The recent disclosure of intelligence indicating that Russia is perhaps developing a nuclear weapon to target satellites in space sent shock waves through Washington. While details remain scarce, the threat scenarios could be real causes for concern.

Possible developments believed to have alarmed U.S. officials include Russia launching a nuclear weapon from the ground into space, releasing a weapon into orbit from another satellite, or deploying a nuclear-powered electronic warfare satellite.

A wave of theories and conjectures began Feb. 14 following a cryptic social media post from Rep. Mike Turner, chair of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence. He warned of a grave national security threat and urged the Biden administration to declassify and discuss the information publicly.

The following day, the White House only confirmed that it had seen intelligence about an anti-satellite threat and that it was not an operational system. But if deployed, the administration said, this weapon would contravene the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, which bans the placement of nuclear weapons into Earth’s orbit.

The treaty does not prohibit the use of nuclear-powered spacecraft, so the White House’s comments suggest the U.S. is worried about a nuclear weapon in orbit, said Laura Grego, research director at the Union of Concerned Scientists.

She noted that Russian capabilities to put a nuclear weapon in space to target satellites have been known since the 1960s, but such a threat has been held in check by global consensus and international law.

Some analysts believe Russia may be contemplating the nuclear option in response to the growing prominence of SpaceX’s Starlink system, which has provided vital communications assistance to Ukrainian defense forces.

A nuclear attack on satellites would cause significant radiation damage and degrade vast numbers of civilian and military satellites, making it a true weapon of mass destruction, said Charles Galbreath, military space analyst and senior fellow at the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies.

“In lower orbit, you’re going to impact more capabilities, more systems with a single blast,” he said. “As you go further and further into higher orbits, the effects are going to become less significant as satellites are more dispersed and more hardened against radiation.”

It’s hard to fathom why Russia would stage such an attack, which would harm its own assets in space and those of its strategic partner, China. It would also endanger humans living in LEO at the International Space Station and China’s Tiangong space station, Galbreath pointed out. An electromagnetic pulse (EMP) attack would impair their life support systems, as well as critical communications and navigation systems.

But another way to look at this is through the lens of a declining space power striving to remain relevant, Galbreath said. “We can’t underestimate how devastating it is for [Vladimir] Putin personally to see the use of Starlink by the Ukrainians to great effect to coordinate and communicate … And he might be thinking of ways to counter that.”

Russia also likely feels left behind in the race to leverage low Earth orbit for defense and commercial advantage, he noted. While U.S. companies continue to grow their presence in LEO, the U.S. Space Force’s Space Development Agency (SDA) is moving forward with plans for its own vast data transport and missile tracking satellite network. China also aims to deploy two massive LEO broadband constellations in the coming years.

“That may drive Russia to try to go after a whole bunch of satellites in one fell swoop,” said Galbreath.

SDA director Derek Tournear on Feb. 27 said the agency would not be deterred from pursuing its LEO satellite infrastructure regardless of Russia’s nuclear posturing.

Speaking at the Defense and Intelligence Space Conference in Reston, Virginia, Tournear said a widespread EMP attack in space would be a rare “black swan” event rather than an everyday threat scenario. Instead, the Space Force’s new satellite architectures are designed to be resilient against more likely dangers like cyber intrusions or compromised supply chains.

The prevailing view among experts is that the United States should work closely with allies to firmly dissuade Russia from even contemplating such a reckless and destabilizing attack that would indiscriminately cripple critical satellites from all spacefaring nations.

This article first appeared in the “On National Security” commentary feature in the March 2024 issue of SpaceNews magazine.

Sandra Erwin writes about military space programs, policy, technology and the industry that supports this sector. She has covered the military, the Pentagon, Congress and the defense industry for nearly two decades as editor of NDIA’s National Defense...