"I find hope in the work of long-established groups such as the Arms Control Association...[and] I find hope in younger anti-nuclear activists and the movement around the world to formally ban the bomb."

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Author, "African Americans Against the Bomb: Nuclear Weapons, Colonialism, and the Black Freedom Movement"
July 1, 2020
U.S. Warns of New Russian ASAT Program
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March 2024
By Daryl G. Kimball

Russia is pursuing a new and more advanced anti-satellite (ASAT) weapons system that would violate the Outer Space Treaty, according to Biden administration officials.

U.S. intelligence reports that Russia is pursuing a new and more advanced anti-satellite weapons system have raised new concerns about an arms race in space. But Russian satellites, such as the one pictured, also would be vulnerable. (Photo by NASA)National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan briefed select members of Congress on new U.S. intelligence about the system on Feb. 15, and later that day, White House spokesperson John Kirby confirmed to reporters that the system is “related to an anti-satellite weapon that Russia is developing.”

Although it is not an “active capability that has been deployed,” Kirby said that the new system “would be a violation of the Outer Space Treaty, to which more than 130 countries have signed up to, including Russia.”

Article IV of the treaty expressly prohibits countries from deploying “in orbit around the Earth any objects carrying nuclear weapons or any other kinds of weapons of mass destruction, install[ing] such weapons on celestial bodies, or station[ing] such weapons in outer space in any other manner.”

Kirby said that “our general knowledge of Russian pursuit of this kind of capability goes back many, many months, if not a few years. But only in recent weeks has the intelligence community been able to assess with a higher sense of confidence exactly how Russia continues to pursue it.”

“We found out there was a capacity to launch a system into space that could theoretically do something that was damaging,” President Joe Biden told reporters at the White House on Feb. 16. “Hasn’t happened yet, and my hope is it will not.”

According to a CNN report that same day, officials familiar with the intelligence assessment confirmed that the Russian ASAT system under development involves a nuclear explosive device that would produce not only a massive nuclear-driven blast wave and a surge of radiation, but also a powerful electromagnetic pulse that could destroy, blind, or disable other satellites in orbit over a wide zone.

Such a weapon could pose a threat to U.S. and allied military communications, early-warning, and intelligence-gathering satellites if it were to become operational. It also would pose a threat to thousands of other space-based assets in orbit operated by dozens of other countries and commercial entities.

During the Cold War, the Soviet Union and the United States experimented with various types of ASAT weapons systems concepts, including the use of nuclear explosions to destroy objects in space and the production of beams of directed energy to destroy or disable enemy satellites.

Between 1958 and 1962, the United States carried out a handful of very high-altitude nuclear detonations, including the massive 1.4-megaton Starfish Prime test that occurred 250 miles above the Pacific Ocean and demonstrated the potential of nuclear detonations as ASAT weapons. The Soviets conducted a series of high-altitude nuclear test explosions over Kazakhstan between 1961 and 1962.

These test explosions produced a surge of free electrons that created X-rays capable of severely damaging electronic components and computer systems on the ground and in low earth orbit, an electromagnetic pulse that can disable unprotected electrical components on satellites, and a nuclear flash that can blind optical sensors on reconnaissance satellites. The Starfish Prime nuclear test explosion also produced radiation belts that lingered for months, disabling eight of the 24 satellites that were in orbit at that time, according to a 2022 report by the American Physical Society.

In 1963, U.S. and Soviet negotiators concluded the Limited Test Ban Treaty, which prohibits nuclear test explosions in the atmosphere, and in 1967 the Outer Space Treaty.

As Jaganath Sankaran wrote in Arms Control Today in 2022, Russia has been pursuing a range of ASAT system capabilities for more than a decade, including co-orbital ASAT weapons capabilities in the geostationary orbit where most military command-and-control satellites operate, as well as ground-based lasers and a range of satellite jamming systems to deny and degrade the capacity of weapons that rely on satellite-enabled information.

In 2021, Russia conducted an ASAT weapons test on one of its own satellites, breaking it into more than 1,500 pieces of debris, which can pose a serious threat to other objects in orbit. China, India, and the United States also have demonstrated ASAT missile capabilities.

But none of these systems involved nuclear explosive devices. Today, there are approximately 9,500 active satellites in orbit and two crewed, orbiting space stations. One or more nuclear weapons explosions in orbit would create far more indiscriminate damage than the 1962 Starfish Prime nuclear test, and the loss of satellite services would affect significant commercial, military, communications, and navigations systems on Earth.

On Feb. 15, Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov dismissed the claim that Russia was pursuing a nuclear-armed ASAT weapons capability as a “malicious fabrication," but on Feb. 16 he told RIA Novosti that Russia is ready to discuss the issue “if there are such initiatives from the American side.”

On Feb. 15, Kirby said, “We are in the process with engaging with Russia about this.” He said that Biden “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.”

On Feb. 20, Russian President Vladimir Putin commented on the topic of nuclear weapons in space during a working meeting in Moscow with Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu.

“Our position is clear and transparent: we have always been categorically against, and are now against, the placement of nuclear weapons in space,” Putin said, according to Kommersant. “On the contrary, we call for compliance with all agreements that exist in this area and proposed to strengthen this joint work many times over.”