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Does James Bond Have the Answer to a New Russian Space Weapon?

Space weapons are coming. It should be no surprise. Around 125 years ago H.G. Wells envisioned this era in his sci-fi novel, War of the Worlds. Recent news of new Russian anti-satellite capabilities makes Wells’ story read like prophecy. Based on the scant public details offered by US intelligence officials and congressional members, who were given access to classified information in February 2024,  the Russian weapon seems designed to employ EMP (electromagnetic pulse) technology to disable orbiting satellites and create earthly chaos. National electric grids, international communication networks and the worldwide internet would be disrupted. 

Yet the story disappeared from headlines quickly, as public reaction peaked momentarily, then dissipated in the face of other alarming war news from abroad, namely Israel and Ukraine. Still, why, if this “new” danger is imminent, why only a muted reaction? Did millions of people simply feel a sense of déjà vu, we have seen all this before?  Maybe, because in fact they had—in the 1995 James Bond movie, GoldenEye, with Pierce Brosnan as 007

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As the 20th century nears its end,  British intelligence (MI6) discovers that the Russian government has deployed two nuclear EMP space weapons in orbit after a renegade Russian general secretly activated one of them over Severnaya in Central Siberia. The blast disabled British spy satellites and three Russian MiG fighter jets and destroyed the weapons’ secret control center beneath them. The Russian government is led to believe Siberian separatists are to blame, while the British theorize a Russian crime syndicate was involved.

GoldenEye, a huge worldwide commercial success, generated a comic book series, video games and an adaptation as a novel, and still draws millions of eyeballs via Amazon Prime, with an 80 percent Rotten Tomatoes approval rating. Although none of the film’s plot happened in real life, the image of satellite-based weapons and the damage these could inflict was imprinted in the minds of 1995 theatergoers and far beyond. 

Origin Story

The idea of an EMP satellite as a central element in the plot initially appeared in a draft script by Michael France, the first of four screenwriters who contributed to the final shooting script. The story pictures the rogue Russian general and crime syndicate teaming with an embittered former British agent to hijack the GoldenEye satellite weapons. Their plan is to use one to electronically rob England’s banks, wipe out all records and collapse the country’s economy with an EMP attack. 

In reality, the scientific basis for a catastrophic EMP disruption has been known since the mid-19th century, and nuclear explosion-generated EMP effects since World War II.  Some of GoldenEye’s other capabilities were likely based on public descriptions of directed energy weapons associated with the U.S. Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), dubbed “Star Wars,” during the 1980’s.

Can fictional movies and television episodes create a public consciousness cushion against otherwise startling disclosures like nuclear space weapons? The fact is that for decades space weapons have been incorporated into film and TV spy adventures, although few depicted such a weapon as closely as the GoldenEye.

Space-based plots have a rich history in the world of James Bond. The character’s creator, Ian Fleming, incorporated villainous threats involving rockets and nuclear missiles in some of his Bond novels, notably Dr. No and Moonraker. While he’s not known to have contributed any space weapon ideas to the producers of the film series prior to his death in 1964, the space-related element in his 1958 novel “Dr. No” made it into the book’s adaptation as the first big-screen Bond movie in 1962. The story focuses on the villain’s plan to “topple” NASA’s nascent space program with a ground-based atomic-powered radio beam to disrupt NASA rocket launches. These particle beam concepts were among real SDI technologies 25 years later. 

In Diamonds Are Forever (1971), the SPECTRE chief Blofeld orbits a satellite that uses diamonds to amplify a laser beam producing a capability to destroy any target on Earth. Lasers as weapons on space platforms continue to be studied. 

A similar weapon based on harnessing solar energy appears in Die Another Day (2002). This Bond idea of tapping the sun’s rays was preceded by the “Heliobeam,”a rogue solar-powered weapon in the 1966 Matt Helm spy spoof, Murderers Row.

Space weapons also appeared in popular 1960s-era TV spy shows. An episode of The Man from U.N.C.L.E.  envisioned the “Thermal Prism,” an orbiting heat-beam weapon capable of striking any location on the planet. Two episodes of Mission: Impossible saw” 

In Diamonds Are Forever (1971), the SPECTRE chief Blofeld orbits a satellite that uses diamonds to amplify a laser beam producing a capability to destroy any target on Earth. Lasers as weapons on space platforms continue to be studied. 

A similar weapon based on harnessing solar energy appears in Die Another Day (2002). This Bond idea of tapping the sun’s rays was preceded by the “Heliobeam,”a rogue solar-powered weapon in the 1966 Matt Helm spy spoof, Murderers Row.

Space weapons also appeared in popular 1960s-era TV spy shows. An episode of The Man from U.N.C.L.E.  envisioned the “Thermal Prism,” an orbiting heat-beam weapon capable of striking any location on the planet. Two episodes of Mission: Impossible saw” 

In Diamonds Are Forever (1971), the SPECTRE chief Blofeld orbits a satellite that uses diamonds to amplify a laser beam producing a capability to destroy any target on Earth. Lasers as weapons on space platforms continue to be studied. 

A similar weapon based on harnessing solar energy appears in Die Another Day (2002). This Bond idea of tapping the sun’s rays was preceded by the “Heliobeam,”a rogue solar-powered weapon in the 1966 Matt Helm spy spoof, Murderers Row.

Space weapons also appeared in popular 1960s-era TV spy shows. An episode of The Man from U.N.C.L.E.  envisioned the “Thermal Prism,” an orbiting heat-beam weapon capable of striking any location on the planet. Two episodes of Mission: Impossible saw the IMF team working to protect the world from nuclear and laser weapon satellites.

The 2024 Russian weapon, if proven to be a real threat, is but the latest iteration of offensive and defensive space technologies that nations have been researching and developing for decades. In 1923, German physicist Hermann Oberth devised plans for a giant orbiting concave mirror to focus sunlight onto the Earth. Although designed, he claimed, for peaceful purposes, everyone understood if the technology worked, the mirror could be weaponized. 

Indeed, German scientists during World War II adapted Oberth’s ideas to design a “sun gun” mega-weapon that they predicted could set entire cities afire and cause the oceans to boil: A 100-meter diameter mirror positioned 5100 miles above the earth would capture and concentrate heat radiation from the sun and redirect the intense temperatures to terrestrial targets. After learning of this plan, Lt. Col. John A. Keck, the chief of Allied technical intelligence on German weapons, told journalists: “This will make Buck Rogers seem as if he lived in the Gay ’90s.” 

The Present Danger

More than 6000 reconnaissance, communications, sensing and research satellites have been launched by nations and private enterprises since 1967 but none have been classified as “space weapons.” This is a somewhat arbitrary distinction since “everyone knows” hundreds of these satellites support their sponsors’ intelligence and military operations including targeting military sites and forces. Deployment of offensive space weapons has, however, been effectively forestalled for more than half a century by international adherence to the 1967 “Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, Including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies,”initially signed by the U.S., U.K. and the Soviet Union (now joined by 14 nations as parties). 

Public information about Russian capabilities is vague, although nearly 70 years of satellite launches, space stations, moon landings and probes to other planets have created the necessary knowledge, infrastructure and advanced technologies for space weapons once confined to sci-fi. The question of how other nations would respond to a confirmed space-based weapons system, whether characterized as defensive or offensive, is an unknown, possibly an unknowable unknown. 

Both sci-fi and spy-fi “prophets” resolve international dilemmas created by fictional space weapons with scenarios that often contain a core of realism. In GoldenEye, cooperation among the threatened countries enabled 007—with support from an American CIA colleague—to locate, infiltrate and destroy a crime syndicate’s own camouflaged satellite control center in Cuba. They are assisted by a Russian programmer, Natalya Simonova, who covertly resets the second EMP satellite’s course, causing it to burn up in Earth’s atmosphere. Whew.

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In each of the noted fictional spy thrillers, the good guys win. Futuristic space weapons are neutralized and villains eliminated through combinations of alliances, interagency cooperation, human agents, lethal covert actions, and cyber sabotage. 

This returns us to a question of whether fiction presents potential solutions to a satellite-based EMP danger from Russia. While no one should expect an operational plan from movies, the films offer hope. They show that alliances of imaginative spies applying the best technology of the day can rescue the world from catastrophe. Since spy-fi once anticipated space weapons, it may be worth going to the theater for ideas to counter the present threat. ### 

Robert W. Wallace is the former director of the Office of Technical Service at the Central Intelligence Agency and author of Spycraft: The Secret History of the CIA’s Spytechs from Communism to al-Qaeda and executive producer of the Netflix series Spycraft. Danny Biederman is author of The Incredible World of SPY-Fi and co-producer/writer of Discovery Channel’s Hollywood Spytek.

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