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Nuclear Weapons in Space: High Altitude EMP (HEMP) and Aletnate Threats, From Russia or Others

HARDTACK ORANGE High Altitude Nuclear test -12 August 1958
HARDTACK ORANGE High Altitude Nuclear test -12 August 1958

Washington, DC, was engulfed in a firestorm of controversy on Thursday, February 15th, when House Intelligence Committee Chair Mike Turner released a cryptic statement about the national security threat posed by the possibility of a Russian nuclear-powered space asset designed to target American satellites. Frankly, the media response bordered on the hysterical.

The fact is, nearly 70 years ago, at the dawn of the atomic age in the late 1950s through 1963, the U.S. and the former USSR conducted a series of atmospheric nuclear tests that created  Electromagnetic Pulse ( EMP) effects so powerful they impacted electronics and power grid systems 1000s of miles away. As it turns out, the effects of these HEMP nuclear tests were not limited to the surface of the Earth. They had an even greater impact on satellite systems in outer space. The perceived threat of the so-called HEMP, High Altitude EMP, was a major factor in the former USSR, and other nuclear powers of the time signing the 1963 Atomic Test Ban Treaty.

This blog will review the history and science behind EMP weapons, nuclear and non-nuclear, and attempt to extrapolate the possible threats Congressman Turner so cryptically warned the public about.

In Case You Missed It …

Over the last few years, I've given a series of lectures on satellite technology and threats to satellite systems, along with a series of popular blogs on nuclear war, including EMP. Consider them a primer to this blog with related detailed content that will interest you.

U.S. STARFIRE Laser Dazzler Test Weapon

The Lectures

  • Rise of Commercial Intelligence Satellite Networks:

The Small Satellite Revolution ushered in low-cost imaging and radar satellites. The War in Ukraine Forged Them Into an Intelligence Network - [CLICK HERE TO VIEW]

  • Vulnerability of Commercial Satellite Networks to Hostile Attack:

Now that commercial satellites have dual civilian/military use, the military threat to commercial systems begins. From Russian cyber attacks on SpaceX Starlink to laser blinding of earth observation satellites, a low-level war in space has already begun. [CLICK HERE TO VIEW]

  • Orbital Debris: Situational Awareness, Collision Avoidance, and Debris Mitigation:

EMP and other hostile attacks are not the only danger to satellite systems. Enough Debris (junk) has been left in orbit to be a danger in itself.

The Blogs

It started as a dinner conversation over the question of Putin's threat of nuclear war in conjunction with his war on Ukraine - Is it possible to survive a nuclear war? This question motivated the following three popular blogs that provide the answers:

Enough of the shameless self-promotion. Let's unpack nuclear weapons in space, starting with some historical background and resulting International Treaties meant to avoid nuclear proliferation in space

Nuclear Weapons in Space – A Historical Perspective

Starting with the 1945 TRINITY test of the first atomic bomb, scientists recognized that a form of electrical interference was generated as a side effect of firing a nuclear weapon. When the British began their own atomic weapons development in the early 1950s, their tests experienced a series of equipment failures that the British attributed to "Radio Flash", an early term for the Electromagnetic Pulse (EMP) effect.

In the 1950s, as the U.S. and the then Soviet Union(USSR) experimented with new and more powerful weapons designs, they conducted live atmospheric tests to understand the destructive forces of weapons based on altitude and device yield(strength in millions of tons of TnT). Tests were conducted for groundbursts, airbursts, and finally, starting in 1958, high-altitude / low-earth-orbit-level space bursts. As the altitude of tests increased, measurements indicated destructive levels of electromagnetic pulse (EMP) reaching much farther than the physical blast effects of the nuclear weapon itself. Weapons scientists quickly understood that the "EMP" effect could be a unique form of weapon in itself. Funding and execution of test experiments soon followed.

Johnston Atoll – principal U.S. missile test site 1950s -1960s
Johnston Atoll – principal U.S. missile test site 1950s -1960s

The U.S. Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) and the Defense Atomic Support Agency jointly conducted a series of 15 tests out of Johnston Atoll in the Pacific, using the vast space provided by the Pacific Ocean to ensure test safety. Six of these tests technically occurred in outer space with altitudes ranging from 100Km to as high as 400 Km. To put this in perspective, the  International Space Station orbits the Earth at approximately 408 Km.

Of these high altitude tests, code-named STARFISH PRIME stands out in particular for breath and level of impact resulting from the experiment. STARFISH PRIME launched from the Johnston Atoll test center on July 9th, 1962. The Thor test missile followed a parabolic flight path, reaching an altitude of 1100 km. The nuclear warhead was detonated on its downward trajectory when it had fallen to the programmed altitude of 400 kilometers. The results of the detonation of STARFISH PRIME's 1.4Mt ( equivalent to 1.4 million tons of TnT high explosives) was unprecedented:

STARFISH PRIME High Altitude Nuclear Test as seen from Honolulu, HI - 9 July 1962
STARFISH PRIME High Altitude Nuclear Test as seen from Honolulu, HI - 9 July 1962
  • The rainbow-like explosion itself could be seen in Honolulu, HI, 1,400 km away.

  • Honolulu, Hawaii, power grid experienced unexpectedly overloaded and overheating lightning protection devices on powerlines. Power was restored to impacted areas over a several-day period.

  • The EMP damage to the microwave link between Kauai and the other Hawaiian islands shut down telephone service.

  • Other effects included rendering 100s of streetlights inoperative (blown) and tripping home security alarms across a broad swath of Haiwai.

While these immediate effects of  STARFISH PRIME's EMP 1400 Km from the destination point were troubling, this was only part of the resulting damage. The impact on spacecraft and the space environment quickly became a far greater concern. In particular:

  • Three known U.S. satellites were immediately disabled by the blast's EMP and radiation

    • It is unknown if any USSR satellites were impacted

  • The explosion released an enormous number of high-energy electrons that became trapped in the magnetic fields of the inner Van Allen radiation belt, increasing radiation levels significantly.

    • Satellites a Low and Millde Earth orbit transit through these belts as orbit the earth

    • In the months that followed, these man-made radiation belts eventually caused six or more satellites to fail, including the United Kingdom's first satellite, Ariel 1

  • Perhaps even more disturbing, in 1968, it was reported that some Starfish electrons had remained in the atmosphere for 5 years

Satellites Traverse the Van Allen Radiation belts of trapped electrons in the Earth's Magnetic Fields
Satellites Traverse the Van Allen Radiation belts of trapped electrons in the Earth's Magnetic Fields

According to the Defense Threat Reduction Agency's report, Collateral Damage to Satellites from an EMP Attack.

"The most celebrated victim of STARFISH PRIME was the world's first communications satellite, Telstar, which relayed voice and television signals across the Atlantic. Telstar was launched on 10 July 1962, one day after the STARFISH PRIME nuclear explosion. About one month after launch, there was an indication that one of two command decoders on board the satellite was failing. By utilizing modified and continuous commands to the satellite, the decoder was temporarily recovered. Complete failure of the command system did finally occur in February of 1963"

The report also cites another critical outcome of STARFISH PRIME: Manned Space Flight.

"On September 5, 1962, President John Kennedy met with SECDEF McNamara, NASA officials, and other experts to discuss upcoming high altitude nuclear tests and possible health repercussions for Mercury astronaut Walter Schirra, who was scheduled to go into orbit a few weeks later. Concerns that Schirra might be exposed to unacceptably high levels of radiation if high-altitude tests were conducted led the administration to postpone further testing until after the mission. A few days after Schirra's flight, an Air Force spokesman announced that Schirra would have been killed by residual STARFISH PRIME radiation if he had flown above 640 km altitude."

Soviet Union High Altitude Tests

The U.S. was not alone in running high-altitude nuclear EMP tests. From 1961 thru 1962 the USSR conducted at least 7 of their own tests. Several of these tests, code-named "K-series," were detonated over Kazakhstan, then a state within the USSR,  with some unfortunate consequences.  

Soviet Nuclear Test #184 "K-4"– launched from Kapustin Yar and detonated near Zhezqazghan, Kazakhstan
Soviet Nuclear Test #184 "K-4"– launched from Kapustin Yar and detonated near Zhezqazghan, Kazakhstan

In particular, Test #184, "K-4" launched on 22 October 1962, detonated a 300Kt nuclear device at an altitude of 290 km. According to a 2019 paper, Soviet Test 184, 1962 Soviet Nuclear EMP Tests over Kazakhstan

"Test 184 that caused most of the problems with the civilian infrastructure in Kazakhstan … widespread diesel generator problems occurred sometime after the detonations due to dielectric breakdown in the generator windings … Other known effects of Test 184 were that it knocked out a major 1000-kilometer (600-mile) underground power line running from Astana (then called Aqmola), now the capital city of Kazakhstan, toward the city of Almaty. Some fires were reported. In the city of Karaganda, the EMP started a fire in the city's electrical power plant, which was connected to the long underground power line."

We do not know if the Soviet high-altitude tests impacted any soviet satellites, and there is no record of U.S. or Allied satellites being affected by Soviet tests. The STARFISH PRIME test certainly impacted Soviet satellites. However, the USSR did not lodge any complaints.

What is clear is that both the USSR and the U.S. understood the danger their atmospheric tests were creating and chose to take Action.

The Aftermath of U.S. and Soviet Atmospheric Tests – a Sobering Realization

In 1962, it became very clear to the U.S., USSR, Great Britain, and other nuclear powers that the cumulative dangers from fallout and EMP radiation effects of atmospheric testing could have long-term impacts on other national priorities. The damage to satellites and lingering radiation in the Van Allen belt represented a threat to the future of manned space flight and the extensive space-based national security satellite systems that both the U.S. and USSR had invested in by that time.

In 1963, the United States, the Soviet Union, and Great Britain signed the Limited Test Ban TreatyThe treaty banned all nuclear tests in the atmosphere, in space, or underwater. This is the first of a set of Cold War treaties placing limits on nuclear weapons and weapons testing. Nearly all nations have ratified the treaty, with the notable exception of China. Underground testing was unaffected by the treaty until the United States and the Soviet Union signed the Threshold Test Ban Treaty (TTBT), which banned underground tests with yields greater than 150 kilotons.

Four years later, the 1967 Outer Space Treaty banned the stationing of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in outer space. The treaty prohibits military activities on celestial bodies and details legally binding rules governing the peaceful exploration and use of space. The treaty entered into force on October 10, 1967, and currently has 110 states-parties, with another 89 countries that have signed it but have not yet completed ratification.

Testing and refinement of EMP and other nuclear weapons would continue, but they would do so via underground tests. Through the 1960s, the USSR would consider a form of space-based orbital weapon known as an "FOBS" or Fractional Orbital Bomb System. A Fractional Orbital Bombardment System (FOBS) is a warhead delivery system that uses an orbital path toward its target destination. It looks like a regular satellite launch as opposed to a ballistic missile launch. Just before reaching the target, thet FOB deorbits through a retrograde engine burn. Unfortunately, a FOB is not as accurate as an ICBM ( Intercontinental Ballistic Missile), and given the increased launch energy requirements, it can only loft a much smaller nuclear weapon.

While the 1967 Outer Space Treat allowed for FOBS, from the U.S. point of view, FOBS were not particularly useful militarily, which may explain why Secretary of Defense McNamara and others defended the Soviet FOBS as legal under the 1967 Outer Space Treaty.

One interesting note: In August 2021, the People's Republic of China tested a weapon that combined FOBS with a hypersonic glide vehicle. It was a very provocative threat as a first-strike weapon in the Pacific Theater against U.S. Naval Task Forces and depot supply bases in the event of war in the Taiwan Straights or a direct first strike on the CONUS (Continental U.S.) in a general nuclear war.

The Science Behind Nuclear and Non-nuclear EMP Weapons

If you have experienced electronic damage from a nearby lightning strike or power/communications outages from solar flare activity, you've experienced EMP. EMP is a short-duration energy pulse across a broad spectrum of radio frequencies. EMP can be powerful enough to melt wire and "fry" the electronics in the circuit boards of any electronic device. At lower levels, EMP will cause "UPSETS" - blow breakers and fuses, reset of electronics, and recoverable power and communications outages. EMP is generally harmless to humans – unless they have a heart pacemaker or other electric health devices.

The EMP from nuclear weapons is more intense and of slightly longer duration than natural sources, and hence it is more destructive. There are two types of EMP we need to be concerned with:

  • Source Region EMP (SREMP), created by nuclear weapons detonated at lower altitudes or near the Earth's surface. Any city or installation targeted by a nuclear weapon will experience SREMP

  • High-altitude EMP (HEMP), from a nuclear detonation at 15 or more miles above the Earth's surface.

Source Region EMP (SREMP) is a by-product of any nuclear weapon detonated at low altitudes. In the first tenth of a second, the blast creates an intense burst of gamma rays, producing SREMP fields of a few kV/m (thousand volts per meter) that can penetrate up to 1 km into the Earth. The SREMP fields are coupled with buried cables, ariel cables, and building and communications wires (E.g., ethernet cables), creating destructive energy roughly 10 times larger than severe lighting. Unconnected electronics like cell phones, tablets, cordless phones, and laptops coupled to these EMP fields are likewise damaged.

Surface Regional EMP (SREMP)  impact on cellphones 10 Kiloton weapon, Washington DC
Surface Regional EMP (SREMP) impact on cellphones 10 Kiloton weapon, Washington DC

Fortunately, the effects of SREMP are limited to a few kilometers (km) for unconnected electronics. For communications and power cables emanating from ground zero, the damage can extend over 100 km. Here are a few examples of damage and upset radius for a 100 kiloton nuclear weapon:

  • Cellphone handset: damage 1.72 Km, upset: 2.5 Km (~ same distance as detonation major damage zone)

  • Cellular micro-cell antenna pickup: damage 0.57 Km, upset: 0.95 Km

  • 200-foot cell tower antenna pickup: damage 2.99 Km, upset: 16.25Km

  • 100-foot F.M. radio station tower pickup: damage 5.49Km, upset: 44.60 Km

  • 100-foot ethernet cable (home) connected equipment: damage: 26.40 Km, Upset: 95.84 Km

  • Wired POTS – Plain Old Telephone System: damage: damage: 87.90 Km, Upset: 149.6 Km

  • Overhead A.C. power line: damage: 74 Km, Upset: 135 Km

Power distribution, cable T.V. Coax, Ethernet-connected equipment, and old-fashioned wired telephones will have a much wider area of possible EMP damage than physical blast damage.

High altitude EMP (HEMP) results from the detonation of a nuclear weapon at a high altitude, typically 30 to 400 Km (15 to 50 miles) above the Earth. HEMP nuclear detonations create EMP destruction and interference (upset) over an extensive area without destroying structures or causing human loss of life. As a by-product, HEMP has an equivalent destructive impact on satellites. HEMP has three specific phases: E1 (Early-time), E2 (Intermediate-time), and E3 (Late-time).

  • E1 (Early-Time) is an electromagnetic field pulse created by gamma rays from a nuclear warhead explosion. The pulse has a duration of several nanoseconds and covers a broad range. E1's power spectrum frequency is in the 10s to 100s of megahertz range, enabling it to couple to electrical and electronic systems, inducing currents in the range 1000s of amperes, and "frying" impacted electronics.

  • E2 (Intermediate-ime) is produced by delayed gamma rays and neutron-induced currents and is similar in frequency to lightning but vastly more widespread, like thousands to millions of simultaneous lightning strikes over a period of 10s of milliseconds. E2 follows E1 and creates a compound effect where E1-induced damage has circumvented circuit protection, the E2 impact could pass directly into major system components and damage them.

  • E3 (Late-Time) is widespread and similar to intense solar flare/geo storm solar activity -inducing large fluctuations of the Earth's magnetic fields while simultaneously generating large induced currents and damaging equipment connected to powerlines and the lines themselves on Earth, E3 has little impact on satellite systems.

HEMP effects,  E1, E2, and E3 (RED) compared to a Direct Lightning Strike (BLACK)
HEMP effects, E1, E2, and E3 (RED) compared to a Direct Lightning Strike (BLACK)

Damage (RED) or upset (YELLOW)  of computer equipment  from HEMP attack using 100 Kiloton Bomb detonated at 400 Km altitude just south of Pittsburg PA
Damage (RED) or upset (YELLOW) of computer equipment from HEMP attack using 100 Kiloton Bomb detonated at 400 Km altitude just south of Pittsburg PA

As the acccomanying diagram shows, HEMP causes outages over nearly 1000 km area and damage over 100 Km or more. The higher the HEMP nuclear detonation, the more widespread the outage area and the more limited the damage area. In a nuclear war, the first strike would likely include one of more HEMP detonations to bring down the national power grid (for a brief period - upset) and cause major EMP damage to disrupt communications and cause widespread general confusion. In fact, in 2017, a Department of Homeland Security study noted, "A burst similar to Starfish Prime today over the central USA today would likely shut down commercial power and communications in large regions for months or longer."

A HEMP Attack Against Satellites Will Result in Extensive Earthbound

Collateral Damage

How EMP Damages Satellites

Satellites in all orbits are designed for and subjected to significant radiation over their lifetimes from continuous bombardment of varying degrees of radiation and energetic particles from the sun. Cumulative radiation effects generally cause satellite failure/end of life. The radiation and EMP from a satellite nuclear attack accelerate cumulative radiation damage to the satellite. The older a satellite, the more likely it is to fail from the effects of a nuclear attack. This is an important point for large constellations of satellites used for Communications (Satrlink, OneWeb, ViaSat, etc.)   for geolocation (GPS, GLONASS, etc), that even moderate radiation exposure will result in accelerated satellite failure.

Delayed Gamma Radiation from  1 Mt 200 Km altitude HEMP blast
Delayed Gamma Radiation from 1 Mt 200 Km altitude HEMP blast

For satellites in Low Earth Orbit, "direct X-radiation from a nuclear weapon can be lethal."  The large distance of satellites in Medium and Geostationary Earth Orbit to a HEMP attack makes the probability of damage to them very low. These satellites are already designed to operate in the relatively severe natural radiation environments outside the Earth's protective magnetic field that exist at such altitudes. Some military satellites are actually hardened against nuclear environments (these details are classified). However, as we will discuss later in this paper, alternate weapons can threaten these MEO/GEO satellite systems.

"Pumped Belts" of captured beta particles from HEMP burst
"Pumped Belts" of captured beta particles from HEMP burst

EMP attacks at northern or southern latitudes below ~50 degrees are more likely to damage satellites in LEO by "pumping the electron belts" of the Earth's magnetic fields of the inner Van Allen Radiation Belt as opposed to direct radiation and EMP. These belts capture beta particles (high-energy electrons) and can take weeks to years to leak away the "pumped" radiation. LEO satellites are destroyed by the cumulative damage of passing through these "pumped belts" as they orbit.

Ultimately, using a HEMP against LEO satellites is counterproductive because all satellites, allied or enemy, will pass through these belts, receiving increased doses of radiation accelerating satellite damage till failure.

Nuclear Detonations at high altitudes to target GPS (MEO) and GEO satellites will also induce "pumping of the electron belts." However, the radiation effect is significantly lower at the higher orbits. A level too low to cause very early loss of these MEO and LEO satellite assets. The direct radiation/EMP effects are of the most concern to GEO and MEO satellites.

If Russia were to launch a nuclear attack against LEO satellites, the net result would be the sudden loss of most, if not all, LEO commercial satellites. This would seriously impact U.S. national security as well as the American economy. The renewed Russian threat for this scenario is likely why House Intelligence Committee Chair Mike Turner issued such a grave warning. However, I think this is pure "saber-rattling." Carrying out the threat would equally affect China, Russia, Europe, and all LEO space assets. An attack on one nation's assets is essentially an attack on all.

Perhaps the U.S. should have a greater concern as we have the most assets in Low Earth Orbit and because of the military-civilian co-use directive put in place by Presidential Directive over 20 years ago. This directive states that the U.S. Government should:

  • Rely to the maximum practical extent on U.S. commercial remote sensing space capabilities for filling imagery and geospatial needs for military, intelligence, foreign policy, homeland security, and civil users;

  • Focus United States Government remote sensing space systems on meeting needs that cannot be effectively, affordably, and reliably satisfied by commercial providers because of economic factors, civil mission needs, national security concerns, or foreign policy concerns

Does this mean the U.S. has more to lose than other countries? Probably. As we have noted, the U.S. has the most assets in Low Earth Orbit. China has eclipsed Russia and is second only to the U.S. is LEO space assets. Should the Russians launch an EMP attack against the U.S. or a nuclear attack on US LEO satellite system, China would face equivalent destruction of their systems.

Here are some conclusions that can be drawn from the threat:

  • All satellites, regardless of orbit, are vulnerable to direct attack (nuclear or non-nuclear)

  • Ground control stations for satellites are subject to direct attack by EMP or any other means

  • An attack on MEO or GEO satellites by high-altitude nuclear detonations for the purpose of populating electron belts at those altitudes would require large-yield Nuclear weapons over 10 Mt (megaton) – that is an incredibly powerful weapon

  • Satellites in MEO or GEO are not at risk to immediate loss from radiation damage resulting from a credible EMP attack anywhere on Earth.

  • ALL satellites in LEO are at risk to serious damage from line-of-sight or enhanced radiation belt exposure resulting from EMP attacks over many geographical locations of the Earth

  • Stringent nuclear hardening criteria should be placed on LEO satellites and control systems that serve military and intelligence missions.

The Non-Nuclear Option: Space-Based Directed Energy Weapons

Given all the drawbacks of a nuclear HEMP attack, are there non-nuclear EMP options? As it turns out, there are several non-nuclear "directed energy weapons" that could be deployed, including:

  • EMP Bomb - Narrow or Broad frequency spectrum

  • High Power Laser Weapons – solid-state lasers

  • High power Microwave Weapons

These technologies have matured to the point that they are already being deployed to defend U.S. bases and U.S. Navy ships in the widening Middle East conflict. Unlike HEMP,  which is indiscriminate, these weapons provide precise control of destruction and have no lingering damaging effects other than the specific targeted area.

While threatening to use a HEMP nuclear attack or permanently orbiting one or more nuclear weapons as a persistent threat may generate media attention, Space-based versions of each of these direct energy weapons types represent a real and growing threat.

Let's briefly look at each of these alternative energy weapons types using current terrestrial weapons systems as an example.

NNEMP Bomb ( Non-Nuclear  Electromagnetic Bomb)

The U.S., Russia, China, and other nations have NNEMP bombs or missiles with NNEPM warheads. In fact, the U.S. has used NNEMP in combat. In March 2003, CBS News Correspondent David Martin reported that:

"The U.S. Air Force has hit Iraqi T.V. with an experimental electromagnetic pulse device called the "E-Bomb" in an attempt to knock it off the air and shut down Saddam Hussein's propaganda machine."

The NNEMP bombs are based on an explosion device design known as the Flux Compression Generator (FCG). FCG uses a fast explosive to rapidly compress a magnetic field, transferring most of the energy from the explosive into the magnetic field. FCGs can produce tens of MegaJoules of electromagnetic energy with a pulse duration of tens to hundreds of microseconds and peak power levels in the TeraWatts range or roughly 100x to 1000x the power of a typical lighting strike.

FCGs use a power supply, typically a combination of a battery and capacitor bank, to generate an initial magnetic field in the primary stage (stage 1) coaxial coil. When the current in the primary coil peaks, a shaped explosion is initiated, which propagates an electrical "short "in the coaxial wire that has the effect of making a massive energy pulse. The primary stage feeds a secondary stage, which is also compressed by the shaped explosive charge, resulting in a massive electromagnetic pulse before the device's final disintegration from the explosion.

NNEMP has a limited and precise range of effects equivalent to its nuclear counterpart while providing none of the negative factors of broad indiscriminate collateral damage and "magnetic band" pumping of the Earth's magnetic fields/radiation belts.

A strategy of deploying a number of NNEMP devices in orbit with orbit/positioning propulsion can achieve strategic destruction of enemy assets. We will discuss this variation of the U.S. Star Wars "brilliant pebbles" concept later in this blog.

If you are interested, a detailed discussion of the physics and construction of NNEMP bombs can be found here.

NNEMP Bomb based on U.S. Mk 84 Form Factor
NNEMP Bomb based on U.S. Mk 84 Form Factor

High Power Laser Weapons

EMP is not the only effective weapon that can be used against missiles and satellites. Terrestrial anti-missile/anti-aircraft/anti-drone weapon systems in the 100kW per pulse (shot) range are already in the field and are seeing extensive use in the current Middle East conflict. Examples of high power laser weapons systems include:

  • Raphael's Iron Beam and Light Blade laser systems as a complement to their Iron Dome system ( estimated at 100 kW for the latest version)

  • Raytheon - H4 palletized laser weapon anti-drone / down swarm weapon (estimated at 10 kW)

  • Perveset – Russian anti-aircraft system that can also be used as a Dazzler, a blinding system, against Earth Observation satellites (power level unknown)

  • Silent Hunter – Chinese anti-drone system ( estimated 30 kW)

Based on weather and atmospheric effects, high-power lasers are effective at short ranges, typically less than 5 Km maximum range. They are finding applications as components in "close-in-weapons systems" (CIWS) as terminal defense weapons similar to the famous U.S. Navy Phalanx. These systems continue to improve. In 2023, Lockheed Martin delivered a 300 kW class laser to the Army's Indirect Fire Protection Capability-High Energy Laser (IFPC-HEL) prototype program. A 500 kW version is under development.

Unlike missile-based anti-aircraft systems, high-power laser systems never run out of "war shots" or need reloading. As long as there is power, the weapons will continue to fire. So, an unlimited magazine space. Further, the price per shot is at least 1/10th, falling to 1/100th the price of kinetic weapons. For example, Iron Beam costs are estimated at $2000 per shot (amortizing the laser + power generators cost) vs $50k per interceptor for Iron Dome.

U.S. Army Solid State Laser Test Bed – 300Kw (with 500 kW reported)
U.S. Army Solid State Laser Test Bed – 300Kw (with 500 kW reported)

One of the biggest drawbacks to terrestrial deployment of laser weapons is weather, specifically humidity, rain, and fog, which limit the weapons' range. Using an equivalent weapon in space would result in far greater range and, depending on the weapon's orbit, threaten a wide range of satellite targets.

This begs the question, could Russia deploy a space-based laser weapon, and could that weapon be powered by a nuclear battery or reactor? Russia has a long history of using nuclear batteries in space to power its radar satellites. Russia developed and tested the TOPAZ series of reactors in space to power an experimental plasma electric space drive. A compact reactor (TOPAZ derivative) coupled with a several hundred kW class solid-state laser would make a formidable mobile threat. The reactor could equally power the laser or provide propulsion. More importantly, the individual component technologies of such a system are "generally allowed" under the 1967 Outer Space Treaty.

Rather than a nuclear bomb being placed in orbit, perhaps the threat is a nuclear-powered Laser system. Food for thought, at least!

High Power Microwave Weapons

As an alternative to high-power laser weapons, a first generation of High-Power Microwave (HPM) anti-aircraft weapons systems are reaching the field. The major advantage of HPM is that it is not impacted by atmospheric or weather effects. This benefit comes at the cost of a lower target engagement range (due to beam spreading) at a much higher power level (typically 100 MW to 10 GW).

HPM weapons are a form of area weapon. HPMs operate in the  500MHz to 3GHz frequency range with wavelengths in the mm to cm range. That is roughly 1000 times longer wavelength than a laser weapon. The beam spread of the microwave radiation from the HPM's antenna array increases with distance, making them ideal against drone swarms. Drone swarms are a new and growing threat which is a feature of a series of militia attacks against U.S. positions in the Middle East.

Epirus's Leonidas, a counter-drone and counter-electronics high-power microwave system
Epirus's Leonidas, a counter-drone and counter-electronics high-power microwave system

HPMs are being operationally deployed as a component to integrated layered defense systems where kinetic kill vehicles (missiles) provide the long-range defense, followed by high-powered laser as intermediate defense, and finally, HPM as the final short range terminal defense.

As an example, defense industry startup Epirius has just delivered the Leonidas HPM prototype system to the U.S. Army's Indirect Fire Protection Capability (IFPC) program to protect fixed and semi-fixed sites from drones as well as rockets, artillery/mortars, and cruise missiles. The IFPC system will consist of a mix of hard-kill interceptors as well as a laser and a high-power microwave capability.

HPM direct energy weapons could be easily adapted for orbital anti-satellite weapons systems in a manner nearly identical to that previously described in our discussion on high-power laser weapons. However, due to HPMs beam spread and resulting range limitation, a high-power laser weapon has greater range and lethality in a space warfare – anti-satellite environment.

Alternate Weapons Systems  - An Overview of Anti-Satellite Threats

Space Warfare is fast becoming a major theater of future conflict as the new space race to the moon, mars, and mineral-rich asteroids has emerged between the major powers. Directed Energy Weapons are part of a growing set of spaced-based weapons threats. For the sake of completeness, here is a brief list of possible space-based anti-satellite threats:

  • Kinetic Kill Vehicles – all the major powers have demonstrated kill vehicles

    • The major drawback of kinetic kill vehicles is all the debris created by their use. The debris can cause indiscriminate collateral damage to all orbiting systems, be they friend or foe.

  • R.F. Jamming - reversible/non-destructive jamming of satellite uplink, downlink, or R.F. sensor (Synthetic Aperture Radar -SAR satellite)

  • High Power Microwave -HPM – destructive/non-reversible damage to satellite electronics

  • Optical Dazzler - reversible/non-destructive optical jamming of Earth Observations satellites with medium power laser

  • High Power Laser- destructive/non-reversible damage to the satellite via thermal damage / burn-through

  • Chemical Spray – destructive/non-reversible damage by coating target satellite solar panels with paint, causing permanent power failure of the target satellite

  • Robotic – Mechanical –a satellite towing vehicle mechanically attaches to a target satellite and then performs a thrust maneuver to deorbit and destroy the target satellite. Alternately, capture, stow in a reentry vehicle, and return the target satellite to Earth, the so-called "Skyhook" Space piracy scenario.

Space-Based Anti-Satellite Threats – Defense Intelligence Agency Report
Space-Based Anti-Satellite Threats – Defense Intelligence Agency Report

A deep dive into the totality of threats to space systems is beyond the scope of this blog. If you would like to explore the subject further, please refer to the following:

Threat Scenarios – What Could this New Russian Threat Be?

Russia and even China have strong motivations to develop clandestine anti-satellite weapons, especially HEMP weapons. As the Real Clear Defence article, "Have Russia And China Already 'Militarized' Space?" notes:

"Russia and China have great strategic incentives for a clandestine capability to perform EMP attack by satellite as a means of preempting or retaliating against their many nuclear-armed potential adversaries—including each other. An EMP attack could enable China and Russia to "level the playing field" or defeat the U.S. by being the most effective means of quickly neutralizing large numbers of LEO satellites that are crucial to U.S. military operations."

Now that we clearly understand the possible technologies involved for EMP and other space-based threats let's consider the possible Russian deployment scenarios that may have the Washington DC defense establishment up in arms.

  • Hypersonic missile HEMP/NNEMP - missile armed nuclear or non-nuclear EMP warhead

    • This is a first-strike weapon. At the time of this posting, hypersonic weapons can evade U.S. missile defense systems

    • Use as a theater weapon – a serious consideration for China should invade Tawain – suppression of U.S. fleets and our Pacific bases. Again, no defense exists.

    • Any strike of this nature would invite a counter-strike

  • FOB -  Fractional Orbital Bomb

    • Revive the 1960s-era FOB  to disguise a nuclear EMP strike as a LEO polar orbit satellite launch.

    • FOB polar orbit is only useful to attack the continental U.S. and  would invite a full counter-strike

  • Orbital Nuclear Satellite- or a small constellation of satellite  nuclear weapons in Earth orbit (HEMP from orbit)

    • Weapon(s) positioning could be by stealth (undeclared disguised platform) or out in the open (declared- intentional)

    • Stealth Weapons can be detected by neutral particle beam detector systems developed under the U.S. Star Wars initiative to identify enemy decoy nuclear warheads.

    • Represents a major breach of the 1967 Outer Space Treaty –  likely to set off a space arms race in  Earth orbit  and the moon/Mars/valuable asteroids once a human presence is established

  • "Brilliant Pebbles," a constellation of non-nuclear EMP  (NNEMP)  bomb devices

    • Allows for precise targeting

    • Significant launch and satellite device costs due to the  100s, if not 1000s, of  devices needed to mount a credible threat

    • No stealth or secrecy due to the number of weapons involved -

  • HPLW Satellites -One or a small constellation of  High Power Laser Weapon Satellites  

    • Nearly as effective as nuclear HEMP  without indiscrete collateral damage  or long-term radiation "belt pumping." That causes long-term satellite failure.

    • Is this a breach of the 1967 Outer Space Treaty? Possibly. It is a gray area.

Any of these scenarios is a source of serious concern.

The threat of nuclear/non-nuclear HEMP-armed hypersonic missiles exists, and the use of HEMP on standard ballistic missiles has existed since the 1960s. This threat is here, and it is not going to go away. All the major nuclear powers will have hypersonic missiles in their mix of available weapons. While a concern, this is not the likely source of concern from the Washington establishment.

The advent of hypersonic missiles makes the revival of FOBS questionable. Hypersonic is a far more effective and reliable delivery system. While FOBs are possible, this is an unlikely candidate for deployment or to be seen as a strategic threat. We can safely say that the threat is NOT an updated FOB system.

The "Brilliant Pebbles" constellation of NNEMP weapons is unlikely. The number of devices and costs to place them in orbit are prohibitive vs other options. Russia lacks the satellite launch industrial infrastructure to support deployment ( Note: China does have the launch capability. There could be no secrecy in deploying such a system. It would be obvious and could be countered by placing an equivalent capability in space, thereby starting an arms race.

The likely threat is the clandestine deployment of one or more nuclear EMP weapons in a set of strategic orbits to maximize damage to satellites in LEO, MEO, and GEO orbits. This provocative move would be held at the highest security levels by Russia ( or any other country), given that this violates the 1967 Outer Space Treaty. Secrets do not last forever, and technology exists to accurately detect hidden nuclear warheads (derived from solutions originating in the U.S. Star Wars program of the 1980s). Given the collateral and indiscriminate damage in actual use, why would you deploy such a system?

The Russian space program is in decline and being eclipsed by both the U.S.(and U.S. space allies) and China. As we will see in the next section, the U.S. and China possess a vast majority of the active satellites in orbit, and those numbers are increasing. Despite the self-induced damage a Russian EMP attack would make on its satellites, strategically, the U.S. and China would suffer far greater losses. The veiled threat is simple, "I may lose carrying out my threat, but you will lose more."

This is troubling as North Korea or Iran could eventually adopt the same position. Further, China should be as concerned as the U.S. and its allies. Should the Russian threat be carried out, the Chinese satellite system will be caught in the conflagration and face proportionately equal destruction. Just as likely, the threat is a hoax, a form of subtle psychological operation (PSYOP) the Russians are running to make the U.S. overreact. If it's PSYOP– it's working.

The darkhorse concept is a nuclear powered high-energy laser satellite system. This is a legitimate game-changer, providing nearly unlimited precision kill capacity with no collateral damage issues. Such a system sits in a gray area concerning the 1967 Outer Space Treaty. Considering terrestrial laser weapons/defensive system progress, there are certainly development programs underway working to test and possibly deploy the capability in space.

Final Thoughts

The major nuclear powers and many other nations are making significant investments in space for both commercial and security purposes. Over the last decade,  a revolution in low-cost "small Sat" technology and an equivalent revolution in satellite launch cost reduction have put satellite deployment in the reach of the poorest nations.

lites in Orbit, May 2022 – Source Statisica from UCSS Database As the companion figure illustrates, in May 2022 there were nearly 5000
lites in Orbit, May 2022 – Source Statisica from UCSS Database As the companion figure illustrates, in May 2022 there were nearly 5000

As the companion figure illustrates, in May 2022, nearly 5000 active satellites were in orbit. As of December 2023, SpaceX alone had deployed that many Starlink satellites. This number has the potential to rise above 40,000 in the next decade, with China and the rest of the world catching up to the U.S.'s current dominant position.

Consider the deployed or planned communications satellite super satellite constellations totaling nearly 40,000 satelites:

  • OneWeb – U.K. – 1000 satellites planned  > 600 satellites deployed

  • Starlink -U.S./SpaceX  - 12,000 satellites  planned  > 5000 satellites deployed with  over 5 Million users

  • Kupier – U.S./Amazon –  3268 satellites planned  with < 10 test satellites deployed

  • GuoWang – China – two constellations of 6000 satellites each, 12,000 total  

  • G60 – China – a second competing LEO-only system with 12,000 satellites planned

  • Hanwha Systems - South Korea – 2000 satellites planned

Noticeably missing from this list is Russia. Russia does not have a super communications satellite constellation under construction or is even considering building one. They don't have the funds. Russia's communications satellite systems are in such a poor state that Russia is clandestinely purchasing SpaceX StartLink terminals in the Middle East and using them in Ukraine. Their own aging communications systems cannot support required military operations.

While communications satellites represent the bulk of active satellites in orbit, many satellites are filling other critical roles in the  world economy.

  • Geolocation Constellations at MEO  (Middle Earth Orbit)

    • GPS (United States), GLONASS (Russian Federation), Beidou (China), and Galileo (European Union)

  • Earth Observation and Measurements

    • 1000's of optical hyperspectral, SAR (Synthetic Aperture Radar), and other sensors

  • Military and Intelligence satellites  - which are now a small fraction of satellites in orbit

    • However, these satellites are radiation-hardened and likely to survive an EMP attack

Should  Russia actually deploy a Nuclear HEMP weapon and detonate it, the destruction, while significant, would be short-lived. As the following diagram illustrates, the launch capacity of thet U. S. and its allies is 6x ( i.e., 600%) greater than Russia and  2x  (i.e., 200%) greater than China. The U.S. and U.S. allies can mount a satellite replacement program and have the launch and build capacity to replace damaged satellites in less than a year, depending on the level of damage. Further, the U.S. can and would retaliate with a formidable array of weapons. of its own

Orbital Launch Attempts per Year – 2020 to 2023
Orbital Launch Attempts per Year – 2020 to 2023

The dawn of a new space race is upon us. The moon and Mars will be colonized, and the vast resources in the asteroids will be unlocked for the betterment of all humankind. That bright future only happens if we focus on friendly competition, continue to adhere to the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, and prohibit the weaponization of space.

Let's hope that Russia's threats (or those of any other hostile nation) to the new space economy are just that, threats, not realities. These are rantings, machinations, and fantasies of playing the spoiler of a nation that is falling behind in the new space race.

If you have questions, feel free to contact me - HERE.


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