Analysis-Russia seen as highly unlikely to put a nuclear warhead in space

By Thomson Reuters Feb 15, 2024 | 3:25 PM

By Joey Roulette and Arshad Mohammed

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The space-based weapon U.S. intelligence believes Russia may be developing is more likely a nuclear-powered device to blind, jam or fry the electronics inside satellites than an explosive nuclear warhead to shoot them down, analysts said on Thursday.

The intelligence came to light on Wednesday after Representative Mike Turner, Republican chair of the U.S. House of Representatives intelligence committee, issued an unusual statement warning of a “serious national security threat.”

A source briefed on the matter told Reuters that Washington had new intelligence related to Russian nuclear capabilities and attempts to develop a space-based weapon, but added that the new Russian capabilities did not pose an urgent threat to the United States. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken echoed this view on Thursday, saying “this is not an active capability.”

Analysts tracking Russia’s space programs say the space threat is probably not a nuclear warhead but rather a high-powered device requiring nuclear energy to carry out an array of attacks against satellites.

These might include signal-jammers, weapons that can blind image sensors, or – a more dire possibility – electromagnetic pulses (EMPs) that could fry all satellites’ electronics within a certain orbital region.

“That Russia is developing a system powered by a nuclear source … that has electronic warfare capabilities once in orbit is more likely than the theory that Russia is developing a weapon that carries a nuclear explosive warhead,” said Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association advocacy group.

A 2023 U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency report said Russia is developing an array of weapons designed to target individual satellites and may also be developing “higher-power systems that extend the threat to the structures of all satellites.”

The Kremlin on Thursday dismissed a warning by the United States about Moscow’s new nuclear capabilities in space, calling it a “malicious fabrication”.


Non-nuclear anti-satellite weapons have existed for years.

Russia in 2021 followed the United States, China and India by testing a destructive anti-satellite missile on one of its old satellites, blasting it to thousands of pieces that remain in Earth’s orbit.

Exploding a nuclear weapon in space would be another matter entirely.

Brian Weeden, an analyst at the Secure World Foundation, said Russia would undermine its credibility if it detonated a nuclear weapon in space, a possibility with profound implications for both military and commercial satellites.

“The Russians have spent 40 years in the U.N. bashing America about wanting to weaponize space, and place weapons in space and pledging that they would never do it,” Weeden said.

“If they do (detonate a nuclear device in space), they’d lose everything. All the countries that are supporting them on Ukraine and getting around sanctions, boom,” he added.

James Acton, a nuclear expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace think tank, said for Russia to put a nuclear weapon in orbit would be a “blatant violation of the Outer Space Treaty.”

The 1967 treaty, to which the United States and Russia are parties, bars signatories from placing “in orbit around the earth any objects carrying nuclear weapons or any other kinds of weapons of mass destruction.”

Violating the treaty, Acton said, would further undercut efforts to revive U.S.-Russian arms control after Russia’s 2023 decision to suspend participation in the New START treaty, which caps the number of strategic nuclear warheads each can deploy.

Analysts said anti-satellite weapons could cripple military and commercial communications, undermining the armed forces’ ability to operate as well as global positioning systems (GPS) that everyone from Uber drivers to food delivery services use.

“The Russians think we’re blind if we don’t have access to our satellites and it’s probably true,” said a former U.S. intelligence official. “Our ability to rely on satellites is a major advantage in a potential confrontation but also a major vulnerability.”

(Reporting By Joey Roulette in Washington and by Arshad Mohammed in Saint Paul, Minnesota; Writing by Arshad Mohammed; Editing by Don Durfee and Jonathan Oatis)