How Russia could cause chaos with a space-based nuclear weapon, targeting satellites and releasing devastating radiation

15 February 2024, 21:20 | Updated: 15 February 2024, 21:26

Space-based nuclear weapons in Vladimir Putin's hands could cause devastating 'electromagnetic pulses' wiping out satellites and leaving behind an 'environment of radiation', a space security expert has told LBC
Space-based nuclear weapons in Vladimir Putin's hands could cause devastating 'electromagnetic pulses' wiping out satellites and leaving behind an 'environment of radiation', a space security expert has told LBC. Picture: Alamy

By Christian Oliver

Space-based nuclear weapons in Vladimir Putin's hands could cause devastating 'electromagnetic pulses' wiping out satellites and leaving behind an 'environment of radiation', a space security expert has told LBC.

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It comes as it was revealed today that the United States updated its allies about a new intelligence warning regarding Russian nuclear capabilities in space. However Russia has dismissed the accusations.

The exact nature of a Russian space-based nuclear weapon - and whether it even exists - is still unclear. But a space-based weapon could cause huge disruptions for the rest of the world.

"We're not entirely clear what the nuclear element of this capability is meant to be - and whether it's simply nuclear powered or nuclear armed," Juliana Suess, a research analyst and policy lead at the Royal United Services Institute, told Andrew Marr.

Explaining the effects of a potential nuclear explosion in space, Ms Suess, a space security expert, said there were two significant implications.

"Number one is the electromagnetic pulse that would immediately affect all satellites in the surrounding area," Ms Suess said. "The second one is the environment of radiation that it would leave behind."

Modern technology heavily relies on satellites - including phones, the banking system, and military and intelligence - which would cause chaos for the entire world.

Russian President Vladimir Putin sits in the locomotive cabin as he visits the Ural Locomotives plant in the town of Verkhnyaya Pyshma, Sverdlovsk region, February 15, 2024
Russian President Vladimir Putin sits in the locomotive cabin as he visits the Ural Locomotives plant in the town of Verkhnyaya Pyshma, Sverdlovsk region, February 15, 2024. Picture: Alamy

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Ms Suess said the vast majority of military capabilities "couldn't function in the way that they do at the moment without space".

Discussing whether such a weapon could exist and how far in its development the nuclear munition could be, Ms Suess said: "We have seen some plans or research that dates back to 2019 that the Russians might be building a nuclear powered counter space weapon that would actually use jamming as a sort of counter space measure.

She said the 2019 plans could be the space-based nuclear weapon the US Congress has just warned of, or it could be an entirely different weapon.

Asked how the West could defend itself against a potential space-based nuclear warhead in Putin's hands, Ms Suess said: "Especially for nuclear explosions, there's nuclear hardening that you can do, to an extent, to protect against the effects of radiation.

"But it depends on the payload and the precise context in which the weapon is deployed."

The space security expert also dismissed labelling the weaponry warning as an "arms race" but said there was "definitely competition".

"I would always argue that space is always an extension of the politics happening on Earth," she said.

"At the moment the US is still the undisputed space power. China is certainly catching up. Russia, as we've seen, is lagging behind the West in terms of space capabilities which might also be a reason why they're more likely to pivot towards actually building counter space capabilities to disrupt the West."

Explaining counter-space technology, Ms Suess told Marr: "It sounds very science fiction, but lasers can already be used as a counter-space measure in the sense of laser dazzling in which a ground-based laser is deployed, pointing up into the sky and thereby dazzling the sensor on the satellite.

"The scary thing with that capability is not the laser that is the most difficult part to build, it's having enough space situational awareness to know which satellite you're targeting - but that is already possible."

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