White House: Russia Developing “Troubling” ASAT Capability, But Not Immediate Threat

White House: Russia Developing “Troubling” ASAT Capability, But Not Immediate Threat

National Security Council spokesman John Kirby confirmed today that Russia is developing a “troubling” antisatellite, or ASAT, capability, but stressed it is not an immediate threat. Kirby was reacting to speculation in the press following statements by Rep. Mike Turner (R-OH) yesterday that Turner said revealed a serious national security threat. Citing anonymous sources, several media outlets asserted the matter involves Russia’s development of a nuclear ASAT.  Kirby declined to provide many details, but tamped down concerns that any threat is imminent.

Turner, who chairs the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, sent a letter to House colleagues urging them to go the House’s Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility (SCIF) to learn about “an urgent matter with regard to a destabilizing foreign military capability….”  Jake Sherman, a reporter for Punchbowl News, posted the letter on X.

Turner then posted that the committee had “made available to all Members of Congress information concerning a serious national security threat” and asked President Biden to declassify the information so “Congress, the Administration, and our allies can openly discuss the actions necessary to respond to this threat.”

Turner never divulged what it was about, but reports soon began appearing in media outlets that Russia was developing a nuclear ASAT weapon that would be deployed in space.

Experts in the field posting on X and elsewhere questioned whether it was a nuclear weapon, however, or a nuclear-powered spacecraft, which is entirely different. A nuclear-powered spacecraft uses a radioisotope power source or nuclear reactor to operate the satellite.

John Kirby, White House National Security Council Communications Advisor, speaks at a White House press conference, February 15, 2024. Screengrab.

Kirby declined to answer that question today.

After confirming the matter “is related to an antisatellite capability that Russia is developing, ” Kirby emphasized that “it is not an active capability that’s been deployed.”

While “Russia’s pursuit of this particular capability is troubling, there is no immediate threat to anyone’s safety. You’re not talking about a weapon that can be used to attack human beings or cause physical destruction here on Earth.”

He later added that it is a space-based capability and if deployed, would violate the 1967 Outer Space Treaty to which Russia is a signatory.

Article IV of the OST prohibits placing “any objects carrying nuclear weapons or any other kinds of weapons of mass destruction in orbit, install such weapons on celestial bodies, or station such weapons in outer space in any other manner.”

The United States has known about Russia’s development of this capability for “many, many months, if not a few years,” he continued, “but only in recent weeks now has the Intelligence Community been able to assess with a higher sense of confidence exactly how Russia continues to pursue it.”

He pointed out that Russia’s development of any ASAT capability is concerning because of the world’s reliance on satellites for everything from communications to transportation to weather forecasting, not to mention the presence of astronauts in orbit.

“We’re taking this potential threat very, very seriously” and “examining what the best next steps are and what our options might be. I want to reiterate, it is not an active capability and it has not yet been deployed.”

Asked if the White House would follow Turner’s request to declassify more information, Kirby explained the detailed process they go through to decide what to declassify and when. Notifying key Members of Congress is part of the process and that’s what they were doing when they briefed Turner and other committee members. They plan to continue that process, briefing the Senate when it returns to work the last week of this month, holding discussions with allies, and with Russia itself.

“We are in the process of consulting with allies and partners. We are in the process of engaging with Russia about this.” It is “important to follow that process and do it the right way,” Kirby stressed.

Turner is under significant criticism for making the matter public, but in a post today asserted that he worked with the Administration and other members of the committee. The “bipartisan notification issued by the Chair and Ranking Member … was cleared by the Administration” and the committee “voted 23 to 1 to make this information available to Members of Congress.”

Kirby disagreed. “If there’s a presumption here that somehow the administration gave a green light for this information to get public yesterday, that is false. That is not true. That did not happen.”

With very little actual information in the public domain, the last 24 hours have been rife with speculation about what Russia is developing. A number of non-government space experts are pointing out that it seems unlikely Russia would field a nuclear weapon in space.

Detonating a nuclear weapon in space would create an electromagnetic pulse that would damage everyone’s satellites, not just an adversary’s, unless they are specially hardened. The effect of a nuclear explosion in space on spacecraft was demonstrated in 1962 by the U.S. Starfish Prime test and led to the 1963 Limited Nuclear Test Ban Treaty.

Instead, they suggest this is about a nuclear-powered satellite. Nuclear power in space is not banned by any treaty. NASA and other space agencies sending probes to the Moon and other celestial bodies routinely use radioisotope power sources for spacecraft that cannot rely on solar energy for power or heat. Nuclear reactors also have been launched. The United States launched only one so far, SNAP-10A in 1965, but has an extensive program for developing space nuclear power and propulsion right now.

The Soviet Union’s Radar Ocean Reconnaissance Satellite (RORSAT) program of the 1960s-1980s used reactors although they discontinued the program after two failures where the reactors, which were designed to separate from the satellite and boost into a very high orbit from which they would not decay for hundreds of years, instead reentered. Kosmos 954 spread radioactive debris over northern Canada in 1978. Kosmos 1402 reentered over the Indian Ocean and South Atlantic in 1983. A near-miss in 1988, when a fail-safe system triggered at the last minute and boosted the Kosmos 1900 reactor into the higher orbit, ended the program.

Victoria Samson, Chief Director, Space Security and Stability, Secure World Foundation.

But there have been indications that Russia may once again be developing a nuclear-powered spacecraft. The Secure World Foundation’s Global Counterspace Capabilities report describes the Ekipazh project as an on-orbit electromagnetic warfare (EW) system to jam other countries’ satellites. According to the SWF report, Ekipazh began in 2014, but had not been deployed as of the report’s publication last year.

A spacecraft that can jam signals emitted by other satellites renders them useless, so is an ASAT even though it is not a physically destructive attack.

Victoria Samson, SWF’s Chief Director, Space Security and Stability, and co-author of the report, is highly skeptical that Russia plans to place a nuclear weapon in space.  “It would be an incredibly, INCREDIBLY bad idea to set off a nuclear weapon in space,” she told SpacePolicyOnline.com via email. She agrees, however, that Kirby’s statement that whatever it is Russia is developing would violate the Outer Space Treaty is “perplexing” since the treaty does not ban the use of nuclear power in space, only nuclear weapons.

Kirby said National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan is meeting with House leadership and committee chairs and ranking members today and will brief Senators when they return from their two-week recess. Until then, the White House does not plan to share more details.

“I’m not going to get ahead of those discussions.  As I said, we make decisions about how and when to publicly disclose intelligence in a careful, deliberate, and strategic way, in a way that we choose.  We’re not going to be knocked off that process regardless of what, in this particular case, has found its way into the public domain.

“I can assure you that we will continue to keep members of Congress as well as our international partners and all of you and the American people as fully informed as possible.” — John Kirby

The United States is leading an effort to ban destructive direct-ascent ASAT weapons that create space debris. Russia has not joined that pledge, but an in-space ASAT weapon would not be covered by it in any case. Direct-ascent refers to ASATs launched from Earth to impact an orbiting satellite.

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