White House confirms monitoring of ‘troubling’ Russian anti-satellite weapon

The White House has confirmed that it is monitoring a new Russian anti-satellite weapon which it said is being developed but not yet deployed, calling it “troubling” but not an immediate threat to anyone’s safety.

The national security spokesperson, John Kirby, would not directly confirm or deny reports that the new Russian weapon was nuclear, but he did say it was “space-based” and that it violated the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, which prohibits the deployment in space of nuclear weapons or other weapons of mass destruction.

Kirby was briefing reporters at the White House amid a wave of speculation following cryptic comments about the new threat by the Republican chair of the House intelligence committee, Mike Turner.

The White House national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, was due to meet the “gang of eight” security-cleared congressional leaders from both parties on Thursday afternoon to discuss the threat, after Sullivan and other US officials expressed surprise at Turner’s decision to publicise a classified briefing.

“While I’m limited by how much I can share about the specific nature of the threat. I can confirm that is related to an anti-satellite capability that Russia is developing,” Kirby said. “This is not an active capability that’s been deployed, and though Russia’s pursuit of this particular capability is troubling, there is no immediate threat to anyone’s safety. We are not talking about a weapon that can be used to attack human beings or cause physical destruction here on Earth. That said, we’ve been closely monitoring this Russian activity and we will continue to take it very seriously.”

He added that the weapon believed to be in development “would be space-based and it would be a violation of the Outer Space Treaty to which more than 130 countries have signed up to”.

The existence of the new national security threat was made public on Wednesday by Turner in an apparent breach of the secrecy terms under which the “gang of eight” are briefed by members of the administration. Sullivan expressed surprise on Thursday at Turner’s decision to issue a public call for the matter to be declassified.

On a visit to Albania on Thursday, the secretary of state, Antony Blinken, said: “This is not an active capability but it is a potential one that we’re taking very, very seriously and I expect we’ll have more to say very soon. Stay tuned for that.”

Blinken added that the Biden administration was “also conferring with allies and partners on this issue”.

“President Biden’s focus is on the security of the US and its people and as we approach this and every other issue that’s first and foremost on his mind,” he said.

The Kremlin dismissed the US warning as a “malicious fabrication” by the White House aimed at pressuring Congress to approve more money for Ukraine.

Before the Outer Space Treaty was signed in 1967, the US carried out a series of high-altitude nuclear tests, the biggest of which was Starfish Prime in July 1962, which lit up much of the sky over the Pacific, triggered an electromagnetic pulse that was much larger than expected, and caused the formation of radiation belts around the Earth, which caused satellites in their path to malfunction.

Starfish Prime showed that a nuclear detonation in space could have indiscriminate impact on all satellites in orbit, opening the way for the nuclear powers to sign the Outer Space Treaty five years later.

John Logsdon, the founder of the George Washington University space policy institute, said that if Russia was intending to launch a nuclear anti-satellite weapon, it could mean Moscow had “developed a technologically more sophisticated system, where its effects are somehow limited”.

On the other hand, the launch of a nuclear-powered spacecraft designed to jam other satellites, Logsdon said, would constitute a return to the Soviet past, when Moscow launched several such craft.

In 1978, a Soviet nuclear-powered satellite, Kosmos 954, malfunctioned and crashed in northern Canada, spreading radioactive debris across hundreds of miles.

Russia has been working intensively on conventional anti-satellite technology over the past 14 years, the Secure World Foundation thinktank reported last year in a report on Global Counterspace Capabilities.

“There is strong evidence that Russia has embarked on a set of programs since 2010 to regain many of its Cold War-era counterspace capabilities,” the report said. It added that much of the Russian activity was focused on surveillance, but noted that Moscow had deployed two “sub-satellites” at high velocity, suggesting that some of the Russian activity was “of a weapons nature”.

A transition to nuclear-powered “killer” satellites would not be illegal, and Logsdon argued they would not change the balance of power in the continuing militarisation of space.

“Not at all,” he said. “It’s just another way a spacecraft gets power, either by solar panels, or some other means of producing electricity, or a nuclear reactor.”

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