New details emerge about potential Russian space nuclear weapon

Starfish Prime test

A view of the U.S. Starfish Prime high-altitude nuclear test conducted at Maui Station in Hawaii on July 9. 1962. A view of the U.S. Starfish Prime high-altitude nuclear test conducted at Maui Station in Hawaii on July 9. Alamos National Laboratory)

WASHINGTON — The Biden administration is speaking out to express its belief that Russia is preparing to place a nuclear weapon in space designed to destroy satellites — with a senior State Department official explaining for the first time today According to Moscow, the specific development of a satellite is aimed at testing electronics.

“The United States is extremely concerned that Russia is considering incorporating nuclear weapons into its anti-space programs, based on information deemed credible,” said Mallory Stewart, assistant secretary of the Office of Nuclear Control. armaments, deterrence and stability, at the Research Center. Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).

“The United States has been aware for years that Russia has been pursuing these types of capabilities, but only recently have we been able to more precisely assess their progress. Russia has publicly claimed that its satellite is intended for scientific purposes,” she said.

“However, the orbit is in a region not used by any other spacecraft – which in itself was somewhat unusual. And the orbit is in a region of higher radiation than normal lower Earth orbits, but not a high enough radiation environment to allow accelerated testing of electronics as Russia has described,” Stewart explained.

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Like other Biden administration officials before her, Stewart was quick to assure her listeners that this is not an “active capability already deployed.” While Russia’s pursuit of this capability is deeply concerning, there is no imminent threat.”

And like these officials, she would not specify the potential time frame within which Moscow might be able to deploy this capability.

Russia’s April 24 veto of a UN Security Council resolution to reaffirm the Outer Space Treaty’s 1967 ban on weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in the spacecraft made by the United States and Japan has apparently freed the Biden administration from its criticism of the so-called plan. (Russian President Vladimir Putin has categorically denied any such intention.)

The U.S.-Japan resolution marks the first time the issue of space security has been brought before the U.N. Security Council – although the debate has been ongoing for decades in other U.N. bodies.

On April 25, White House National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan issued a statement confirming the Biden administration’s belief that Russia is pursuing a nuclear ASAT project and raising questions about the justification for its veto by Moscow.

And on May 1, Assistant Secretary of Defense for Space Policy John Plumb, in written testimony before the House Armed Services Committee, doubled down on the accusation, which in fact was first disclosed by Rep. Mike Turner, R-Ohio, Speaker of the House. Intelligence Committee.

“Russia is also developing a concerning anti-satellite capability related to a new satellite carrying a nuclear device that Russia is developing. This capability could pose a threat to all satellites operated by countries and companies around the world, as well as the vital communications, scientific, weather, agricultural, commercial and national security services on which we all depend,” Plumb wrote .

Stewart echoed Plumb’s statements at the HASC hearing that while the effects of a nuclear explosion in space would depend on a number of factors — including the precise orbit of the detonation and the size of the bomb – there could be long-term damage to the global commons from such a weapon.

“Our analysts estimate that a detonation in a particular orbital location of a given magnitude and location would render lower Earth orbit unusable for a period of time,” she told CSIS.

Nuclear weapons were already detonated in space, both by the Soviet Union and the United States, at the start of the Cold War. The most significant was carried out by the United States in 1962: after a series of unsuccessful tests, the United States conducted the Starfish Prime experiment, triggering a 1.45 megaton nuclear bomb at an altitude of about 450 kilometers (about 280 miles) above sea level.

The explosion created an electromagnetic pulse and persistent radiation belts that ultimately killed eight of the 24 satellites then in orbit, including one owned by the United Kingdom, according to a 2022 report from the American Physical Society.

Victoria Samson, director of the Secure World Foundation’s Washington office, said much remains unclear, even as small details are released in dribs and drabs.

“There are still a lot of unanswered questions and this is probably because a lot of these questions depend on information gathering or are still unformed. One thing that seems clear is that the United States seems to think that the weapon (and it is clearly a weapon of mass destruction) would be placed on LEO,” she told Breaking Defense.

Stewart said the U.S. government continues to press this issue at the United Nations and other international forums. Most immediately, she noted, Russia’s Security Council veto will be discussed at the UN General Assembly on May 6 – a forum open to all UN member countries.

Samson explained that the May 6 meeting “will be an initiative veto debate on the US/Japan resolution that the US and Japan vetoed” – based on a UN resolution of April 2023 which authorizes such a debate 10 days after a veto. This resolution, she explained, “echoes concerns from last year that the UN Security Council veto was being unfairly exercised.”

Additionally, Stewart said, the Biden administration “continues to engage bilaterally and multilaterally and use all diplomatic tools in the context of…the CD – the Conference on Disarmament – ​​the First Committee of the UN and other diplomatic forums in which these specific issues are discussed. being discussed. So we hope to continue to have those conversations there.

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