suggests Russia may be developing high-powered space-based EW platforms to augment its existing ground-based platforms.” A 2019 paper in the Space Review, a specialist journal, described a nuclear-powered satellite designed for this purpose and known as Ekipazh. Dmitry Stefanovich of the Russian Academy of Sciences also points to a separate Russian project known as Zeus, a nuclear-powered “space tug” planned for around 2030 that could host a range of capabilities, including jamming.

Why use a nuclear reactor to power it? That idea, too, is an old one: America first put a nuclear reactor in orbit in 1965 and the Soviet Union sent up more than 40 such satellites. Their advantage is that they can generate plenty of power. That allowed Soviet satellites to carry more powerful radars. Today it would allow Russian ones to carry more powerful jammers. The Space Review describes Russian documents explaining that nuclear reactors on satellites allowed the installation of “jammers operating in a wide range of frequencies”. If placed into highly elliptical or geosynchronous orbits—those that keep a satellite above the same point in Earth for longer periods—it would allow “uninterrupted suppression of electronic systems in large areas.”

James Acton, an expert at the Carnegie Endowment, a think-tank in Washington, suggests one reason why that might be attractive to Russia. In recent years, he notes, America’s armed forces have become increasingly interested in “proliferated” constellations such as SpaceX’s Starlink satellites, which have been widely used by Ukraine and its armed forces. Such constellations, comprising thousands of satellites, would be impossible to knock out physically, one by one. A wide-area electronic attack is a different matter.

© 2024, The Economist Newspaper Limited. All rights reserved. From The Economist, published under licence. The original content can be found on www.economist.com

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Published: 16 Apr 2024, 06:00 PM IST

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