Why Russia Might Put a Nuclear Weapon in Space | Space

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When Mike Turner, the chair of the House Intelligence Committee, issued a cryptic warning last week about the “serious national security threat” represented by a secret Russian military capability, the Republican representative from Ohio generated a wave of anxiety. Concern about Turner’s statement deepened when White House spokesperson John Kirby confirmed that Moscow is developing a “troubling” antisatellite weapon. Soon, multiple news outlets, such as The New York Times, were reporting that Moscow might be preparing to deploy a nuclear weapon in space.

The purpose of such a weapon may well be to destroy the large-scale satellite constellations used for communications and reconnaissance. Obliterating these kinds of space systems could degrade the effectiveness of Ukrainian defense forces that heavily rely on commercial satellite communications and imagery. It would also reduce the effectiveness of the U.S. military and those of its allies, which are similarly dependent on these systems. Russia’s decision to detonate a nuclear weapon in space would almost certainly affect the Kremlin’s satellites, too. But even if Russia never used a nuclear space weapon, Moscow might view its deployment as a new source of leverage, a sword of Damocles it could dangle over every other state’s space systems. And it is hard to know the Russian calculus for employment.

Moscow and Washington have tested antisatellite weapons since the Cold War, but if Russia deployed a nuclear weapon in space to attack other satellites, it would be an unprecedented development and a clear violation of the 1967 Outer Space Treaty. Yet for the Kremlin, the costs of a violation may well be outweighed by the benefits. The antisatellite weapons that Moscow has demonstrated are not capable of effectively destroying the large-scale satellite constellations owned and operated by private companies. A nuclear antisatellite weapon, however, could destroy large numbers of these satellites in one…

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