Space nukes raise tensions between Moscow and Washington. Here’s what you need to know

In this pool photo distributed by Russia’s state-run Sputnik agency, Russian President Vladimir Putin talks with students and industry workers of the Chelyabinsk region at the Stankomash factory in Chelyabinsk on February 16, 2024.

Alexander Ryumin | Afp | Getty Images

A new spat between Washington and Moscow has raised alarm over the potential risk of a nuclear-powered satellite attack in space that could wreak havoc on critical communications systems on Earth.

Russia has denied US claims it has developed an anti-satellite nuclear weapon in space, with President Vladimir Putin saying Tuesday that the Kremlin was “categorically against” the development of nuclear weapons in space and accused the White House of intimidating lawmakers into passing a new aid package Ukraine.

It comes later Reuters report it emerged earlier on Tuesday, citing a source, that the US believes Moscow is developing a space nuke whose explosion could blow up satellites that support critical US infrastructure, including military communications and mobile services. CNBC could not independently verify the report.

Alarm over Russia’s nuclear developments was first raised last week when the US House Intelligence Committee President Mike Turner warns of ‘serious threat to national security’ related to Russian capabilities in space.

President Joe Biden later said Moscow appeared to be developing an anti-satellite weapon, but noted it was not an urgent “nuclear threat” to the US people and said he hoped Russia would not develop one. However, one source a person familiar with the matter told Bloomberg that such a capability could launch into orbit as soon as this year.

It is an indiscriminate weapon. The symbolism would be omnidirectional.

Carrie Bingen

director of the aerospace security project and senior fellow in the international security program at the Center for Strategic International Studies.

Analysts told CNBC that the deployment of such a weapon could cause “indiscernible” damage, wreaking havoc on systems people rely on for everyday services such as payments, GPS navigation and even the weather.

“Space is an integral part of our daily lives, whether we realize it or not,” said Kari Bingen, director of the aerospace security program and senior fellow in the international security program at the Center for Strategic International Studies.

What are space nukes and what disruption could they cause?

A satellite dish features the full moon in Bogotá on November 27, 2023.

Juan Barretto | Afp | Getty Images

As of April 2023, there were nearly 7,800 operational satellites in Earth orbit, according at the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs, supporting everything from telephone and Internet networks to televisions, financial services, agricultural systems and space surveillance.

Satellites are also critical to military operations, helping to gather intelligence and detect missile launches, as well as facilitating navigation and communications. Starlink, the satellite network owned by Elon Musk, for example, provided Ukrainian forces with seamless battlefield communications at the start of the war — although concerns have since arisen that Russia co-option such services in occupied territories.

The exact nature of any Russian-made anti-satellite system is currently unclear. However, the analysts he said Reuters believes it is likely to use nuclear power to blind, jam or fry the electronics inside satellites – rather than being a nuclear warhead designed to shoot them down.

The potential impact of an anti-satellite attack will also depend on the altitude of the targeted device and its proximity to other satellites. Analysts he said Bloomberg that damage to a satellite in low Earth orbit – the typical location of most commercial satellites – could fry other satellites for hundreds of miles.

“It all depends on where an explosion happens and which satellites are in that area,” Bingen said.

How likely is an anti-satellite attack?

The development of a space-based nuclear weapon would mark a major advance in Russia’s military capabilities and a serious escalation of geopolitical tensions.

The US has already said believes the system Russia is developing would violate the Outer Space Treaty – a 1967 agreement that prohibits signatories, including Russia and the US, from placing “in Earth orbit any object carrying nuclear weapons or any other type of weapons of mass destruction”.

Moreover, it would signal a direct attempt to undermine US national and economic security.

“These [Russia] they have noticed how important space capabilities are to our national security and economic viability,” Bingen said.

It is incredibly difficult to defend. There is no silver bullet.

Carrie Bingen

director of the aerospace security project and senior fellow in the international security program at the Center for Strategic International Studies.

Faced with such vulnerabilities, the US has changed its space architecture strategy over recent administrations, opting for more distributed models consisting of numerous and smaller satellites. However, significant vulnerabilities remain.

“It’s incredibly difficult to defend. There is no silver bullet solution,” said Bingen.

The threat of nuclear conflict has been heightened by the start of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, marking a retreat from Cold War-era arms control conditions. In 2023, Putin suspended Russian compliance with the New START treaty, the last remaining agreement limiting the size of the nuclear arsenals in the US and Russia.

But Bingen said she believed the use of such a tool would remain a “weapon of last resort” for Russia.

“It would be exceeding a nuclear threshold, so it’s still an incredibly serious decision. I would have to believe it would be more along the lines of a weapon of last resort,” he said.

The next military frontier

Space is often positioned as the next geopolitical frontier, presenting a new arena for military struggles and international conflicts.

Space defense spending jumped to about $54 billion in 2022, up from $45 billion the previous year, according to the latest figures by the US non-profit Space Foundation. The US was seen as leading this category, although the report acknowledged that official figures for Russia and China were more difficult to obtain.

NATO Secretary General told CNBC on Saturday that the military alliance has long been aware of the “challenges and threats” of space and noted that it is ready to defend against any space-based attack.

A 2021 review on NATO’s space policy said an attack to, from or in space would constitute a “clear challenge” to the alliance and could lead to the invocation of the Article 5 mutual defense clause.

“NATO is ready to defend all allies against any threat in any domain,” he told CNBC’s Silvia Amaro on Saturday at the Munich Security Conference.

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