Deep Dive

Does Russia's Covert Anti-Satellite 'Space Weapon' Represent an Even Greater Threat Than We Know?


Russia may be in the first stages of deploying satellites with a nuclear payload that could be detonated to neutralize large numbers of both military and civilian satellites orbiting the earth.

Additionally, the Kremlin is deploying satellites near U.S. military ones that potentially have the capability to take them out.

In February, GOP Rep. Mike Turner of Ohio, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, first sounded the alarm about Russia’s nuclear space program by issuing a statement about an unspecified “serious national-security threat.”

“This is the Cuban Missile Crisis in space,” Turner told The Wall Street Journal in a recent interview.

John D. Hill, deputy assistant secretary of defense for space and missile defense policy, recently testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee, “Russia is seeking to mitigate U.S. spacepower by developing a range of offensive counterspace capabilities.”

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“The Department is extremely concerned that Russia may be considering the incorporation of nuclear weapons into its counterspace programs, based on information we deem credible,” he said.

“This capability could pose a threat to all satellites operated by countries and companies around the globe, as well as to the vital communications, scientific, meteorological, agricultural, commercial, and national security services humanity depends upon,” Hill concluded.

Last August, the Pentagon activated a special new unit — the 75th Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance Squadron — at Peterson Space Force Base in Colorado. The unit’s sudden activation highlights the priority the Pentagon is placing on countering Russia’s apparent covert activity.

“The 75th ISRS conducts advanced analysis on adversary space force and counterspace force threats along with their associated architectures,” Space Force Lt. Col. Travis Anderson said at the activation ceremony, according to a news release.

“Counterspace forces, also called space attack forces, are space capabilities designed to deny the United States the ability to use our satellite systems during conflict,” he added.

John Plumb, outgoing assistant secretary of defense for space policy, told the Journal that if Russia detonated a nuclear weapon in earth’s lower orbit it would destroy or damage all satellites that are not hardened against such a blast. Further it would render that area of space unusable for up to a year.

The Pentagon official recently testified in front of the House Armed Services Committee, “We’re clearly in a time of rapid change in the space strategic environment. It does not favor those who are slow or resistant to change.”

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“The scale and scope of these threats present significant risk to the American people,” Plumb said.

Rebeccah Heinrichs, a defense expert with the Hudson Institute, told the House Intelligence Committee on May 15, “Deterring adversaries from going down a path that could lead to nuclear employment must be the top priority for our nation. It is not one of several equal priorities. It must be the top priority.”

“Even if the assessment is that it’s implausible that the Russians may detonate such a weapon, it has an enormous coercive effect,” she added. “And so it’s very existence, should it put this weapon in space, should be intolerable to the United States.”

Turner concurred saying, “Right because the entire world is hostage, day one.”

When the story first broke in February, The New York Times reported, “American intelligence agencies have told their closest European allies that if Russia is going to launch a nuclear weapon into orbit, it will probably do so this year — but that it might instead launch a harmless ‘dummy’ warhead into orbit to leave the West guessing about its capabilities.”

One of the targets would likely be the Starlink satellites placed by SpaceX and used by the Ukraine military in its war against Russia.

Placing a nuclear weapon in space would be a violation of the 1967 Outer Space Treaty.

The U.S. and Japan sought to better flush out Russia’s intentions by bringing up a U.N. Security Council vote on a resolution reaffirming the treaty.

“Russia vetoed the resolution, saying it failed to go far enough by not banning all types of space weapons,” the Journal reported.

Further, Russia has rebuffed U.S. efforts to discuss the issue, nation-to-nation.

In February 2022, a little over two weeks before Russia invaded Ukraine, it launched its Cosmos 2553 satellite into space.

The spacecraft was “equipped with newly developed onboard instruments and systems for testing them under conditions of exposure to radiation and heavy charged particles,” the Journal quoted Russia’s state-controlled TASS news service as saying.

The Kremlin positioned Cosmos 2553 in lower earth orbit, which is generally defined as 1,200 miles above the surface of the Earth or less.

“As of the end of April, there were almost 6,700 American satellites operating in this part of space, according to space-data firm LeoLabs. China had 780 satellites there, while Russia had 149,” the news outlet said.

Breaking Defense reported that 2553’s orbital positioning at 2,000 kilometers (a little over 1,200 miles) is unusual.

“The system, launched in February 2022, is operating in an area largely devoid of other systems — its only known companions are one dead Russian and 10 dead American commercial birds dating from the late 1990s,” the news outlet pointed out.

“That orbit, said Darren McKnight, senior technical fellow at LeoLabs, could have been chosen to both allow experimentation that wouldn’t affect other satellites, and because it makes it harder to keep tabs on,” according to Breaking Defense.

“Further, he suggested, such an orbit might be safer for long-duration stationing of a satellite carrying a dangerous nuclear payload, in that it would be less like to be struck by debris or another satellite.”

The outlet noted that no U.S. official has claimed the satellite is armed with a nuclear payload.

Pavel Podvig, senior researcher at the U.N. Institute for Disarmament Research in Geneva, told Breaking Defense, “My best guess right now is that there is an experiment that studies shielding of various electronic equipment. The U.S. IC [Intelligence Community] seems to believe that this equipment has something to do with a nuclear weapon. But it’s nearly impossible to prove or disprove.”

In addition to Cosmos 2553, the Russians have launched two satellites that are positioned in close proximity to what are believed to be U.S. spy satellites, NPR reported.

On May 16, the Kremlin sent Cosmos 2576 into space.

“It appears that the satellite is deployed in the same orbital plane as a U.S. imaging satellite,” Podvig told NPR.

“The U.S. satellite is believed to be a classified military imaging asset in the Keyhole 11 series, according to Podvig. Launched in 2021, its official designation is USA 314. Since the early years of the Cold War, the U.S. has used ‘Keyhole’ as a code name for satellite imaging systems,” the news outlet added.

At their closest point, Cosmos 2575 and USA 314 are about 30 miles apart, Podvig said.

The Russians also placed Cosmos 2558 “co-planar” with USA 326, a reconnaissance satellite, with their closest points also being about 30 miles apart.

Victoria Samson, a military space expert with Secure World Foundation, told NRP that Moscow could be positioning its satellites so close to U.S. ones for a number of reasons, including getting a better look at them, “gathering intelligence by intercepting communications; and testing if it can block a satellite’s imaging or transmitting abilities.”

She added that other options could be launching a projectile at a satellite or “shooting it with directed energy weapons.”

The danger of Russia’s potential anti-satellite activity is, it could greatly impact the United States’ military capabilities.

Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov denied his country’s satellites are for nefarious purposes.

“I don’t think that we should respond to any fake news injected by Washington,” the diplomat said, according to the state-run Tass media agency.

“We have always spoken consistently against placing attack weapons in near-Earth orbit. It is not accidental that Russia together with a whole number of other states promotes the initiative of not placing weapons in space first,” Ryabkov said.

Clearly space is becoming a critical military frontier that the United States must seek to dominate — or bad actors like Russia will.

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Randy DeSoto has written more than 3,000 articles for The Western Journal since he joined the company in 2015. He is a graduate of West Point and Regent University School of Law. He is the author of the book "We Hold These Truths" and screenwriter of the political documentary "I Want Your Money."
Randy DeSoto is the senior staff writer for The Western Journal. He wrote and was the assistant producer of the documentary film "I Want Your Money" about the perils of Big Government, comparing the presidencies of Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama. Randy is the author of the book "We Hold These Truths," which addresses how leaders have appealed to beliefs found in the Declaration of Independence at defining moments in our nation's history. He has been published in several political sites and newspapers.

Randy graduated from the United States Military Academy at West Point with a BS in political science and Regent University School of Law with a juris doctorate.
Harrisburg, Pennsylvania
Graduated dean's list from West Point
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We Hold These Truths
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