What are Russia’s plans for nuclear tech in space? This Mississippi professor is watching closely.

Published 8:52 pm Tuesday, February 27, 2024

Russia aims to use nuclear technology in space, but whether that technology is a weapon or a source of energy will determine if the nation violates an international treaty, says Michelle Hanlon, a University of Mississippi law professor.

Recent intelligence indicates Russia is interested in putting nuclear weapons in space, a move that would violate an international treaty, White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby announced last week.

The Outer Space Treaty of 1967 prohibits putting nuclear weapons in orbit, but does not prohibit the use of nuclear energy to power satellites, said Hanlon, executive director of the Center for Air and Space Law in the School of Law and co-founder and CEO of For All Moonkind.

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“It’s very difficult to talk about this because we don’t really know anything yet,” she said. “We know Russia is developing this capability, but it’s unclear whether it’s to use nuclear warheads to damage or destroy satellites or for a satellite that is nuclear-powered.

“This is not the end of the world as we know it, but this is a very, very concerning development in international diplomacy and international relations.”

Although it is unclear exactly why Russia is developing this technology, the move still merits caution, Hanlon said. Were Russia to use a nuclear weapon to destroy satellites in space, the consequences could be massive.

Most developed nations rely so heavily on satellites that the destruction could mean the collapse of entire banking infrastructures, loss of cellular communications, and loss of access to the internet, television, GPS navigation systems and more, Hanlon said. The destruction could also result in the generation of masses of debris in orbit, another danger to satellites.

“One of the biggest criticisms (of nuclear weaponry) is it’s indiscriminate – if Russia is going to deploy a nuclear bomb in space, it will destroy a lot of satellites,” she said. “There will be a lot of destruction.”

Destroying another nation’s property – even in space – would also be an act of war, Hanlon said.

“It’s an act of war if you violate the sovereignty of another nation and, because of the space treaties, any object in space belongs to the country who sent it there,” she said. “If Russia attacked one of the United States’ satellites, it could be viewed the same as them attacking a U.S. Navy vessel.”

The Outer Space Treaty dictates that if a nation launches any object into outer space that damages another nation’s property, that nation is responsible for the damages, Hanlon said.

“Russia can still sort of ignore it, but that liability is there,” she said. “That’s one of the reasons it’s so important to work through diplomatic channels, because the more countries that will condemn Russia, the less likely it is that something like this will happen.

“I think this will actually backfire on them because so many countries rely on satellites.”

Until countries know more about Russia’s intentions, it is important to think about why Russian President Vladimir Putin would want the capability to put nuclear weapons in space, Hanlon said.

“If you look back, why did Russia test their ASAT capabilities in 2021?” said Hanlon, referencing Russia’s anti-satellite missile testing on Nov. 15, 2021. “Because they were getting ready to invade Ukraine. It was posturing.

“I think this is that kind of development. Putin has already said that he will not hesitate to use nuclear weapons on Earth. I think this is another way of him saying, ‘Look, I really mean it.'”