• D.C.
  • BXL
  • Lagos
  • Dubai
  • Beijing
  • SG
rotating globe
  • D.C.
  • BXL
  • Lagos
Semafor Logo
  • Dubai
  • Beijing
  • SG


Feb 15, 2024, 4:54pm EST
Europe
icon

Semafor Signals

Supported by

Microsoft logo

Is Russia trying to fire nuclear weapons from space?

Insights from The Washington Post, Ars Technica, and Defense One

Arrow Down
Russian President Vladimir Putin seen while visiting the Ural Locomotive plant, on Feb. 15, 2024, in Verkhnyaya Pyshma near Yekatirinburg, Russia.
Getty Images
PostEmailWhatsapp
Title icon

The News

The White House and top lawmakers sought to assuage panic Wednesday after the House Intelligence Committee chairman posted a cryptic statement on X, warning of a “national security threat” against the United States concerning a “destabilizing foreign military capability.”

That threat, it turns out, is related to Russia’s efforts to develop some kind of space-based nuclear capability, potentially to use against satellites. It’s unclear whether the device in question is nuclear-powered or a nuclear weapon, a significant distinction.

Several lawmakers who saw related intelligence characterized the threat as concerning but not a cause for panic. On Thursday, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said “this is not an active capability but it is a potential one that we’re taking very very seriously.”

A fellow Republican asked Speaker Mike Johnson to open an inquiry into intelligence chair Rep. Mike Turner on Thursday, saying his decision to reveal the information to the public was done with “reckless disregard of the implications and consequences said information would have on geopolitics, domestic and foreign markets, or the well-being and psyche of the American people.” Nuclear and space weaponry experts are weighing in on what they make of this mystery weapon.

icon

SIGNALS

Semafor Signals: Global insights on today's biggest stories.

It’s probably not nukes in space, experts suggest

Source icon
Sources:  
The Washington Post, NPR, Ars Technica

Russia could fire nuclear weapons in space and make it a “no-go zone,” The Washington Post foreign affairs columnist David Ignatius wrote, but “such an approach would be sloppy and self-destructive.” Ignatius isn’t sold on the nukes-in-space theory, positing that “Russia’s new technology appears to be something more sophisticated.”

One expert on space weaponry told NPR that using a nuclear weapon to attack satellites would be imprecise and likely lead to unwanted collateral damage. “That’s going to have a ton of other repercussions on all the Russian satellites and all of China’s satellites,” he said. “And I’m pretty sure the Chinese are not going to be happy about that.” Using nukes in space would also be “the most serious threat to maintaining peace in space since the dawn of the Space Age,” Ars Technica’s space reporter wrote.

It might be nuclear-powered, not a nuclear weapon

Source icon
Sources:  
Space policy expert Todd Harrison, Ars Technica

Todd Harrison, an expert in space policy and security, argued that it might make more sense for this weapon to be nuclear-powered than nuclear itself, given that it is cheaper and easier to launch a nuclear weapon from Earth than to put it into orbit. Also, launching a nuke from space has been banned since 1963, though that wouldn’t necessarily dissuade Russia. There is precedent for using nuclear reactors in space; NASA has done so in the past and Harrison said one could be useful in powering efforts to take down satellites.

There’s already “public evidence that Russian officials have been slowly developing a nuclear-powered spacecraft that could engage in electronic warfare to jam or disrupt communications of an adversary’s satellites,” Ars Technica’s space reporter noted.

Nuclear weapons in space would threaten US nuclear command

Source icon
Sources:  
CNN, Defense One, Center for Strategic and International Studies

The U.S. uses satellites to “ensure constant, seamless control over its nuclear arsenal,” CNN reported, so any anti-satellite weaponry — even non-nuclear — could pose a significant threat to the nation’s nuclear command.

Nuclear weapons haven’t been tested in space since the U.S. launched a thermonuclear warhead on the nose of a rocket in 1962 that ended up destroying several satellites, part of what prompted the U.S. and other powers to sign a treaty the following year prohibiting such experiments.

“The effect of such a weapon now would be exponentially greater than in the 1960s due to the massive proliferation of commercial satellites in space,” Defense One reported. The Center for Strategic and International Studies said using a nuclear weapon in space would immediately destroy some satellites and its radiation would degrade more distant satellites over time.

Semafor Logo
AD