Nuclear Command-and-Control Satellites Should Be Off Limits

When Russia blew up an old satellite with a new missile on November 15, it created an expanding cloud of debris that will menace the outer space environment for years to come.

Hypersonic fragments from the collision with Moscow’s ground-launched, anti-satellite weapon risk destroying other satellites used for communications, meteorology, and agriculture. They even pose a danger to China’s Tiangong Space Station and the International Space Station, where personnel—including Russia’s own cosmonauts—were forced to don spacesuits and flee into their escape capsules ahead of approaching debris.

But the greatest danger that this careless stunt highlighted is to a different potential target: high-altitude satellites used for nuclear command and control. Those critical satellites face the threat of being attacked by co-orbital anti-satellite weapons, that is, other spacecraft with offensive capabilities. Destroying a nuclear command-and-control satellite, even unintentionally, could lead a conventional conflict to escalate into a nuclear war. As such, the United States, China, and Russia have a shared interest in ensuring the security of each other’s high-altitude satellites.

Satellites are integral to the United States’ nuclear command-and-control system. They would be the preferred means to transmit a presidential order to use nuclear weapons and would provide the first warning of an incoming nuclear attack. Russia uses satellites for similar purposes, even if it appears not to rely on them quite as much as the United States. While little is publicly known about China’s nuclear command-and-control system, the U.S. Department of Defense has assessed that China is in the process of developing a space-based early-warning system.

The most important nuclear command-and-control satellites—those for communications and early warning—are located in high-altitude orbits. Fortunately, most are strung out about 22,500 miles above the equator—far above the debris from Russia’s ground-launched anti-satellite weapon test. These satellites, however, are growing more vulnerable, particularly to co-orbital anti-satellite weapons.

Nuclear command-and-control satellites might be attacked deliberately, as the prelude to a nuclear war. In a conventional conflict, if China, Russia, or the United States decided to use nuclear weapons first—or believed that its opponent was about to do so—it might try to degrade the adversary’s nuclear command-and-control system preemptively. China, for example, might attack U.S. early-warning satellites to weaken the United States’ homeland missile defenses. Conversely, the United States might target Chinese communication satellites to interfere with Beijing’s ability to wield its nuclear forces.

In a conventional war, however, nuclear command-and-control satellites might be attacked and threatened for altogether different reasons—creating the risk that nuclear war might be triggered inadvertently.

The United States, in particular, is deeply reliant on satellites to enable conventional operations. Moreover, most, if not all, nuclear command-and-control satellites also support non-nuclear missions—making them tempting targets even in a purely conventional conflict. For example, some U.S. satellites transmit orders to both U.S. conventional and nuclear forces. Russia might attack these satellites to try to undermine the United States’ ability to prosecute a conventional war, but with the added and unintended effect of degrading the U.S. nuclear command-and-control system.

Washington would be hard-pressed to determine the intent behind such attacks. It could easily misinterpret them as preparations for a nuclear war and respond accordingly. It might threaten to use nuclear weapons unless its adversary backed off. In fact, the Trump administration’s nuclear policy explicitly threatened the use of nuclear weapons in precisely this circumstance. The Biden administration can and should remove this threat as part of its ongoing Nuclear Posture Review.

To make matters worse, it might not take actual attacks against nuclear command-and-control satellites to spark this kind of escalation. Satellites in high-altitude orbits are periodically moved to different positions to optimize their performance. Especially in a conventional conflict, a repositioning operation that led one spacecraft to approach a nuclear command-and-control satellite might appear to the latter’s owner as the beginning of an attack against its nuclear command-and-control system. Once again, the potential consequences could be catastrophic.

“Keep-out zones” around high-altitude satellites would be a straightforward way to mitigate these risks. Specifically, the United States, China, and Russia should agree not to maneuver their spacecraft within a certain distance—we propose 430 miles—of one another’s high-altitude satellites. (Exceptions could be made to accommodate occasional repositioning under tightly controlled conditions. Most importantly, the state conducting the maneuver should warn the others at least 24 hours in advance.)

In a conflict, if the belligerents had no intention of attacking each other’s high-altitude satellites, they would have strong reasons of self-interest to respect keep-out zones. If a state did seek to launch such attacks, keep-out zones couldn’t stop it from doing so—but they would buy time that the targeted state could use to try to evade the attack.

Negotiating keep-out zones during a conflict, when they would be most useful, would be next-to-impossible. So, Washington, Beijing, and Moscow shouldn’t wait—they should start negotiating right away.

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