Kari A. Bingen and Heather W. Williams
The New York Times

Is This a Sputnik Moment?

Earlier this week, veiled comments started to emerge on Capitol Hill regarding an unnamed and “serious national security threat.” By Thursday, a White House spokesman, John Kirby, let the American public in on what members of Congress were talking about: a new Russian space-based antisatellite capability that violates the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, suspected of being a space-based nuclear weapon.
Officials say the system is not active, and they have not detailed what it can do. But if it is what the White House suggests, we may now find ourselves facing this generation’s Sputnik moment. In 1957, when the former Soviet Union launched the world’s first satellite and shocked Americans, the Eisenhower administration had known about the Soviets’ satellite capabilities for almost two years. Now that we know what Russia is planning, the United States cannot afford to be slow to act.
A Russian nuclear weapon capable of targeting satellites would be alarming for a list of reasons. For a start, it’s illegal. The 1967 Outer Space Treaty, to which Russia is a party, prohibits the placement of “nuclear weapons or any other kinds of weapons of mass destruction” in orbit around Earth. It could have a deeply destabilizing impact on an already messy geostrategic landscape — and give Russia the ability to put some of America’s most prized assets at risk. While the United States has made advances in space defenses, it would struggle to defend its satellites against a nuclear attack in space. That poses a critical threat.
Satellites make many aspects of our daily lives possible, from navigation and weather forecasting to TV broadcasts and financial transactions.
The idea of a nuclear detonation in space is not new. Both the Soviet Union and United States conducted high-altitude nuclear detonation (HAND) tests in the 1950s and 1960s, including the US Starfish Prime test in 1962 when the United States detonated a 1.4 megaton warhead atop a Thor missile 250 miles above the Earth. The explosion created an electromagnetic pulse that spread through the atmosphere, frying electronics on land hundreds of miles away from the test, causing electrical surges on airplanes and in power grids, and disrupting radio communications. The boosted nuclear radiation in space accumulated on satellites in orbit, damaging or destroying one-third of them.
Nor is it new for Russia to violate nuclear arms control agreements. In recent years, Russia has violated the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, suspended its participation in the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, and de-ratified the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.
What appears unprecedented now is that Russia could be working toward deploying nuclear weapons on satellites, which are constantly orbiting the Earth, to be detonated at times and locations of Moscow’s choosing.
It is hard to dissociate this potential development from the ongoing war in Ukraine, where Russia has shown a penchant for nuclear saber rattling.
On Feb. 27, 2022, three days after the invasion, President Vladimir Putin of Russia called for the country’s nuclear weapons to be put on “high combat alert.” More recently, Russia deployed nuclear weapons in Belarus, reportedly to fend off aggression from NATO and to deter further Western support for Ukraine. Moscow continues to regularly test new advanced nuclear delivery systems, like nuclear-powered autonomous torpedoes and cruise missiles. Russian military doctrine states that Russia would use nuclear weapons in the event of attacks against key Russian assets or threats to the existence of the state, and experts believe Russia could use nuclear weapons first in a crisis to signal resolve.
Russia has seen how important space-based assets can be on the battlefield in Ukraine. Starlink, with its thousands of satellites orbiting Earth, provides Ukrainian forces with uninterrupted communication. The US Department of Defense openly discusses its investments in large satellite constellations. Hundreds of satellites used for missile warning, intelligence and communications are seen as a way to be more resilient against a variety of growing space threats. Moscow would look for ways to target these large satellite constellations and to erode the advantage they provide.
But a nuclear detonation in space is indiscriminate. It would degrade or destroy any satellites in its path and within the same orbital region. It wouldn’t just affect US satellites but also the aggressor’s own satellites, as well as an unknown number of satellites owned by the over 90 countries operating in space, and astronauts living on the International Space Station and Chinese space station. Russia, however, has less to lose: Its once vaunted space program is in decline, dinged by sanctions, and said it intends to withdraw from the International Space Station program after 2024. Moscow is now well behind China in its total number of operating on-orbit satellites.
Just as Sputnik spurred leaders into action last century, this moment should do the same.
First, the United States and its allies should work to deter Russia from making this capability a reality. The United States can make building international condemnation of Russia a priority. It should share intelligence with its allies as it did following Russia’s violation of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, and could work with commercial space companies to collect information about the Russian project for broader release. Such pressure could come in various forms, such as a United Nations resolution similar to one passed in 2022 supporting a halt to one type of antisatellite weapon testing. China should have a vested interest in this effort, given its own rapidly expanding use of space, including plans to deploy two Starlink-like constellations.

*Bingen is the director of the Aerospace Security Project and a senior fellow in the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).

*Dr. Williams is the director of the Project on Nuclear Issues and a senior fellow in the International Security Program at CSIS.

The New York Times