Vladimir Putin’s Threat of Nukes Endangers Some of America’s Coolest Technology

Russian President Vladimir Putin is working on new, nasty nuclear anti-satellite weaponry. Last week, Congressional leaders were briefed in a top-secret session, but it makes you wonder — What is Putin preparing to target?

President Putin could make a genuine mess if he detonates a nuclear weapon in orbit. In July 1962, America exploded a 1.45-megaton nuke in space over the Pacific.

“Crime of the atom-mongers,” screamed the Soviet Union. The experiment lit the sky with pink and red streaks and knocked out the phone service in Honolulu, 1,100 miles away.

Then, the United States had only a handful of satellites orbiting. Radiation settled into the Van Allen Belts surrounding our planet from the Starfish Prime test and wore out a new AT&T Telstar communication satellite in only a few months. Stunned, the Soviet Union and the U.S. gave up on exoatmospheric tests and signed the 1963 Limited Test Ban Treaty.

However, a Russian space nuke could do much more damage today.

It is doubtful that Putin wants to obliterate all 8,377 worldwide satellites orbiting, mainly since some are Russian. Far more likely is that he wants to threaten specific American systems. There are three main possibilities, and they are all pretty frightening.

The Space-Based Infrared System (SBIRS) missile warning system is the first possibility. The large satellites, 22,000 miles up, look down at the earth to detect the heat flare from missile launches. Infrared detection is significant to missile defense and warning — over South Korea, Kyiv, or the United States. It’s a 24/7 mission with only a few substantial SBIRS satellites. The sixth and final one was delivered in 2022. If Putin blinded SBIRS, say goodbye to any missile warning.

Of course, the Global Positioning System also keeps the country’s economy and daily life humming. More than 30 GPS satellites triangulate to a radio signal to provide you with your location (altitude, latitude, and longitude) anytime, anywhere. GPS also gives off a precisely timed signal.

Each day, you are surrounded by an invisible, almost magic mesh of data transport run by space. Electric grids, airplanes, cellphone towers, ATMs, the stock exchange, credit card transactions, and your smartphone use data from GPS. If there is no GPS, there are no apps or maps. There will be no all-weather, precision bombing by the Navy and Air Force.

The GPS constellation dwells 12,000 miles high in a medium earth orbit, running on solar panels. Michael Griffin, former NASA administrator, warned as far back as 2017 that GPS was vulnerable. Most worry about the GPS signal jamming, but a nuke in orbit might fry solar panels. China and Russia have separate GPS-like navigation constellations, so Putin might not care. All his wealthy oligarch buddies might still make phone calls, however, not outside Russia.

What if Putin isn’t targeting a satellite but instead a space plane? There is a chance the Russian president wants to play tough in the face of America’s X-37 unmanned spaceplane. Russia has nothing like it. The X-37 is a covert orbital test vehicle about the same size as a UPS brown van. No one will say precisely what it does, but what is sure is Russia has nothing like it. On its last mission, the X-37B stayed in orbit for 908 days. Amazing!

Another mission for the X-37 just launched December 28 on the SpaceX Falcon Heavy — an Elon Musk rocket. When aloft, it will be “experimenting with space domain awareness technologies and investigating the radiation effects to NASA materials,” said the Space Force in December.

“Space domain awareness” is code for figuring out what everyone else is up to in orbit. We don’t really know what X-37’s job is, but it is significant, and Putin might be toying around with using a space nuke to intercept it.

Putin’s space nuke might also have two other goals. He may want to rattle America. After all, America’s space domain prowess assists Ukraine by giving them the information they need in their fight with Russia.

Next, Putin wants to try to impress China. Daily, Russia becomes more of a junior partner than a world leader with its limitless, distressing friendship with China. Nuclear weapons are possibly the only thing Russia has more of than China. Using a space nuke is also intended to impress President of China Xi Jinping and his generals. Although they are currently in a relationship of convenience, China and Russia have not always gotten along.

The United States Space Force has fortunately been tracking Putin’s nonsense for quite a while now. The Pentagon is racing to construct and then launch an entirely new architecture of networked smaller satellites. In a few years, they’ll take over crucial military functions that bigger, older satellites perform today, and the entire U.S. space architecture will be much less vulnerable.

They better move fast. China is also working rapidly on anti-satellite capabilities, including ground-based lasers. Xi and his cronies might not need a space nuke to disrupt space.