Russia’s space-based nuclear weapon? Here’s an educated guess - GPS World

Russia’s space-based nuclear weapon? Here’s an educated guess

February 20, 2024  - By

Earlier this week House Intelligence Committee Chair Mike Turner sounded an alarm about a serious national security threat. It had to do with Russia, a weapon, space, and something nuclear.

For many, these clues conjured up images of bombs falling to Earth from space, satellites destroyed by powerful electromagnetic pulses, shrapnel impacting the space station, and so on.

Yet, putting nuclear weapons in space would be a clear violation of the 1967 Outer Space Treaty to which Russia and the United States are both signatories. It would also significantly increase East-West tensions at a time when Russia has enough tension and international condemnation to handle.

Thursday evening the White House calmed the waters a bit by saying that Russia was pursing an anti-satellite weapon that cannot cause physical destruction on Earth.

The most reasonable conclusion to draw from all of this is that Russia is closing in on its goal of having a nuclear-powered electronic warfare capability in space.

Such a reusable weapon could be far more useful than any one-use nuclear explosive device.

Threat = Intent + Capability

A lengthy and detailed 2019 article on the site “Space Review” examined indications that Russia had begun construction of such a device. Titled “Ekipazh: Russia’s top-secret nuclear-powered satellite” it begins:

“There is strong evidence from publicly available sources that a Russian company called KB Arsenal is working on a new type of military satellite equipped with a nuclear power source. Called Ekipazh, its mission may well be to perform electronic warfare [EW] from space.”

The author, Bart Hendrickx, goes on to explain that development of such a weapon would be entirely in keeping with reported Russian government plans. Citing one Russian language source he says:

“… the deployment of EW platforms in orbit would be in accordance with a policy for Russia’s electronic warfare program until 2020 approved by the Russian government in January 2012. A summary of this policy indeed mentions space-based electronic warfare as one of the objectives to be accomplished in the period before 2025. More specifically, it talks about the need to deploy ‘multifunctional space-based EW complexes for reconnaissance and suppression of radio-electronic systems used by radar, navigation and communications systems.’”

When intelligence agencies assess the severity of a particular threat, they look at an adversary’s desire or intent to carry out a particular act, and their capability to do so. If the reporting is correct, Russia has intended to put a nuclear-powered EW satellite or spacecraft in orbit for some time. This week’s political dust up may mean that the decades of hard work described by Hendrickx in Space Review have paid off and given them the ability to do so.

More Useful Than Orbiting Bombs

The United States is far more dependent upon space than any other nation. As regular GPS World readers know, this is especially true for the essential positioning, navigation, and timing services that underpin virtually every technology.

Destroying satellites would quickly lead to a shooting war that no one would want.

On the other hand, electronic warfare doesn’t necessarily lead to casualties right away and is harder to recognize as actual warfare. For example, Russia has been attacking NATO countries, ships, and aircraft in the Baltic with GPS jamming and spoofing on and off since mid-December. No one has died (yet) and NATO, to the best of our knowledge, has not responded.

Rather than destroying satellites, how much more useful is it to be able to temporarily disrupt the operation of one or more satellites? Or perhaps one type of satellite, such as GPS?

Such attacks are reversable, so the attacked party is less likely to send bombs and bullets in return right away. And if the attacker gets what they want, or suddenly discovers they have gone a bit too far and are approaching a kinetic exchange, backing off is as easy as flipping a switch.

Just the threat of being able to deny GPS or other satellite signals over a wide area would be useful.

In fact, Russia has already made this kind of threat and it didn’t backfire.

In November 2021, prior to its invasion of Ukraine, Russia used a ground-based missile to destroy one of its own defunct satellites. Shortly thereafter Russian state-sponsored media claimed the demonstration “… means that if NATO crosses our red line, it risks losing all 32 of its GPS satellites at once.” Aside from a strong diplomatic tongue-lashing, there were few consequences. Additionally, wherever the “red line” was, it seems that NATO did not cross it.

Nuclear Powered EW Most Likely

It’s hard to know what more will be revealed, if anything, about this week’s dust-up over Russia, weapons, space, and nuclear.

But Russia has long prided itself on its electronic warfare prowess. It sees EW as a counterbalance to the West’s dominance in high tech weapons and warfare.

It is highly likely that Russia is executing its plans to extend this prowess and advantage into space with a nuclear-powered EW satellite.

Whether or not this is the root Washington’s kerfuffle, the possibility should be an on-going concern for the United States.

Our dependance on space makes us vulnerable. Our critical over-dependence on space for PNT, especially in light of the terrestrial PNT alternatives available to Russia and China, exposes our jugular and virtually invites attack.

We have placed most of our eggs in the same basket — and there are too many ways in which it can be knocked to the ground.

Until the United States establishes a resilient national PNT architecture, one with GPS at its center supported by other diverse and robust sources, we will continue to unintentionally encourage such things as space-based nuclear-powered electronic warfare and be at severe risk.

About the Author: Dana Goward

Dana Goward is president of the Resilient Navigation and Timing Foundation. He is the proprietor at Maritime Governance LLC. In August 2013, he retired from the federal Senior Executive Service, having served as the maritime navigation authority for the United States. As director of Marine Transportation Systems for the U.S. Coast Guard, he led 12 different navigation-related business lines budgeted at more than $1.3 billion per year. He has represented the U.S. at IMO, IALA, the UN anti-piracy working group and other international forums. A licensed helicopter and fixed-wing pilot, he has also served as a navigator at sea and is a retired Coast Guard Captain.