No, there are no nukes in space - but we still have a weapons problem

June 5, 2024

By Jessica West

Earlier this year, rumours about the development by Russia of a mysterious “space-based nuclear weapon” that could “kill” American and allied satellites spread around the world. Based on “new intelligence” and exacerbated by sloppy language, poorly informed officials, and questionable motives, these rumours led to frenzied speculation on the nature of the threat.

U.S. officials have since clarified their belief that Russia is developing a weapon capable of destroying swaths of satellites by unleashing a nuclear blast. Pointing to a lone satellite in an otherwise unused orbit as public evidence of the suspected nuclear weapons program, they have taken the issue to the United Nations Security Council.

Whether or not the intelligence is accurate or a nuclear capability in space is ever fully developed, it is time to get serious about the weapons problem in space—a concern that encompasses much more than nukes.

The nuclear legacy in space

All states with nuclear weapons have the capacity to launch them into orbit. After enthusiastic testing in the 1960s, we know that using such a capability is really stupid. Nuclear weapons aren’t just satellite killers; they are space killers. Any electromagnetic blast will cause indiscriminate damage to satellites both near and far and contaminate the orbital environment with harmful radiation. Today, such a blast would affect tens of thousands of satellites that currently serve countries around the world. And while not targeting people directly, this blast would have catastrophic consequences for essential infrastructure and raise the risk of nuclear war on Earth. For good reason, nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction were banned in the 1967 Outer Space Treaty (OST).

The current fear heralds a new chapter in the tale of an escalating arms race in outer space—one that is already wreaking havoc. Earlier testing of kinetic antisatellite missiles in space has spewed thousands of pieces of hazardous debris in Earth orbit. Common now are non-kinetic capabilities that are used for electronic jamming and cyber interference. Airlines must deal with spoofing of civilian GPS signals. And laser weapons are among the other capabilities that are being developed.

All states with nuclear weapons have the capacity to launch them into orbit. After enthusiastic testing in the 1960s, we know that using such a capability is really stupid.

The proliferation of such capabilities signals a big defence problem in space. Modern militaries depend on space systems. But satellites, which mostly travel in predictable orbits, remain exposed to the surrounding environment and are vulnerable to harm. And this vulnerability is being recognized. Canada’s Parliament is holding its first ever hearings on space defence.

The United States is trying to mitigate threats by launching large constellations of distributed capabilities and relying on similar commercial systems such as Starlink, which has proven resilient to persistent interference throughout the war in Ukraine. But resiliency has limits and a nuclear threat changes the equation.

The current news cycle is likely to fuel the escalation of arms racing in space, leading to calls for more weapons funding and nuclear-based deterrence. Such madness is dangerous. History shows that we can’t arm our way out of a nuclear threat.

The limits of defence

The reported objective of the suspected nuclear threat is to defeat the resiliency embedded in space capabilities that are distributed across constellations. Even if, in the future, more satellites are hardened against the effects of a nuclear blast, many other unprotected satellites will be destroyed and portions of space left partially or totally unusable. Even if we avoid the use of nukes in space, there are many other (still legal) ways to mess up space for everyone.

What we need to do is focus on the only tool for long-term stability: arms control. Yes, arms control in space is hard. The well-known technical challenges centre on the difficulty in identifying weapons and distinguishing them from peaceful capabilities. However, current energetic discussions on space weapons mean that solutions can be found. Still, political challenges remain a major obstacle.

Dueling resolutions at the UN Security Council

Russia’s current action is not the first time that the succinctly worded ban on “stationing” or “orbiting” nuclear weapons in space has been exploited. That past Russian flirtations were not challenged can be seen as concerning, if not surprising. More than four decades of bickering at the United Nations over addition alarms control measures demonstrates that most states haven’t been keen to ban or restrict the use of anything. But times are changing.

A draft resolution sponsored by the United States and Japan and co-sponsored by 65 other states was put before the UN Security Council in May. It marked the first time ever that an issue related to outer space had been brought before the council. The resolution called for states to reconfirm existing obligations under the OST prohibiting the placement or use of weapons of mass destruction in orbit and included an additional obligation not to develop any nuclear or other WMD for use or deployment in outer space. Adoption of the resolution was vetoed by Russia in response to what it called a dirty ploy; Russia tabled a counter-resolution aimed at banning all weapons in outer space, which was also vetoed.

Whether or not these resolutions are adopted at the Council is beside the point. The UNSC is designed to respond to imminent threats to international peace and security. That potential weapons in outer space have been raised to the top echelon of global security sends a signal to the world that it’s time to pay attention.

Overcoming the information gap

The fact that there are not now nuclear weapons in space points to peace and arms control efforts as a time-tested way forward. Diplomacy remains key.

Yet one of the biggest obstacles to enhancing peace and arms control efforts in outer space is that lawmakers and the public are poorly informed about threats and governance in outer space. There is little awareness that daily life depends on outer space and that our use of space is vulnerable to many harms, with little being done to avert them.

The international community must speak out and reaffirm the longstanding consensus that nuclear weapons have no place in outer space. This was a key aim of the vetoed resolution at the Security Council. But we can’t stop let the veto halt progress. The world must use this moment to rein in other harmful uses of space technology.

First we need Information. Then we need to speak it—loudly.

Spread the word.


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