Is This a Sputnik Moment?

Is This a Sputnik Moment?
Dimitar Dilkoff/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

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. Over 90 percent of spacecraft are commercial, fueling a $546 billion global space economy. Space is also fundamental to how our military fights. We use satellites to collect intelligence and to detect missile launches, and for navigation, communications and controlling precision weapons.

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 U.S. 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. Backing out of arms control commitments is part of Russia’s modus operandi.

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 U.S. 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.

Russia has been testing weapons that target space capabilities or using them on the battlefield in Ukraine. In November 2021, Moscow conducted an antisatellite test by launching a missile at one of its own defunct satellites. It has also employed systems designed to jam Starlink and GPS to degrade Ukraine’s communication systems, as well as the drones and munitions the country uses to defend itself. It is not surprising that Moscow would seek to develop a more powerful way to cause widespread damage to constellations of satellites.

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 U.S. 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.

Second, the United States should boost investments in defense capabilities to counter future space-based threats. This includes increasing funding for the U.S. Space Force — established in 2019 to address the growing threats to space — to both expand our space defenses and our ability to monitor the domain. Investments in missile defense and nuclear modernization are required to deter Russian aggression and assure allies. However, this does not mean the United States must also invest in space-based nuclear weapons that would violate our international obligations nor provide us any strategic or operational advantage.

Third, we need to be realistic about prospects for future arms control with Russia. Moscow has shown a disregard for its treaty commitments. Just last month, Moscow rejected attempts by the Biden administration to restart bilateral arms control talks. Rather than trying again, the administration should instead focus on strengthening deterrence by improving our own capabilities and building multilateral coalitions for responsible nuclear behavior. The Biden administration can also focus on developing tools to reduce risks and manage crises, such as promoting transparency among nuclear nations within the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Given Russia’s continued nuclear aggression, though, we must manage expectations about the outcomes of these dialogues and any arms control initiatives.

Finally, policymakers need to protect our intelligence sources and intelligence gathering methods. The intelligence that was given to Congress about Russia’s new capability is likely highly classified. The sources might include intercepted communications, human intelligence or geospatial data. In sharing the intelligence, the United States does not want to put those assets at risk, particularly if they include human agents or reveal a potentially sensitive access point to information. With Russian officials already demanding proof of what the United States knows, declassifying those sources and methods plays directly into Moscow’s hands and jeopardizes those channels for future intelligence collection.

While we are still short on crucial details, if Russia plans to deploy nuclear weapons in space to target satellites, the threat is definitely serious. But the United States is not powerless to meet the challenge. If this turns out to be a Sputnik moment of strategic significance, let’s act fast.

Kari A. 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) in Washington. She previously served as the deputy under secretary of defense for intelligence and security. Heather W. Williams is the director of the Project on Nuclear Issues and a senior fellow in the International Security Program at the CSIS. She is also an associate fellow with the Project on Managing the Atom in the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard Kennedy School.

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