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Russia’s ‘Space-Based Weapon’ Raises Fresh Fears About an Old Threat

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The White House on Thursday confirmed reports that Russia is pursuing an “anti-satellite capability” that poses a serious national security concern but is not an immediate threat to Americans' safety.

"We're not talking about a weapon that can be used to attack human beings or cause physical destruction here on Earth,” White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby told reporters. “It is not an active capability and it has not yet been deployed." 

While Kirby would not say whether these capabilities would be considered nuclear or nuclear-capable weapons, he confirmed they were "space-based." He also said they would violate the Outer Space Treaty of 1967, which bans the stationing of weapons of mass destruction in outer space, and to which Russia is a signatory.

The briefing came a day after House Intelligence Committee Chair Mike Turner, an Ohio Republican, sparked alarm with a cryptic statement to fellow lawmakers announcing "a destabilizing foreign Military capability" that presents a "serious national security threat." Turner’s remarks spurred other members of Congress, as well as senior Biden Administration officials, to publicly tamp down concerns, reassuring the public that the threat was not "imminent" and "people should not panic."

Read More: Inside Space Force.

Speaking to reporters in Albania on Thursday, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the national security threat was "not an active capability but...a potential one that we’re taking very, very seriously."

Current and former U.S. national security officials tell TIME the episode is drawing attention to a serious but long-standing threat that U.S. defense and intelligence agencies have been focused on for years. In its most recent annual threat assessment released last February, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence warned that "Russia continues to train its Military space elements, and field new anti-satellite weapons to disrupt and degrade U.S. and allied space capabilities."

"We've been talking about this for some time, both with respect to Russian and Chinese anti-satellite capabilities," says Robert Soofer, who served as the Pentagon's top nuclear policy official from 2017 to 2021 and now leads the Nuclear Strategy Project at the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center. Weapons targeting U.S. satellite networks could potentially disable civilian communications on the ground, as well as surveillance, telecommunications and geo-location systems that the U.S. Military and its allies rely upon. Russia already has a “demonstrated ability to shoot down satellites” both through physical attacks and electronic warfare, says Soofer. 

Several of President Vladimir Putin’s recent moves, including the unveiling of two new nuclear submarines in December, have been driven by a desire to flex Russia’s Military muscle rather than any new breakthroughs, Soofer says. “It’s posturing: he's either responding to his domestic base, where he has to appear to be strong, or he's trying to make the rest of the world appreciate the greatness of Russia.”

Russian officials have publicly invoked the possibility of targeting U.S. satellites amid the war in Ukraine, for which both sides have relied on commercial satellite imagery. At a United Nations meeting in October 2022, Vladimir Yermakov, the Russian Foreign Ministry’s director of non-proliferation and arms control, warned that U.S. commercial infrastructure in outer space used for military purposes “can become a legitimate target for retaliation.”

Read More: The ‘Serious National Security Threat’ Upending Washington: A Russian Space Nuke.

Both the U.S. and its adversaries have been intensifying efforts to maintain a technological edge when it comes to space warfare. U.S. officials have assessed that Beijing and Moscow have demonstrated and continued to advance anti-satellite capabilities, from different jamming systems to physical attacks that could destroy them. Lt. Gen. John Shaw, who until last year served as deputy commander of the U.S. Space Command, has branded this as a "third space age," where "the commercial sector takes the lead on developing digital age Technology and capabilities."

 It remains unclear what prompted Turner’s public statement, with several former officials speculating it was likely related to politics rather than an urgent technological breakthrough. White House officials themselves seemed baffled by the timing, with National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan saying he was "a bit surprised" given the previously scheduled briefing for top leaders from the House and Senate, known as the Gang of Eight, on Thursday. 
The Kremlin dismissed the reports as a "malicious ploy" by the White House meant to pressure lawmakers into approving more defense funding to counter Russia, including in Ukraine. “It’s obvious that Washington is trying to force Congress to vote on the aid bill by hook or by crook,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Thursday.

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