Military & Aerospace

The Space Frontier
Star Rating Loader Please wait...
Issue Net Edition | Date : 27 Feb , 2024

There was a perceptible commotion in the US on Valentine’s Day with Mike Turner, Chairman of the US House intelligence committee, urging the White House to declassify intelligence on a serious national-security threat. American media houses said it concerned a Russian space-related nuclear system, not yet deployed, that could endanger American and allied satellites. Speculation ranged from a nuclear weapon in orbit, a nuclear powered satellite using nuclear energy to power another device, to a nuke stationed on ground and launched just before use.

The speculation was triggered by White House National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan holding a closed-door meeting with congressional leaders, a day earlier on February 13, to brief them about the developments. Sullivan’s premature disclosure was reportedly not liked by the White House as US lawmakers gave cryptic warnings of an unspecified but serious national security threat to the country. The Outer Space Treaty, which both Russia and the United States are parties to, bans the deployment of nuclear weapons in space.

Finally, US National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby told reporters that Russia is developing a space-based anti-satellite weapon (ASAT) that is troubling for the US but poses no immediate threat to people on Earth. “I can confirm that it is related to an anti-satellite capability that Russia is developing.  This is not an active capability that’s been deployed. And though Russia’s pursuit of this particular capability is troubling, there is no immediate threat to anyone’s safety, Kirby said.  The weapon could pose a lethal risk to astronauts in low orbit, along with potentially disrupting vital military and civilian satellites, he added.

Kirby confirmed that the Russian weapon is “space-based” but did not comment on reports in US media that it was either nuclear-capable or nuclear powered. However, he said it would breach the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, which both Russia and the United States have signed, which bans the deployment of nuclear weapons in space.

Moscow denied the “malicious” and “unfounded” claims, describing them as a White House ploy to try and pass a multi-billion-dollar Ukrainian war aid package stalled in Congress. Kremlin Spokesman Dmitry Peskov said the White House was “trying to get Congress to vote on the appropriations bill any way it can.  It’s obvious. Let’s see what tricks, so to speak, the White House is going to pull.”

If the Russian weapon in question is not nuclear, does it violate the Outer Space Treaty? At the same time, weaponizaton of space is already on and it would perhaps be impossible to precisely identify whether a space-based weapon is nuclear or non-nuclear until it is fired. Also, 114 countries are parties to the Outer Space Treaty as of August 2023, while another 22 have signed the treaty but not completed ratification – why not?

It may be recalled that on August 12, 2015, the US fired a space-based kinetic weapon, ‘Rod of God’, at China’s Tianjin Port that killed 114 people and instantly destroyed six city blocks on the edge of the city of Tianjin. The Chinese were dumbstruck. Though not identified, this was a weapon that can be dropped from high orbit to strike almost any land-based target. So while ASAT capability to shoot down enemy satellites is good, it is defence against space weapons that becomes a serious concern.

For that matter, how effective would the ‘Outer Space Treaty’ be in terms of ‘Near Space’; considering that basing nuclear weapons in near space is as dangerous in the ambit of Orbital Warfare? Take China’s newly established Near-Space Command, equipped with hypersonic weapons (which could well include nukes)  straddling the stratosphere in a ‘near-space’ area, which starts at an altitude of about 20 km and reaches the lower boundary of space at 100 km from Earth.

A paper submitted to the 11th China Command and Control Conference in October 2023 said that the near-space, a hotly contested zone, could determine outcome of future battles, and China’s near-space command will be equipped with modern hypersonic missiles to carry out merciless attacks on critical enemy targets, as also high-altitude surveillance globally using automated solar-powered drones and spy balloons.

China has a secret complex of chemical lasers, microwave generators and other radio frequency weapons some 145 km south of Urumqi, capital of Xinjiang to neutralize space vehicles of potential adversaries, from where PLA can simultaneously fire up to three laser guns.  A Pentagon report declassified in 2019 reads, “China will likely field a ground-based laser weapon that can counter low-orbit space-based sensors by 2020 and by the mid-to-late 2020s, it may field higher power systems that extend the threat to the structures of non-optical satellites.” It also mentioned, “China plans to use high-energy ground-based lasers in a future war to disrupt Global Positioning System (GPS) satellites that provide pinpoint targeting of US missiles.”

The US is concerned about Chinese and Russian advancements in space and development-cum-deployment of hypersonic weapons, at a time when the ‘Mayhem’ spy-plane program of the US Air Force hangs in balance amid funding challenges. Earlier, speaking at the Halifax International Forum in December 2021, General David Thompson, the US ViceChief of Space Operations admitted that the US is not as advanced in hypersonic technologies as Russia or China. Moreover, experts are now warning that the US could lose the space race to China after NASA retires the International Space Station (ISS).

Chinese scientists now claim to have developed a new-generation closed electron beam plasma stealth device that can make almost any aircraft disappear any military aircraft vanish from the radar screen. Focusing on protecting key areas instead of the entire aircraft, it can be switched on at a moment’s notice to fool radar operators.

According to the Kiev Scientific Research Institute for Forensic Examinations (KNDISE), Russia used its new hypersonic 3M22 Zircon missile in Ukraine for the first time on February 7, 2024. Earlier, Russia had used its air-launched 9-S-7760 Kinzhal against the American Patriot missile system supplied to Ukraine. The Zircon missile is believed to have a range of 1,000 km and a speed of Mach 9, which significantly reduces reaction time for air defence and enables the attacker to attack large, deep and hardened targets. The Zircon missile was first flight-tested in 2015 and declared operational by 2022. Russia tested the missile off two warships, the Admiral Gorshkov frigate and the Severodvinsk submarine, before using it to arm the frigate in January 2023.

There is also considerable concern about Russia’s ‘Avangard’ hypersonic, fractional orbiting nuclear weapon system. With an intercontinental reach, speed of Mach 27 and a blast yield of 0.8-2 megatons, the Avangard system includes a separate hypersonic attack unit that can maneuver, both laterally and at altitudes.

India’s ‘Mission Shakti’ executed on March 27, 2019 demonstrated indigenous anti-satellite (ASAT) capabilities in successfully shooting down a low-earth satellite, enabling India to join the elite club of countries having similar capabilities; the US., Russia and China. At the same time, low-cost ‘swarm satellites have arrived on the scene, which are difficult to detect because of their nanosize and have in-built redundancy because of their sheer numbers against ASAT weapons. This would affect the efficacy of the Ballistic Missile Defence (BMD) systems.

Finally, weaponization of space is a foregone conclusion and it is questionable whether identification of a nuclear weapon, nuclear satellite or nuclear-powered satellite in space is possible without actual use of such a weapon. In fact, such weapons may already be in space by the global powers – US, Russia or China, especially by those whose business historically has been to wage war and retain dominance over the planet any which way. Morality has no place in war – why else would the US pull out from the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty in 2018, followed by Russia in 2019, causing its demise?

Rate this Article
Star Rating Loader Please wait...
The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

About the Author

Lt Gen Prakash Katoch

is Former Director General of Information Systems and A Special Forces Veteran, Indian Army.

More by the same author

Post your Comment

2000characters left