The Russians are Coming!

The threat of space based weapons is no longer a dark fantasy

By: /
25 February, 2024
A troubling development of late has been the resumption of anti-satellite weapons testing. Image by dlsd cgl/Pixabay.
Paul Meyer
By: Paul Meyer
Adjunct professor of international studies, Simon Fraser University

“The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming,” was a 1966 American Cold War comedy film directed by Norman Jewison for United Artists. The story involved the grounding of a Soviet submarine near a small New England island and the amusing chaos that followed. Fast forward to February 2024, and in what had the trappings of a low budget sci-fi film, featuring the landing of hostile aliens on the White House lawn, Washington was a buzz about a secret new Russian space weapon that had also arrived seemingly unannounced.

The premature public utterance about the space threat by Representative Mike Turner (R-Ohio), chairman of the House Intelligence Committee suggested that the proverbial sky was falling, which of course he couldn’t elaborate on given the classified nature of the intelligence available to him. Administration spokesmen were also taken off guard, especially as they hadn’t yet provided a detailed briefing to Turner’s committee about Russia’s efforts to field an anti-satellite weapon. House speaker Mike Johnson felt obliged to try and dampen things down by stating the national security development was serious, but not urgent. Indeed, he noted that he had been made aware of the matter a month ago and that there was “no need for public alarm”. His message suggested that the American people needn’t stay awake scanning the night sky for nefarious Russian spacecraft.

Nevertheless, Turner’s cryptic comment drew attention to the space domain as yet another realm where Russia harbours aggressive intentions. As Representative Turner is also a supporter of more military support for Ukraine it may have been politically expedient for him to highlight a new Russian threat and one that could impact US national interests directly.

Into this vacuum of official information, it is no wonder that media speculation ran amok. The spectre of nuclear weapons in space was an immediate theme, undoubtedly a function of the ambiguous initial references to Russian efforts to deploy “a nuclear anti-satellite system”.

Obviously, there is a big difference between a system that is nuclear-powered, such as the re-entry of the Soviet nuclear-powered Cosmos 954 reconnaissance satellite over Canada in 1978 and one that is armed with nuclear weapons. It is most likely that we are talking about the former and not the latter which would violate the prohibition contained in the 1967 Outer Space Treaty on putting nuclear weapons in orbit.

Any nuclear detonation in space would also violate the 1963 Limited Test Ban Treaty which confined nuclear weapon testing to underground locations only. These prohibitions reflected the realization by the Soviet Union and the United States, at that point the leading space powers, that any nuclear detonation in outer space would have devastating effects on everyone’s spacecraft.

While positioning a nuclear weapon in orbit is unlikely, a troubling development that has been occurring over the past few years has been a resumption of testing destructive anti-satellite weapons (ASATs). These so-called kinetic weapons are launched by missiles with guidance systems able to direct them on a collision course with the target satellite. China was the first to employ such a direct-ascent ASAT in 2007, followed by the US in 2008, India in 2019 and most recently Russia in November 2021.

All these tests, to a greater or lesser degree, have produced fragments (space debris) that can linger for years and render certain orbits more hazardous for space operations. Despite the background of increasing geopolitical tensions and mutual accusations of “weaponizing” outer space, a degree of self restraint has been practiced by states with respect to destructive ASATs because any debris created will not discriminate between one’s own spacecraft and those of adversaries.

In 2022, the United States announced a unilateral cessation of testing direct ascent ASAT missiles and some 30 of its allies and partners (including Canada) have endorsed this restraint measure. Such unilateral steps have, however, been rejected by Russia and China which have championed for years a draft multilateral treaty on the “Prevention of the Placement of Weapons in Outer Space” (PPWT) which in turn has been opposed by the United States for perceived flaws in its definitions, scope and lack of verification.

Notably, direct ascent ASAT missiles are not the only possible threat to satellites in orbit. For some time, there have been indications that Russia has revived a Soviet era co-orbital ASAT system. An open source survey of existing ASAT capabilities published by the Secure World Foundation points in this direction. As the name implies this system essentially involves a satellite approaching another satellite and crashing into it…or possibly rendering it inoperable via physical, directed energy or electronic weapons.

According to the Secure World Foundation assessment, Russia may have started a new co-
orbital ASAT program called Burevestnik. There is also evidence that Russia is developing a high-powered space-based Electronic Warfare platform to supplement its existing ground-based systems. The Kremlin has denied that it is developing such systems, dismissing the American allegations as “malicious fabrications”. Russia and China frequently refer to sponsorship of the draft treaty on the “Prevention of Placement of Weapons in Outer Space” as evidence of their commitment to keep outer space weapon free.

In my opinion, the likely candidate for the new ASAT system apparently identified by US intelligence is a co-orbital ASAT version. The chief threat associated with a co-orbital ASAT would be its possible use at higher altitude orbits (the medium or geosynchronous orbits) where American early warning satellites are placed. If acted upon, the use of such ASATs against early warning systems would be extremely destabilizing as it could augur an attempt by a nuclear-armed adversary to “blind” the surveillance systems of their opponent in connection with a first strike.

The United States has the means of countering such a threat and coincidentally or not, on February 14 it launched the first prototype satellite of a “Proliferated Warfighter Space Architecture” undertaken by the Space Development Agency that aims at placing hundreds of smaller, cheaper satellites into low earth orbit and thus providing vital redundancy to its surveillance capabilities. Having demonstrated a direct ascent ASAT capability, the US also retains a deterrent despite championing a cessation of future testing of this weapon system.

Whatever Russian system is eventually revealed to be in its arsenal, one cannot hide the fact that the world is currently experiencing a disturbing arms race in space that threatens the massive benefits global society derives from space-enabled services.

Given the evident common interest in maintaining outer space free of man-made threats, geopolitics continues to play a spoiler role in efforts to enhance security in outer space. For example, the UN Open-ended Working Group on “Reducing Space Threats through norms, rules and principles of responsible behaviours” championed by the United Kingdom in 2022 was derailed and prevented from generating any outcome report by Russia’s exploitation of the consensus rule under which the group worked.

This is not the last word with respect to UN diplomatic processes concerned with space security. The United Kingdom was successful in obtaining UN General Assembly approval for a continuation of the Open-Ended Working Group in the 2025-2026 timeframe. But not to be outdone, Russia and its partners were also able to gain approval by the General Assembly for another Open-Ended Working Group with an even longer mandate from 2024-2028. It is difficult at this stage to project whether either of these diplomatic vehicles will be able to make a significant contribution to strategic stability in outer space.

In the end, relying on the enlightened self-interest of quarreling space powers not to extend their terrestrial armed conflicts into outer space may represent wishful thinking. There is a need instead for middle powers, and the major and growing group of non-governmental stakeholders in peaceful uses of outer space, to engage more actively in promoting cooperative security measures in outer space. It is indeed the “responsible” thing for states to do.

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