Explainer-What is the space-based nuclear weapon that the US says Russia is developing?


MOSCOW/WASHINGTON (Reuters) – What is the space-based nuclear weapon that the United States has warned Congress and allies in Europe that Russia could use against the West’s satellites?

The exact nature of the weapon – and whether it actually exists – is unclear. But threatening satellites could cause all sorts of mischief – undermining communications, surveillance, intelligence and command and control around the world, including in the nuclear sector.

It is unclear why Russia would need to use nuclear weapons to destroy a satellite. The New York Times stated that the United States does not have the capability to counter such a weapon.

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The following is what is known and not known.

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The United States has briefed Congress and allies in Europe about new intelligence related to Russian nuclear capabilities that could pose an international threat, a source familiar with the matter told Reuters on Wednesday.

The new capabilities, related to Russian efforts to develop space-based weapons, do not pose an immediate threat to the United States, the source said.

Sources later said the warning was related to Russian capabilities in space and satellites. One of the sources said the issue is serious but not related to active capacity nor should it be a cause for panic.

Citing one current and one former US official, The New York Times previously reported that the new intelligence was related to Russia’s efforts to develop space-based anti-satellite nuclear weapons. ABC News also reported that intelligence was related to such a capability. Current and former officials said the nuclear weapon was not in orbit.

How did this come to light?

The intelligence came to light as Representative Mike Turner, the Republican chairman of the U.S. House of Representatives Intelligence Committee, issued an unusual and cryptic statement on Wednesday warning of a “serious national security threat.”

Russia and the United States are by far the largest nuclear powers: they have about 90% of the world’s nuclear weapons in their arsenals, and both have advanced military satellites orbiting the Earth.

In the early years of the Cold War, when Russia took the lead in the space race and both sides developed intercontinental ballistic missiles, the West proposed a treaty to outlaw nuclear weapons in space.

The end result was the Outer Space Treaty of 1967 which bans the placement of any weapons of mass destruction in orbit or outer space.

The United States characterizes Russia and China as its biggest nation-state competitors and says both are developing a range of new weapons systems, including nuclear, cyber and space capabilities.

Russia says the United States’ post-Cold War dominance is crumbling and Washington has spread chaos across the planet while ignoring the interests of other powers for years. Moscow says the United States is also developing several new weapons.

Russia has neither confirmed nor denied the existence of such a weapon, but it dismissed the US warning as a “malicious fabrication” and a move by the White House aimed at dissuading US lawmakers from Moscow. More funds have to be approved to combat this.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said he would not comment on the substance of the report until details were disclosed by the White House. But he said Washington’s warning was clearly an attempt to get Congress to approve more money.

“It is clear that the White House is trying by any means to encourage Congress to vote on a bill to allocate funds,” Peskov said. “We’ll see what tactics the White House uses.”

Moscow’s chief deputy foreign minister on arms control, Sergei Ryabkov, accused the United States of “malicious fabrications”, the TASS news agency reports.

(Reporting by Guy Faulconbridge in Moscow and Reuters correspondents in Washington; Editing by Gareth Jones)

Copyright 2024 Thomson Reuters,


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