Why Russia won't have its anti-satellite weapon in space anytime soon

Last updated on February 16, 2024

While Russia is moving forward in its attempt to develop a dangerous new nuclear capability in space, it is not poised to deploy such a device in the immediate future, according to two people familiar with U.S. intelligence on the matter.

Moscow still needs to complete its work on an anti-satellite weapon with nuclear technology — the threat flagged this week in
intelligence circulating on Capitol Hill.
And it is not clear Moscow has the ability to successfully launch it into orbit if it does perfect its weapon, the two people, who were granted anonymity to discuss classified material, said.

That jibes with the cautions coming from the Biden administration and some lawmakers on Capitol Hill who have seen the intel argue that while there may be a time to panic, it’s not quite yet.

“This is not an active capability that’s been deployed,” National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby told reporters Thursday. “Though Russia’s pursuit of this particular capability is troubling, there is no immediate threat.”

The type of weapon being discussed would likely have the ability to destroy satellites, including American satellites. That could disrupt communications across the globe and potentially U.S. military operations.

Still, an anti-satellite device would not have the ability to launch attacks on earth, Kirby told reporters.

The intelligence and the urgency surrounding its disclosure on Capitol Hill raises questions about the extent to which Russia’s space program, specifically its attempts to develop offensive weapons, has advanced in recent months and whether Moscow is considering testing or using its new capability to target U.S. assets in space.

It also underscores a new willingness by Russia to abandon international treaties. Moscow is a signatory to the Outer Space Treaty, which prohibits the deployment of nuclear weapons or other kinds of weapons of mass destruction into space.

Officials have been particularly worried about Russia’s nuclear capabilities in the wake of its invasion of Ukraine. Those fears have dealt primarily with Moscow’s considerations of deploying ground nuclear weapons. While the Kremlin has threatened to use them on the battlefield, intelligence officials have calculated that Moscow
is not actively attempting to move such weapons to the front lines
.

But Russia’s moves in space appear to be different. Moscow’s developments of the nuclear anti-satellite weapon is a much more credible and concerning threat, the people familiar with the matter said. And it is one that intelligence officials have tracked for more than a year.

Officials have specifically looked at Russia’s attempts to acquire parts to build their own satellites, launch rockets and to develop offensive capabilities in space.

The intelligence
came under public scrutiny
Wednesday after Rep. Mike Turner (R-Ohio) — chair of the House Intelligence Committee — issued a cryptic public statement saying the committee had access to information related to a “serious national security issue.”

But Turner and many other lawmakers knew about the intelligence well before the disclosure without sounding an alarm. Members of the House and Senate intelligence committees and other members of leadership on Capitol Hill have had access to the information about Russia’s new developments for months, a third person familiar with the intelligence said.

Russia lags far behind the U.S. when it comes to overall space development and capability. American sanctions have made it more difficult for the country from building its own satellites, which has forced Moscow to move in the direction of developing offensive devices.

If Moscow plans to send a nuclear-armed device to space to target satellites, it would be alarming because of its sheer destructive power, said American Enterprise Institute space and defense budget expert Todd Harrison.

A nuclear detonation in low-Earth orbit, where many nations have commercial, weather and intelligence satellites, could take out Russia’s own satellites and fry the International Space Station, forcing the astronauts there to abandon it. The effects would take hours and days to be felt and last for months.

“You’re not able to target the effects precisely, so there would be a lot of collateral damage,” Harrison said. “It would be a complete mess: It would knock out a lot of our eyes in space, which would be the main impact for our military.”