Global Risk

For Heaven’s Sake: Why Would Russia Want to Nuke Space?

02.21.24 | 7 min read | Text by Jon Wolfsthal

It can be more than a little scary to look into the mind of a dangerous dictator like Vladimir Putin. But as Russia has several thousand nuclear weapons, managing stability and avoiding nuclear war requires that America try to understand what is happening with both the mind of the country’s leader and capabilities of its military. Deterrence is about understanding how our actions influence that of others, and vice versa. Thus, it remains essential to consider what Russia (and other adversaries) is pursuing in terms of possible contingencies, and interpret changes in military and strategic capabilities.

So when news broke in February that Russia was reportedly building some nuclear connected anti-satellite weapon, a lot of people started scratching their heads. First, because of the manner in which the news was leaked. Congressman Mike Turner seemed to get ahead of both the process and the intelligence itself, and created a bit of a panic by demanding full and immediate declassification of all information about the system. It now seems this was alarmist, and perhaps motivated by other political factors. Leaks seemed to indicate that Russia might be planning to launch a nuclear-powered anti-satellite directed energy weapon into space. U.S. officials are reportedly telling allies Russia could launch the system into space within the next year.  Details became a little clearer, thanks to a public briefing by White House Advisor Adm. John Kirby. Kirby confirmed that the planned system was still in development, and President Biden later said it was not clear if and when the system would be deployed. Importantly, Kirby also stated that the system, if deployed, would violate the Outer Space Treaty of 1967. That phrase made clear that the Russian program involved placing a nuclear weapon in outer space, since deploying nuclear weapons in space is the main and only specific constraint contained in the OST. 

What Can Putin Be Thinking?

We can speculate that the Russian program would involve deploying a nuclear device in orbit, presumably with some maneuvering capability so that it can be detonated to disable satellites.  A nuclear explosion in space would create a series of devastating effects, including an electromagnetic pulse, and longer-lasting radiation that would circle the earth and dramatically compromise satellite communications world-wide. Some hardened assets might survive, but other unshielded military and almost all non-shielded commercial satellites would be potentially vulnerable. The global economic and communications system could be shut down or destroyed for years, and some orbits made hazardous – if not unusable – for an extended period due to space debris.

Who would do such a thing? Well, the Soviet Union and the United States considered a lot of dangerous nuclear ideas during the Cold War, including detonating nuclear weapons in outer space to blind an adversary’s space assets. The U.S. had a program in the 1960s called Casaba Howitzer, which would use nuclear explosions to drive energy beams to attack space assets. Both states tested nuclear weapons at high altitudes and considered using nuclear weapons in space. So the idea is not new. It was just rejected as reckless and dangerous for a variety of good reasons. Making space unusable is one. Leaving nuclear weapons in orbit – unprotected and out of positive human control and potentially liable to uncontrolled reentry – are two more.

So why would Russia return to this really dangerous idea now? There are at least three explanations that have some credibility (and possibly more as some of my colleagues have pointed out). 

Explanation 1: Go After American Power Asymmetrically

The first plausible explanation is that in the 2000s, as Russia’s conventional military was weak and being rehabilitated, Vladimir Putin threw a lot of money at the Russia nuclear complex to come up with programs that could undermine America’s advantages. This funding led to a number of very unorthodox nuclear programs including the now famous Poseidon long-range, underwater nuclear-armed torpedo and the Skyfall, a nuclear-powered, nuclear-tipped cruise missile that can fly for days and attack its targets from unexpected angles. Both of these programs were conceived of decades ago, but did not get fully funded or deployed during the Cold War.  When the USSR collapsed, these programs all withered. Both novel systems have found new support under Putin, who has touted them in multiple speeches.

The as-yet unnamed nuclear-armed satellite killer (How about Starburst for a name?) could be another such device, brought back to life from the Soviet archives to go after American power asymmetrically. As America relies heavily on space for military operations, countering it could make it easier for Russia to go toe to toe with the west in a conflict. It could be that this program was mothballed when the USSR collapsed but rehabilitated when new money was available, and details were only available recently in the later stages of development. Thus, it should not be assumed that there is a clear use strategy or specific scenario in mind behind the weapon.  Both Moscow and Washington (and now some speculate China as well with its own nuclear expansion) have long histories of pursuing nuclear programs because they could, and then figuring out how to use them later.

Explanation 2: Nuclear “Insurance Policies”

A second motive is less benign than just technical and financial opportunity, and would involve Russia explicitly seeking programs and capabilities that could go after American nuclear control capabilities in a crisis to prevent America from attacking Russia first. This could be considered consistent with Russia’s stated but dangerously provocative “escalate to de-escalate strategy.”  Russia’s fear is also likely behind the Poseidon and Skyfall, since both of these systems are more fittingly thought of as retaliatory, and not first strike weapons. Neither move fast enough to disarm the U.S. and are mainly good for firing after an attack. Thus, many in Russia likely consider them nuclear insurance policies; if Washington ever decided to pursue a disarming first strike made up of American conventional and nuclear assets, and backed by U.S. missile defenses (known in Russia as the splendid strike threat) enough Russian nuclear weapons would survive to destroy America, keeping deterrence intact.  It is hard, and actually morally offensive, to have sympathy for Vladimir Putin, but there is a long history of fear as a motive and a sense of encirclement that permeates his regime. Thus, many of these nuclear programs – including the new nuclear armed space system – could be seen in this light. If this is an explanation for other novel nuclear systems, then it could also be part of the motive for the new space/nuclear option.

Explanation 3: Put America’s Technical Advantages at Risk

The third motive is one that probably resonates with most observers of Putin’s long and brutal time in office, marked by political assassinations and repression at home and multiple wars abroad. This possible motive is one where Putin is investing in capabilities that could cripple America in a run up to a direct conflict with Moscow. Being able to detonate a nuclear weapon in space and damage, if not destroy America’s extensive constellations of military satellites could be seen by Russia as both useful and even necessary to prepare for a possible conflict with the west and America. Its threatened use could be used to try and force America to back down in a crisis, or even used preemptively as a prelude to a major military move by Putin against NATO or America itself. As a weapon of aggression, a space-based device could put America’s considerable technical advantages at risk, thus explaining why some have expressed concern about America’s urgent need to upgrade its command and control systems and improve its resilience in space launch and satellite systems. Interestingly, in the move and counter-move process of deterrence and warfare, America’s investment in smaller, resilient constellations of satellites may have increased Russia’s interest in systems that can disable large numbers of assets as opposed to direct assent, kinetic anti-satellite weapons.

So why is Russia pursuing such a program? The bottom line is we don’t really know. Despite spending $50 billion a year on nuclear weapons, $900 billion on defense broadly, and $70 billion on intelligence, we don’t have as much insight into Russia’s nuclear doctrine or Putin’s inner thinking as we might want. All three of the motives laid out above are plausible; it’s also possible that a combination of the three are driving the Russian leader. We may never know.

Still, an important question remains regarding what the U.S. should do in response. Legally and morally, the U.S. and its allies should call out any such illegal and dangerous effort for what it is – madness. Detonating a nuclear weapon in space would not only damage U.S. assets but those of all countries, including Russia (China, India etc). It would set back the use of space for multiple purposes – peaceful and otherwise – by decades.

The Russia space program puts even greater emphasis on the need for America to insulate its space assets, diversify its systems to deal with space attacks, and develop more resilient space capabilities including through rapid relaunch abilities. In a conflict, demonstrating that the U.S. can quickly launch and replace critical space-based assets may be one way to deter Russia from ever using such a crazy and dangerous device. If doing so provides no material advantage, the need or urge to use it goes way down. Such resiliency requires considerable investment and U.S. leaders should also be mindful of an overreliance on private space launch capabilities, which while important cannot replace the Government’s own ability to protect American assets. 

However this resiliency is developed – it will be expensive. But consider   the money the U.S. is investing in redundant and arguably unnecessary nuclear overkill – including the new nuclear land based intercontinental ballistic missile that has now ballooned from an estimated $62B in 2015 to over $130 billion, a number which may still be climbing. Perhaps redirecting some of that  nuclear funding to more urgent and useful priorities would be a better investment.

This research was carried out with generous contributions from the New-Land Foundation, Ploughshares Fund, the Prospect Hill Foundation, Longview Philanthropy, and individual donors.