Russian nuclear weapons in orbit or Russian nuclear-powered weapons in orbit. Global Security Concerns

, 20:47, 15.02.2024
Estimated reading time: 9 minutes

Recent speculation surrounding Russian nuclear technology in space has sparked intense debate in the United States. Theories suggest the development of new systems to counter satellites.

Russian nuclear weapons in orbit or Russian nuclear-powered weapons in orbit. Global Security Concerns

Russia and nuclear weapons in space. What's behind the warning from Congress?

Russian nuclear weapons in orbit or Russian nuclear-powered weapons in orbit. One of these two options seems most likely in the context of the "serious threat to national security" that Americans have been trumpeting since yesterday.

Officially, nothing specific is known. Following the surprising statement by Republican Congressman Michael Turner, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, a wave of intense media speculation erupted about what he actually meant. The White House and other members of Congress responded briefly.

It's a serious issue and it's right to draw attention to it, but it's not something that will ruin our Thursday
said Democrat Jim Himes, also a member of the Intelligence Committee.

From the words of politicians, it seems that we are not dealing with any imminent invasion by an alien civilization or a surprising attack by secret Russian space weapons. It's more about a serious long-term threat from Russia to American space systems, about which the US intelligence recently obtained important information.

Significant difference regarding the word "nuclear"

What exactly is going on is not officially known. However, American media outlets have fairly unanimously put forward one theory with two variations. As reported by NBC News, PBS, The New York Times, and several others citing their sources in Congress and the White House, the issue is about a new system for countering satellites. There is agreement on this point. However, there is a significant variation depending on the sources. Most write about a "nuclear weapon," meaning a nuclear warhead. However, PBS reports on "nuclear-powered," meaning powered by nuclear energy from some reactor. It cannot be ruled out that the information, from the presentation by intelligence representatives to politicians to the ears and eyes of journalists, underwent significant distortion. Something that originally was supposed to be "nuclear-powered" may have transformed into the simplified and much more emotionally charged "nuclear weapon."

Both options are real, and appropriate solutions have already been tested and even used. However, the first one is much more aggressive and would signify a serious escalation of the arms race between superpowers. Currently, both China, India, Russia, and the USA are developing and possessing anti-satellite systems. This is considered necessary due to the immense importance of satellites for modern armed forces. Communication and reconnaissance without the use of space devices are impaired. The ability to destroy enemy satellites is therefore of great importance. Standard anti-satellite systems are based on missiles launched from land, water, or air. Their task is simply to hit the target. However, it is not an ideal weapon because the appropriate missiles are quite large, expensive, and difficult to use. No state produces them in large quantities, and the number of targets in orbit is quickly increasing.

One alternative is systems placed in space, i.e., satellites designed to neutralize other satellites. This is also a complex and expensive weapon, which according to publicly available data, no state has progressed beyond the experimental and testing phase. The most advanced in this regard are the Russians. We have described this in detail before. So far, they seemed to focus on the development of small satellites capable of approaching the target and damaging it with a manipulator or by collision. During the time of the USSR, they experimented with satellites carrying explosive fragmentation warheads and rockets.

Russia and nuclear weapons in space. Global Security Concerns

Radiating chaos in orbit

The second alternative, potentially the most dangerous and destabilizing, is the use of a thermonuclear payload. Its detonation in orbit causes a strong electromagnetic pulse and releases a cloud of radiation, which is lethal to satellites in the short and medium term. Like nuclear weapons, it is a weapon of mass destruction, and one explosion can incapacitate many targets moving in different orbits. This is a huge advantage over conventional systems, which can only destroy single targets with great effort.

The Americans have the most practice in using nuclear weapons in this way, with experiments conducted as part of Operation Argus in 1958 and Fishbowl in 1962 over the Pacific. They detonated 8 thermonuclear warheads at altitudes ranging from 30 to 540 kilometers. They learned the most during the Starfish Prime test, conducted on July 9, 1962. At that time, a 1.4 megaton warhead exploded at an altitude of 400 kilometers above the Johnston Atoll in the central Pacific, which was very powerful (almost 100 times stronger than the bomb dropped on Hiroshima). Stronger than all the others used in high-altitude tests. The effects of the detonation surprised military and scientists, causing electromagnetic pulse damage to Hawaii, 1,400 kilometers away. More importantly, the radiation belt created in orbit over the next few months destroyed at least six satellites (at that time, civilian satellites were literally pioneering pieces, not thousands as they are today) and may have contributed to premature failures of others. In the USSR, detonations at high altitudes were also carried out, but never as powerful and high.

Attempting to resurrect this way of countering satellites and turning it into a useful weapon would be an extreme and almost insane step. This is because it would cause massive damage to random civilian satellites, which are abundant in orbit today. Additionally, it would be unlawful because the Outer Space Treaty of 1967, of which Russia is a party, explicitly prohibits the use and placement of nuclear weapons in space. It is not one of the disarmament agreements with the USA from which Moscow may want to unilaterally withdraw, but a universally accepted UN document that forms the legal basis for humanity's operations in space. However, nothing can be ruled out, and such an anti-satellite system, based on thermonuclear payloads, would fit the formulation "nuclear weapon."

Star Wars in a new edition

Much less radical solutions may lie behind the phrase "nuclear-powered." It may, for example, refer to a combat satellite powered by a nuclear reactor. There is no doubt that the Russians, more than anyone else, have knowledge of such solutions. Of course, as a result of the decline after the USSR, which placed 33 satellites of the RORSAT ocean reconnaissance system in orbit between 1967-88. 31 of them were powered by BES-5 reactors. The Americans placed only one experimental SNAP-10A in orbit in 1965. Both the USA and Russia are currently working on the use of nuclear reactors in space, primarily for civilian purposes. The Russian civilian agency Roscosmos has been running the TEM program for years, which would result in the large space tug Zeus. However, this is a very avant-garde venture, which has little chance of success due to costs and complexity. Work is formally ongoing, but rather as a drip for the space industry with an indefinite implementation deadline, set for maybe 2030. A smaller satellite of this kind could theoretically be able to maneuver and intercept hostile objects more effectively than one powered by currently common energy sources. However, nothing is known about such a thing.

It could also be a combat satellite with a nuclear reactor that would attack its targets with electronic warfare systems. There is information about a Russian project to create a large device of this kind, codenamed Ekipazh. The Plazma-2010 reactor was to be the energy source, an extension of the Plazma-A reactors tested twice in space at the end of the USSR's existence. A contract for the development of the system was formally signed with the Ministry of Defense in 2014 with the assumption that test flights would take place as early as 2021. However, they did not take place, and it is unknown how the avant-garde project survived budget cuts for space programs, which have been taking place since 2014.

There is also a chance that the source of confusion is some new Russian device powered by a radioisotope thermoelectric generator. In theory, this would also be "nuclear-powered." However, these are widely used simple generators in spacecraft that use the heat released during radioactive decay (usually of plutonium) to generate electricity. These are much safer devices than reactors but also offer much less energy and are nothing unusual. Therefore, it is difficult to imagine that such a thing would cause such a stir on Capitol Hill. Building tension for a specific purpose Everything indicates that contrary to the initial emotions after Turner's speech, we are not dealing with the risk of imminent nuclear destruction from space. The Russian system, whatever it is, is supposed to be in the development phase for now and has not been placed in orbit. The latest Russian launch of an orbital rocket took place on February 9 from the military Plesetsk cosmodrome. It was a Soyuz-2.1v in the lightest possible configuration, which placed a secret payload in space cataloged as COSMOS 2575. Unofficially, it is supposed to be a small reconnaissance satellite of the Razbeg system. Since being placed in orbit, it has not performed any extraordinary maneuvers.

In the context of the not entirely understood sudden commotion in Congress, it is worth considering that on Wednesday, the House of Representatives received, after approval by the Senate, a bill proposing to allocate $95 billion in military aid to Ukraine, Israel, and Taiwan. The Republican leadership in the lower chamber declares that it will not vote on it and will block it, following the ideological line promoted by Donald Trump's supporters. Perhaps an attempt to raise a sense of threat from Russia is intended to help change this stance. Michael Turner is one of those Republicans in the House of Representatives who are in favor of the speedy adoption of the aforementioned bill.

#Nuclear Weapon#Scandal#Russia

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