Dissecting the Controversy Surrounding Russia’s Space Weapon

Russia's Space Weapon

By Ahmad Ali

Non-nuclear anti-satellite weapons have existed for decades; however, nuclear weapons in space would be a completely different and new aspect in contemporary times. Multiple news reports suggest that the United States government has intelligence regarding Russia’s plan to launch a space weapon with possible nuclear capabilities. However, the reports also suggest that Russia’s new weapon is not nuclear capable but nuclear powered. Some US officials also have stated that Russia’s new weapon is nuclear powered which means if this device does electromagnetic jamming of satellites rather than the kinetic kill, it won’t cause catastrophic space debris. Still, this is a new development that has the potential to initiate an arms race in space and intensify tensions between major powers. Another aspect of this debate is that Russia has been advocating to not place nuclear weapons in space so this development goes against the country’s policy. Considering this, it is important to look into the development considering the sensitivity of the issue.

Chairman of the US House Intelligence Committee Mike Turner’s vague warning regarding national security threat initiated a debate in international media regarding Russia’s space weapon. Mr. Mike urged the US president to “declassify all information relating to this threat” so that more public discussion can take place. Similarly, White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby told reporters, “We’re not talking about a weapon that can be used to attack human beings or cause physical destruction here on Earth”. He further added, “It is not an active capability and it has not yet been deployed.” Following this news, media outlets have been flooded with reports and analysis regarding Russia’s space weapon and much of the reporting regarding this issue is contradictory.

Speculation surrounds two main possibilities regarding Russia’s activities in space; one suggests the placement of nuclear weapons while the other involves the deployment of a nuclear-powered satellite with electronic warfare capabilities. If the first scenario proves to be true, it would violate the Outer Space Treaty of 1967 to which Russia, the US and over a hundred other states are parties. Article IV of the treaty forbids state parties to deploy nuclear weapons or objects containing weapons of mass destruction into orbit around the Earth or other celestial bodies. Similarly, it prohibits state parties from positioning weapons of mass destruction on celestial bodies or stationing them in outer space through any other means.

The latter scenario holds more weightage as compared to the first one. This is because months before this hype, it was reported that Russia might be developing high-powered space-based electronic warfare platforms apart from the existing ground-based platforms. In this context, the purpose of an electronic attack is to jam the signals being sent or received by the target satellite. This kind of attack only jams the signals temporarily and does not lead to the physical destruction of satellites. The US and Russia both have ground-based electronic warfare platforms that perform similar functions. However, doing it from space 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. It is pertinent to note that in 1965, the US sent a nuclear-powered satellite into orbit while the Soviet Union sent around 40 such satellites during that decade. Nuclear-powered satellites have the advantage of carrying more powerful radars.

Another argument that supports the second scenario is the scholarly view that Russia has been advocating against weaponizing space and has been criticizing the US for doing that. Furthermore, both China and Russia have jointly submitted a draft treaty to the Conference on Disarmament, aiming to prevent the placement of weapons in outer space and the threat or use of force against outer space objects. Moreover, the Russian President while denying the allegations, said, “We have always been categorically against and are now against the deployment of nuclear weapons in space.” He further stated, “We are doing in space only what other countries have, including the United States.”

Keeping in view the debate on the issue, it can be argued that more plausible situation could be that Russia is likely to place nuclear-powered device with electronic warfare capabilities instead of nuclear weapons in space. At this point, the world is experiencing a level of division that has not been seen since the Cold War era. This is precisely the moment when major powers, rather than escalating tensions further, should initiate a dialogue.

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