We cannot let Putin pursue plan to destroy satellites

Using nuclear-equipped weapons to target satellites not only violates the Outer Space Treaty of 1967 but would cause global chaos



February 19, 2024 - 3:18 PM

Satellites are critical to civilian, military and government institutions around the world.

Frustrated that it is still mired in a costly war, Russia is reportedly developing an anti-satellite nuclear-armed weapon that, if detonated, could cause global chaos.

On Thursday, U.S. National Security Council spokesman John Kirby described the situation as “troubling,” but not life-threatening. 

“We are not talking about a weapon that can be used to attack human beings or cause physical destruction here on Earth.”

As far as space, that’s another matter.

If such a weapon were launched, “It would irreparably damage the low Earth orbit environment,” Ankit Panda, a nuclear policy fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told the Washington Post. “We would potentially be looking at a cascade of collisions of defunct satellites that would render large bands of low Earth orbit effectively unusable for all of humanity.”

We know, because we’ve been there.

In 2021, Russia tested an anti-satellite weapon that blew up a defunct satellite orbiting in space. The ensuing field of debris from the explosion almost took out the International Space Station.

Were Russia to target an entire network of satellites, which would be necessary to meet its goal of disabling communications in Ukraine, the effects “are going to be felt for weeks and months,” because of the resulting radiation, Brian Weeden, a director at the think tank Secure World Foundation, told the Post.

The decision would also violate the Outer Space Treaty of 1967 that forbids nuclear armaments in space. The international treaty is one of the last remaining, the danger is so great. 

The treaty was based on an incident in 1962 when the United States and the Soviet Union tested nuclear weapons in space.

Ours, “Starfish Prime,” was a 1.4 megaton bomb launched far out in the Pacific Ocean where it was detonated 250 miles up in the atmosphere. Bigger than the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima, the electromagnetic pulse was so strong it damaged electronic systems in Hawaii and incinerated about one-third of the satellites in orbit and damaged others.

That was more than 60 years ago, when satellites were few and far between. 

Today, more than 8,000 satellites are orbiting in space transmitting data critical to civilian, military and government services.

If Russia tried to use a nuclear weapon in space, it would be sloppy and reckless. It would affect satellites indiscriminately, including their own.Todd Harrison, the American Enterprise Institute