Week of February 20, 2024

Russian Anti-Satellite Capability:
Reality or Hype


Much was made this week of a report of a new, dangerous Russian anti-satellite weapon that contained “nuclear components.”

The report was over dramatized hype.  Insiders said the weapon was still in development and had not been deployed.

Russian anti-satellite weapons are nothing new. Russia has had an operational anti-satellite system in space since the 1980s. It was recently tested in November 2021 and garnered much international condemnation as it created space debris.  The Russian weapon was a large shotgun that used a conventional explosive to fire small pellets into the target, an obsolete Russian satellite.

Russia is not the only nation with this capability.  China, India, Russia, and the US all have some capability in this field.  Most of these weapons are similar to the Russian satellite.

So, what makes this potential so dramatically different? Some claim that it is a satellite that can maneuver close to an enemy satellite and destroy its electronics with an electromagnetic energy weapon.  Of course, the enemy would become aware of the attempt to intercept its satellite and would move it out of the way with its maneuvering rockets.  Not only could that maneuver succeed, but it would also act as a warning that a major attack is imminent.

This is where longer range weapons would help. That is why lasers, particle beams, and kinetic weapons offer some advantages.  The problem is that these weapons require substantial amounts of energy – more than what a solar panel will provide.  That is where nuclear weapons hold promise.  They can provide long range electromagnetic pulses that can impact large areas of near space and territory.

Such a nuclear weapon would violate the 1967 Outer Space Treaty and be hard to construct as it would require electronics currently embargoed by the West.

So, what type of technology is Russia intending to use? We do not know.  According to reports, it is an anti-satellite technology with some sort of nuclear component, but not a normal nuclear weapon.

It is important to realize that Russia is very accomplished in theoretical physics.  In fact, US understanding of particle beams came from Russian research during and after the Cold War.  They may have found a solution to nuclear devices that the US has not discovered.  These designs fall into what are known as Third and Fourth Generation nuclear weapons.

The Neutron Bomb, which creates substantial amounts of high energy neutrons while reducing the blast effect, is an example of a third-generation bomb.

One anti-satellite weapon that is proven in design is the Chemical Laser.  This was a proven design based on the Tactical High Energy Laser (THEL)that was developed by the US and Israel.

These chemical lasers are powerful but have major problems that the Russians may have chosen to ignore since the weapon will be fielded in the vacuum of space.  The Russian chemical laser system is built around a deuterium fluoride chemical laser operating at a wavelength of 3.6 to 4.2 micrometers (Mid-Wavelength Infrared, also called thermal infrared). The weapons system burns ethylene in Nitrogen Trifluoride gas, which is then mixed with deuterium and helium, to produce the excited deuterium fluoride lasing medium.  This gas is then fed into expansion nozzles like those of other chemical lasers.

But there are problems.  Since the exhaust of this laser is hazardous to humans, a complex exhaust system must be used to absorb and neutralize the highly corrosive and toxic deuterium fluoride exhaust gas.  This could be ignored in space.

Multiple “cartridges” could be stored on the satellite so it could rapidly reload and fire at the next target,

Although this is a conventional laser, it could be said to contain a “nuclear component,” as it uses deuterium, which is used in nuclear physics.

Another weapon that uses nuclear components, but circumvents treaties, is subcritical explosives. For a traditional nuclear device to explode, explosives compress uranium or plutonium until it reaches supercriticality, where a nuclear chain reaction can develop.  For this to happen, several kilograms of nuclear material are required.

This weapon design would not need a critical mass of uranium or plutonium.  A subcritical burn weapon could use a pellet of nuclear material not much larger than a grain of rice and conventional explosives.  Although a self-sustaining chain reaction will not take place, enough energy could be released that would equal hundreds or thousands of pounds of high explosives.  The biggest technical problem with this method is generating enoughneutrons to bombard the nuclear material as it is compressed.

Although not well known, research on subcritical burn has been conducted for years by the major nuclear powers to test nuclear weapon design. These tests have not been called nuclear tests because they do not create a super critical mass that sustains a chain reaction.  Nor do they fall under the restrictions in the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty limiting the development of nuclear weapons.  Despite this, these weapons promise a nuclear yield of hundreds of pounds of high explosives.

One of the problems of nuclear weapons is that they are symmetrical – i.e., the effects of the explosion radiate in all directions.  However, this can beavoided by employing a “Nuclear Shaped Charge.”  This was a concept put forward by American nuclear weapons designer Dr. Edward Teller.  It was seen as the possible propulsion for a nuclear rocket.  The concept was studied in the 1960s and was seen as a part of the 1980s Star Wars Defense.

The nuclear shaped charge used beryllium oxide to convert the x-rays released by the nuclear bomb to longer wavelength radiation which would vaporize a material like tungsten and turn the kinetic energy into tungsten plasma.  Up to 85% of the bomb’s energy would be converted into this plasma.

There has only been one nuclear shaped charge test (Operation Grenadier) in 1985. The one-kilogram tungsten/molybdenum beam was able to accelerate the tungsten/molybdenum particles to 70 kilometers (about 43.5 mi) a second.  As impressive as that test seemed, it was not efficient for an 8-kiloton device.

A nuclear weapon using these principles was designed called the Casa-Howitzer, but details remain classified.  It was planned for the 1983 Strategic Defense Initiative.

These are but a few types of anti-satellite weapons that could be under consideration by the Russians. However, this is not to say that the Russians may be fielding a new concept.  However, history tells us that the more complex a modern design is, the harder it is to make it practical.