WASHINGTON — The White House on Feb. 15 confirmed reports that Russia is developing an anti-satellite weapon capability, describing it as a serious threat. However, the administration insists that the weapon is not yet operational and does not pose an imminent danger.  

The White House was forced to address the anti-satellite threat intelligence after House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Turner (R-Ohio) publicly urged President Biden on Feb. 14 to declassify the information so the implications could be discussed openly in Congress and with U.S. allies. 

The president’s national security communications adviser John Kirby told reporters at a White House news conference that the administration had been tracking these developments for several weeks but intended to keep the information secret as it developed a strategy to share it with the public. 

Kirby said the intelligence community has “serious concerns” about fully declassifying details at this stage. 

However, following Turner’s remarks, news outlets began reporting extensively on the alleged Russian anti-satellite weapon. This reporting put pressure on the White House to confirm the intelligence.  

“The administration did not give a green light for this information to get public yesterday,” Kirby said. “We were eventually going to get to a point where we were going to be able to share it with the American people. But this is not an imminent threat. It’s not an active capability that is yet deployed.”

“And though Russia’s pursuit of this particular capability is troubling, there is no immediate threat to anyone’s safety,” Kirby said. 

He said intelligence officials have raised concerns about fully declassifying the intelligence over protecting sources and methods. Before Turner’s disclosure, said Kirby, there had been discussions about “downgrading” the level of classification. “The information regrettably found its way into the public domain in advance of our ability to do this.”

Kirby did not elaborate on whether the weapon is nuclear-powered, as some reports have indicated. He reiterated it is an anti-satellite capability still in development, only corroborated in recent weeks. 

While not viewing it as an imminent peril, Kirby said any anti-satellite capability merits unease given the value of government and commercial satellites orbiting Earth daily. He highlighted that low-orbiting astronauts also could also be endangered.  

Tactic to pressure Congress?

Some have suggested Rep. Turner’s disclosure was an attempt to spur congressional Republicans to support military aid for Ukraine that the Senate already has approved in a supplemental funding bill. 

“Those in Congress that have doubts about our continued support for Ukraine should pay close attention. Russia is a direct threat to the United States in space as well as on Earth,” defense analyst Todd Harrison, senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, wrote on social media. 

“I fear that what we are seeing is an emboldened Russia in space,” Harrison added. “Congressional dithering on Ukraine funding shows weakness and creates a potential opening for Russia to exploit.”

Undue alarm over ‘nukes in space’

Harrison also pushed back on media coverage that he said sparked undue alarm by characterizing the threat as a “nuclear weapon in space.” Analysts consider this scenario unlikely compared to a nuclear-powered satellite carrying a non-nuclear anti-satellite weapon.

Kirby declined to comment on any of the specifics of Russia’s anti-satellite weapon, or on whether it’s nuclear powered. 

Nuclear-powered satellites have been used for decades by the U.S. and Russia. The technology relies on a nuclear reactor to generate electricity for powering onboard systems and electronic weapons. According to some reports, Russia’s anti-satellite vehicle might be nuclear-powered but use an electronic weapon like a jammer to disrupt other satellites.  

“People seem to be conflating or glossing over the differences between a nuclear weapon and a nuclear-powered satellite,” Harrison noted.

A nuclear weapon in space would be a clear violation of the Outer Space Treaty, Harrison pointed out. The U.S. and the Soviet Union agreed to that restriction back in 1967 and countries continue to abide by that treaty because “popping off a nuke in space creates a real mess that affects satellites indiscriminately,” he added. “We know this because the U.S. detonated a 1.4 megaton nuke at 400 km altitude in 1962. It charged up the Van Allen radiation belts and destroyed about one-third of the satellites in low Earth orbit, including the U.K’s first satellite.”

But until more is known about this latest development, “and knowing Russia’s history of ASAT weapon development and testing, it is certainly something to be concerned about,” Harrison stressed. “Our economy and military are heavily dependent on space, and Russia knows that.”

Peter Garretson, a defense consultant and senior fellow at the American Foreign Policy Council, agreed that the scenario of a nuclear-powered space weapon is far more credible than one of an actual nuclear weapon in space.

“It would surprise me if Russia took a step to be that destabilizing,” he said. “Not to say that they wouldn’t, but we’ve known in open source intelligence for quite a while that they’ve been thinking about nuclear electric power and developing a more capable space reactor.” 

“And we know that they’re interested in electronic warfare and have advanced that technology,” said Garretson, “so a nuclear-powered electronic weapon would make sense to me.”

Sandra Erwin writes about military space programs, policy, technology and the industry that supports this sector. She has covered the military, the Pentagon, Congress and the defense industry for nearly two decades as editor of NDIA’s National Defense...