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HomeLanguageEnglishIs Nuclear Outer Space a Possible Reality or an Empty Threat?

Is Nuclear Outer Space a Possible Reality or an Empty Threat?


By Thalif Deen

UNITED NATIONS (IDN) — The growing fear of a nuclear weapon in outer space was perhaps never anticipated 65 years ago when the UN General Assembly routinely created a Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS) back in 1959. (P30)  ARABIC | FRENCH | JAPANESE | SPANISH

The 102-member committee, described as one of the largest ad hoc committees at the United Nations, was set up to govern the exploration and use of space for the benefit of all humanity: “for peace, security and development”.

But the current widespread speculation of a proposed launching of a Russian space-based weapon has led to rising US concerns about the new development.

In a February 19 report, the New York Times quoted US Secretary of State Antony Blinken as saying any nuclear detonation in space would take out not only American satellites but also those in Beijing and New Delhi.

Still, the US says it poses no real threat to humans.

John Kirby, US National Security Council Coordinator for Strategic Communications, told reporters February 19: “We are not talking about a weapon that can be used to attack human beings or cause physical destruction on earth”.

Tariq Rauf, former Head of Verification and Security Policy at the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) told IDN the adage that a little knowledge is a dangerous thing can be applied to Mike Turner, who heads the US House intelligence committee, when he recently demanded that the President Biden’s administration declassify information on what he termed a “serious national security threat” said to involve plans to deploy anti-satellite nuclear weapons in space by Russia.

Fortunately, cooler heads have prevailed, and Mike Johnson, speaker of the US House of Representatives, has stated that there is no need for panic or for alarm.

Any nuclear detonation in space, Rauf pointed out, would damage and destroy satellites in Earth orbit affecting both military and civilian users.

“In the military domain, damaging or destroying satellites for reconnaissance, verification of arms control, early warning of missile launches, and battle management, would adversely affect both Russia and the US, effectively blinding them. Thus, deploying nuclear weapons in space makes no sense.”

At present, he said, there is no international regime prohibiting anti-satellite weapons (ASAT), and such weapons would not necessarily require a nuclear explosive device. While nuclear weapons on ballistic missiles would traverse through space when fired to targets on Earth, this would not be in violation of the Outer Space Treaty that prohibits testing and deployment of nuclear explosive devices in space.

The 1963 Partial Nuclear Test Ban Treaty prohibits nuclear detonations in space.

Nandasiri Jasentuliyana, former Director, United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs and President Emeritus, International Institute of Space Law & Policy, told IDN from a legal perspective, space law is based on deterrence.

Russian violation of the 1967 Outer Space Treaty would be self-defeating and counterproductive. There are several countries with almost immediate retaliatory launch capability, he said.

“Destroying the communication resources of a military power leaves that military structure without control of its forces. Even in wartime, nations do not destroy other nations’ undersea cables and major communication systems.”

“That leaves a military victor without means of communicating with a conquered population and its military. In my opinion, the Russians have a great deal to lose and comparatively little to gain by violating the Outer Space Treaty, let alone nuclear weapons,” he argued.

Such an act may offer some short-term tactical advantage, but in my opinion, that is far outweighed by the unavoidable long-term consequences.

On a more strategic level, he said: “As I understand, much of the actual details are—for obvious reasons—shrouded, and this might well be a case where the reference to ‘nuclear’ may get everyone up in arms without knowing exactly what is going on”.

As such, and maybe it is part of the classical Russian strategy to fuel all sorts of rumors and leave opponents in the dark, but there are serious doubts about the viability and military usefulness of nuclear weapons operating in outer space, given the absence of an atmosphere and the lack of discrimination by any blasts as between Russia’s space assets and those of others (as the US itself experienced with Starfish Prime back in the 60s).

“I would not exclude that what is going on would be regarding placing nuclear-fueled satellites with (an aggressive) military task in outer space, where its conformity with the Outer Space Treaty may be arguable but not unequivocal – yet posing a serious threat”, said Jasentuliyana, who was also a former Deputy Director General, United Nations.

Asked for a response, UN Spokesperson Stephane Dujarric said he was aware of the media speculation. But “we don’t really have any substantive information on it”.

Obviously, as a matter of principle, the Secretary-General continues to call on all Member States to avoid an arms race in outer space, including the development of both legally binding and political measures.

“And then when it comes to nuclear weapons, Member States must abide by their treaty obligations and avoid any action that could lead to catastrophic miscalculation or escalation,” he added.

Elaborating further, Rauf said: “We might recall that in 1958 there was a short-lived US effort, Project A-119, to detonate a thermonuclear nuclear device on the surface of the Moon. The rationale was to produce a very large radioactive cloud and a brilliant super flash of light clearly visible from Earth, that would be an obvious show of strength to the Soviet Union. Fortunately, the project was cancelled, the Moon was spared and the “Moon Treaty” of 1979 prohibits all types of nuclear tests on the Moon and other celestial bodies”.

In July 1962, a US detonation in space of a 1.4 megaton nuclear explosive device, Starfish Prime, 500 times as powerful as the one that dropped on Hiroshima, disabled several satellites from its electro-magnetic pulse (EMP). The Earth’s magnetic field caught ionized radiation from the detonation and created a radiation belt (Starfish belt) that lasted for a decade.

Both the USSR and the US previously have carried out several nuclear detonations in space in the early 1960s. Soviet Project K nuclear detonations were conducted from 1961 to 1962, while the US carried out 11 nuclear detonations in space.

Efforts on preventing an arms race in space (PAROS), prohibiting ASAT weapons and other weapons in space have been deadlocked at the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva and at the UN in New York at the First Committee of the General Assembly, Rauf said.

He also pointed out that the Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space in Vienna, set up by the General Assembly in 1959, has the mandate to promote international cooperation in peaceful uses of outer space, and govern the exploration and use of space for the benefit of all humanity for peace, security and development.

In general, the US and the EU States prefer a voluntary code of conduct and transparency regarding activities in space (International Code of Conduct for Outer Space Activities—ICoC), while China together with Russia and others favor legally binding measures regarding non-deployment of weapons in space (Treaty on the Prevention of the Placement of Weapons in Outer Space, the Threat or Use of Force against Outer Space Objects—PPWT), declared Rauf.

Jasentuliyana said a nuclear weapon in outer space would bring into issue the Outer Space Treaty Arts II, III, IV, and IX, as well as the Limited Test Ban Treaty and the UN Charter.

“The UN Charter is now customary international law, and I consider OST Articles II. III. and IV to be customary international law as well.  Thus, Russia is not able to effectively denounce these treaty Instruments,” he noted. [IDN-InDepthNews]

Image: Outer space from the International Space Station at 400 km (250 mi) altitude in low Earth orbit. In the background the Milky Way’s interstellar space is visible, as well as in the foreground, above Earth, the airglow of the ionosphere just below and beyond the so-defined edge of space the Kármán line in the thermosphere. Credit: NASA/Scott Kelly.

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