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The danger overhead

17 November 2021

The sky is falling.

Well no, it's not. However, far above our heads, there are some interesting and worrying things going on.

Just the other day, the crew of the ISS had to hide away in their escape capsule for fear that the station may be hit by pieces of space junk created when Russia blasted one of its own satellites into pieces using a missile.

This isn't the first time we've seen military super-powers blow satellites to smithereens with missiles.

Back in 2007, China did it and even further back, in 1985, the USA successfully destroyed one of its own orbiting craft with a missile fired from an F15.

The results of these "tests" are rapidly growing levels of space-junk in low earth orbit and a resulting risk to any other craft or persons operating in or transiting through this part of "space".

However, that's not the only risk that lives over our heads.

Although none of the super-powers have ever admitted it, you can bet your bottom dollar that there are nuclear weapons orbiting the planet right now.

There is huge military strategic advantage to having nuclear missiles in orbit, just waiting to be launched.

Conventional ICBMs can effectively reach almost any point on the globe but in modern terms they are slow and vulnerable.

Spy satellites can detect an ICBM launch within seconds, thanks to the unique thermal signature of the rocket booster ignition and function. This gives an enemy quite a bit of time to prepare and either launch their own counter-missile defenses or a retaliatory attack of their own. This is where the mutually assured destruction that has kept the world safe since 1945 comes from.

However, what if you can simply drop a nuke from orbit?

There would be no tell-tale infra-red flash or rocket plume to provide advanced warning of such an attack. Nuclear warheads could simply fall from the sky, without warning and with little way of effectively defending against them.

With enough nukes in orbit a nation would have sufficient offensive capability to "take out" a good deal of the missile sites of its enemy before they were able to mount much in the way of a counter-strike.

You can bet your bottom dollar that the USA, Russia and China all have nukes in orbit right now -- hence the reason that all these superpowers have been testing their ability to shoot down such orbiting ordinance.

No, hitting an orbiting nuke with a missile won't get rid of the radioactive elements but it can destroy the targeting and lauch controls, effectively rendering it worthless as a weapon.

One only has to look at the capabilities of craft like the USA's X-37B which is able to spend up to two years in orbit (Washington Post story) to see how easily nuclear weapons could be inserted into orbit ready for near-instant deployment when/if required.

Now I guess the really worrying thing must be that these systems give the attacker far more of an edge than ICBMs did back in the 1960s. Being able to drop nukes on your enemy without them getting any real advanced warning is a game-changer and it must be very tempting to take advantage of that strategic advantage to make the first move in any conflict.

There is the down-side that the attacker would still suffer significant retaliatory damage, thanks to the ability for nuclear-armed submarines to mount a counter-attack regardless of what percentage of land-based missiles are destroyed in the first wave.

Is it just coincidence that the USA has offered Australia a whole bunch of nuclear subs just last month?

However, war is a game of numbers and you can bet that as soon as one of the superpowers believes it can begin a "survivable" war, the temptation to do so will be enormous.

Yes, we live under very dangerous skies.

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