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War in space could be Putin’s last, best hope… and if he destroys humanity in the process, so be it. That is the point of a Doomsday weapon, says the Russian president’s biographer MARK GALEOTTI


Washington is abuzz with the news that US intelligence has got wind of Russian plans to put nuclear weapons in space – a move it described as ‘a serious national security threat’.

That was euphemistic. It is no exaggeration to call the advent of space nukes a Doomsday scenario.

Earlier today, one MoD analyst told me that Russian dictator Vladimir Putin was increasingly resembling 007’s arch-enemy, Blofeld: ‘These days, Putin is almost enjoying looking like a Bond villain. Even if we think it is unlikely he’d deploy or use a weapon like this, he knows we have to take it seriously.’

It is not only British intelligence – and our American allies – who will treat Putin’s latest move as a grave threat.

Russia’s great ally China, as well as its neutral ‘partner’ India, will be equally horrified at the prospect of anti-satellite nukes, which could destroy entire communication networks, GPS relay stations, military targeting systems and defence sensors, making modern life on earth all but impossible.

Anti-satellite nukes could destroy entire communication networks, GPS relay stations, military targeting systems and defence sensors, making modern life on Earth all but impossible

Anti-satellite nukes could destroy entire communication networks, GPS relay stations, military targeting systems and defence sensors, making modern life on Earth all but impossible

Even for Putin, to trigger nuclear explosions in orbit would be the act of a madman. But that’s the point of a Doomsday weapon. It’s the ultimate option.

Even for Putin, to trigger nuclear explosions in orbit would be the act of a madman. But that’s the point of a Doomsday weapon. It’s the ultimate option.

White House national security advisor Jake Sullivan responds to a question during a press briefing at the White House

White House national security advisor Jake Sullivan responds to a question during a press briefing at the White House

The technology being developed by the Kremlin – which, I should add, insists the claims are a ‘malicious fabrication’ – has been outlawed by the international Outer Space Treaty since 1967.

Despite this, warheads in space have been a chilling spectre since the height of the Cold War. In 1983, US President Ronald Reagan announced the Strategic Defence Initiative, quickly nicknamed the ‘Star Wars’ programme, which was designed to shoot down incoming nuclear missiles with everything from space-based lasers to ground-launched ‘kinetic kill vehicles’ or rockets.

The US later trialled anti-satellite missiles but in 2022 banned their use because attacks risked filling Earth’s orbit with ‘space junk’ that could later destroy satellites and spacecraft, including manned ones.

When Russia deliberately blew up one of its own satellites, the crew of the International Space Station had to take cover in a protective ‘pod’, so great was the danger that they would crash into the resulting debris field.

When you’re travelling at five miles a second, any collisions with metal fragments are catastrophic.

And when you’re blowing up as many satellites as possible in an act of war, there is also the significant risk that large chunks of these machines could plunge to Earth. The prospect of these hitting a densely populated area is terrifying.

So how seriously should we take this threat? And what can Nato and the West do to stop Putin from ever delivering on it?

There is no doubt that it would be possible for Putin to use nukes to attack targets in space. He could simply launch a nuclear-armed missile from the ground, perhaps a longer-range version of Russia’s existing PL-19 Nudol: a surface-to-space missile designed to intercept satellites in low-Earth orbit. This weapon is already stationed around Moscow as a last-ditch anti-missile defence.

Or – and this is more likely – the Russians may be engineering a ‘co-orbital’ weapon: a hunter-killer satellite that manoeuvres close to an enemy satellite in space and explodes or fires at it to destroy it.

We know they have tested satellites that can steer themselves close to American military ones. In 2022, two Russian Kosmos satellites staged close fly-bys of a US KH-11 spy satellite, while a third tested its ability to fire a high-velocity shell.

A nuclear explosion in orbit would release a devastating electro-magnetic pulse (EMP) that would wipe out the electronics in enemy satellites over a vast area.

Even worse, these could be a precursor to what rocket scientists call ‘Fractional Orbital Bombardment Systems’ – weapons that can hit Western cities from space. Such an attack is all too easy to imagine.

If Russia did launch a huge nuclear attack on Western satellites, they would face a cascade of unintended consequences.

India or China, with their military systems heavily reliant on space tech, might perceive that as a direct assault on them, too. Their early-warning systems would be blinded – and their generals might believe that a full nuclear attack was imminent.

Even for Putin, therefore, to trigger nuclear explosions in orbit would be the act of a madman. All the world – and many of his own people – would surely join in condemning him.

But that’s the point of a Doomsday weapon. It’s the ultimate option. If the ageing and paranoid dictator fears he is about to be toppled in a coup and could face being handed over to The Hague for a war crimes trial, he might believe that war in space is his last, best hope – and if he destroys humanity in the process, so be it.

Mark Galeotti is honorary professor at the University College London School of Slavonic and East European Studies and his latest book is Putin’s Wars: From Chechnya To Ukraine



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