Kremlin’s Nuclear Russian Roulette In Orbit Could Trigger NATO Clash

Visitors scan a model of the Soviet-era Tsar Bomb, the most powerful nuclear weapon ever created. … [+] Russia is now developing an orbital bomb to challenge the Western space powers (Photo by TATYANA MAKEYEVA/AFP via Getty Images)

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As Russia escalates its nuclear brinkmanship – with a top-secret drive to launch the first plutonium warhead into orbit and with simulated explosions of tactical bombs near Ukraine – it is edging closer to sparking a conflict with the 32-nation NATO alliance, say leading defense scholars in the U.S.

The White House has already called out Moscow’s clandestine mission to launch a spacecraft capped with a nuclear warhead, even as space defense experts across the U.S. war-game how to prevent this new space super-bomb from threatening American satellites, and how to respond if the weapon is ever ignited.

President Vladimir V. Putin has been scaling a pyramid of nuclear escalation, but it remains unclear whether this process will end with Russia’s explosion of a powerful warhead in low Earth orbit, says Spenser Warren, a scholar on Russia’s nuclear modernisation drive under Putin’s reign at the University of California Institute on Global Conflict and Cooperation.

“Russian nuclear threats reached peaks at several points,” Warren told me in an interview, including its recent simulated detonations of tactical bombs on a mock Ukrainian battlefield, its suspension of the U.S.-Russian New START arms control treaty, and now its race to perfect an orbital bomb to shake up the heavens.

Hypothetically, the White House could opt to respond to Russia’s lofting a nuclear-tipped spacecraft by shooting it down with an anti-satellite missile as an act of self-defense, says Dr. Laura Grego, a preeminent expert on nuclear weapons, missile defense, and space security at the Union of Concerned Scientists.

“One can use a conventionally armed interceptor of the type the U.S. and others have developed to destroy the nuclear weapon,” she told me.

But that mission would be extremely high risk, she warns.

“Russia could preemptively detonate the nuclear weapon if it saw the interceptor launch and suspected where it was headed,” she says.

As a co-drafter of the Outer Space Treaty, Russia is obligated never to send a nuclear bomb into orbit, she points out. “The best place to verify compliance with the obligation not to station nuclear weapons in space is before launch.”

“It’s very much harder once such a weapon is launched.”

But Russia has suspended nuclear inspections required under the New START Treaty, and is certain to balk at any U.S. or UN request to visit its nuclear weapons centers to find the orbit-bound bomb.

“There may be contextual clues about whether a satellite is actually carrying a nuclear weapon,” Dr. Grego says, “but I expect that there are pretty good techniques for disguising it as something else, at least for a while.”

Russian rockets take center stage in central Moscow. The Kremlin is extending its nuclear … [+] brinkmanship with a nuclear-tipped spacecraft to perpetually patrol the planet (Photo by NATALIA KOLESNIKOVA/AFP via Getty Images)

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“Back when we had civil engagement with Russia, there was a general consensus not to put nuclear weapons in space,” says John Hamre, a former deputy secretary of defense who is now President and CEO of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, one of the top defense think tanks in Washington DC.

But Russia might now be abandoning that space détente, he told me in an interview.

During a fascinating CSIS fireside chat that Dr. Hamre hosted, “The Nuclear Option: Deciphering Russia’s New Space Threat,” he stated: “This is an implication there’s now a weapon in orbit or could be a weapon in orbit and that’s a very profound thing. Nuclear weapons in space are really profoundly different from nuclear weapons here on planet Earth.”

“We’re used to thinking about blast effects and there’s the shock wave and all that sort of thing. All of that is the product of an Earthly environment.”

In an interview right after that gathering, Dr. Hamre told me: “Much of the destructive quality of nuclear weapons on Earth comes from the heat (the detonation heating air molecules) and blast effects (the air compression that is pushed violently through the atmosphere). Some energy from the blast is consumed by impact on the ground, generating ejecta. You have none of that in space. So almost all the energy is dissipated as x-rays.”

“A nuclear detonation in space,” he says, “would reach out hundreds of miles.”

Even during the ultimate arms contest that marked Cold War I, when Moscow and Washington competed to test thermonuclear bombs that could set entire continents afire, the two sides agreed to a ban on celestial weapons to ensure their race to the Moon would remain peaceful.

Russia’s repudiation of the outer space pact by stationing its doomsday warheads in orbit would end that longstanding truce.

Now just a shadow of the one-time Soviet space superpower, Russia is operating “a structurally failing space program,” says James Clay Moltz, one of the top space defense scholars in the U.S. and a professor at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey.

To mask Russia’s decline as a space power, “Putin seems to have decided that his only card is to threaten U.S. satellites and even the space environment itself,” Professor Moltz told me in an interview. Despite Russia’s diminished position on the world stage, it still retains one component of its former Soviet superpower “glory” – the globe’s biggest arsenal of strategic and tactical nuclear weapons.

“But the use of a nuclear weapon in orbit would be an act of international terrorism,” he says.

“The electro-magnetic pulse and radiation would indiscriminately kill astronauts on the International Space Station and taikonauts on China’s Tiangong space station.”

The blast could destroy “thousands of satellites that provide information critical to the world economy and human safety on the ground, at sea, and in the air,” adds Professor Moltz, who has written a series of internationally acclaimed books on the expanding dangers of great power conflicts in space, including Crowded Orbits.

“Any country that carries out such an act,” he says, “would be become an instant international pariah.”

If Russia did explode a powerful nuclear warhead in the vicinity of the International Space Station, killing its American and European astronauts, and destroying a swath of U.S. satellites, this act of aggression could swiftly cascade into a superpower confrontation, says Professor Jack Beard, one of the world’s leading experts on the mosaic of UN treaties governing space defense and director of the Space, Cyber & National Security Law Program at the University of Nebraska College of Law.

Russian Soyuz rocket set to launch to the ISS. A space detente strengthened with the co-building of … [+] the Space Station is now in danger of being destroyed by Russia’s nuclear brinkmanship (Photo by STR/AFP via Getty Images)

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Professor Beard, who recently published the globe’s first comprehensive “Manual on the International Law of Military Space Activities and Operations,” says the blast would likely annihilate not only a ring of SpaceX satellites, but also American defense spacecraft circling the Earth along the same orbital plane.

If part of a three-pronged assault on the U.S. – extending to its astronauts, New Space allies, and military satellites – this would likely be widely recognised as an “armed attack” under the UN Charter that justifies the use of force in self-defense, Professor Beard told me.

Although the warhead in this hypothetical scenario was not detonated on American territory, he says, the White House and Defense Department would be highly likely to treat it “as an armed attack against the United States itself.”

The president, in turn, would quickly declare that the U.S. is reserving the right to respond with armed force.

And though this posited bombing was carried out beyond American borders, Professor Beard says, that does not necessarily preclude a strike against the territory of the state found responsible for its detonation.

Formerly a high-ranking counsel at the Pentagon, Professor Beard recounts that when Libyan state-sponsored terrorists were implicated in the bombing of a West Berlin discotheque that killed three Americans back in 1986, President Ronald Reagan responded with a series of airstrikes across Libya.

Under the UN Charter and related international laws, Professor Beard says, the deaths of American astronauts on the International Space Station due to the nuclear explosion, and the destruction of the US military satellites in the blast, would form independent bases justifying the use of force in response.

If the U.S. did opt to use force in its self-defense, he says, it could also seek to invoke Article 5 of the NATO agreement, which provides for a collective defense – across NATO’s 32 Allies – following an attack on any single member of the alliance.

The beginnings of the next world war, ignited in space, would be set in motion.

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