Russia’s Advances on Space-Based Nuclear Weapon Draw U.S. Concerns

The United States has informed Congress and its allies in Europe about Russian advances on a new, space-based nuclear weapon designed to threaten America’s extensive satellite network, according to current and former officials briefed on the matter.

Such a satellite-killing weapon, if deployed, could destroy civilian communications, surveillance from space and military command-and control operations by the United States and its allies. At the moment, the United States does not have the ability to counter such a weapon and defend its satellites, a former official said.

Officials said that the new intelligence, which they did not describe in detail, raised serious questions about whether Russia was preparing to abandon the Outer Space Treaty of 1967, which bans all orbital nuclear weapons. But since Russia does not appear close to deploying the weapon, they said, it is not considered an urgent threat.

The intelligence was made public, in part, in a cryptic announcement on Wednesday by Representative Michael R. Turner, Republican of Ohio and the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee. He called on the Biden administration to declassify the information without saying specifically what it was.

ABC News reported earlier that the intelligence had to do with Russian space-based antisatellite nuclear weaponry. Current and former officials said that the launch of the antisatellite did not appear imminent, but that there was a limited window of time, which they did not define, to prevent its deployment.

Concerns about placing nuclear weapons in space go back 50 years; it was even a sub-theme of “Star Trek” episodes in the late 1960s, just as the treaty was coming into effect. The United States experimented with versions of the technology but never deployed them. Russia has been developing its space-based capabilities for decades.

U.S. military officials have warned that both Russia and China are moving toward greater militarization of space, as all three superpowers work on ways to blind the others.

A report released last year, highlighted Russia’s development of weapons to blind other satellites but noted that Russia had refrained from using the full range of antisatellite capabilities it had developed.

Deploying a nuclear weapon in space would be a significant advancement in Russian technology and a potentially dramatic escalation. The Outer Space Treaty bans nuclear weapons in space, but Russia has been exiting many Cold War arms control treaties, seeing them as a restraint on its most important source of military power.

Mr. Turner’s statement, and his decision to share the information with others in Congress, set Washington abuzz on Wednesday about what the intelligence was.

But the statement infuriated White House officials, who feared the loss of important sources of information on Russia. While Mr. Turner has been an ally to the White House on Ukraine aid, his remarks on Wednesday became the latest flashpoint in strained relations between the Biden administration and congressional Republicans.

The intelligence was developed in recent days, and while it is important, officials said it was not a break-the-glass kind of warning of any imminent threat. But Mr. Turner urged its release.

“I am requesting that President Biden declassify all information relating to this threat so that Congress, the administration and our allies can openly discuss the actions necessary to respond to this threat,” Mr. Turner said.

His committee took the unorthodox move of voting on Monday to make the information available to all members of Congress — a step that alarmed some officials because it is not clear in what context, if any, the intelligence in the panel’s possession was presented. In a note to lawmakers, the House Intelligence Committee said the intelligence was about a “destabilizing foreign military capability.”

Capitol Hill is mired in a bitter political standoff over whether the United States should be mobilizing resources to counter Russian threats to Ukraine, a cause that most Democrats and some Republicans — including Mr. Turner — have maintained is essential to protecting U.S. national security interests. But a majority of Republican members of the House, including Speaker Mike Johnson, reject calls to put the Senate-passed foreign aid package with $60.1 billion for Ukraine to a vote on the House floor.

Former President Donald J. Trump has egged on Republican opposition, saying over the weekend that he would encourage Russia to “do whatever the hell they want” to any NATO country that had not spent enough money on its own defense.

Other officials said Mr. Turner was making more of the new intelligence than would ordinarily have been expected, perhaps to create pressure to prod the House to take up the supplemental funding request for Ukraine that the Senate passed this week.

That measure, providing military aid to Ukraine, Israel and Taiwan, faces an uncertain prospect in the House. While many Republicans oppose additional funding, Mr. Turner is an outspoken advocate of more assistance to Ukraine and recently visited Kyiv, the capital.

Shortly after Mr. Turner’s announcement, Jake Sullivan, the national security adviser, entered the White House press room to discuss the importance of continued funding for Ukraine’s military.

But Mr. Sullivan declined to address a reporter’s question about the substance of Mr. Turner’s announcement, saying only that he was set to meet with the chairman on Thursday.

“We scheduled a briefing for the House members of the Gang of Eight tomorrow,” Mr. Sullivan said, referring to a group of congressional leaders from both parties. “That’s been on the books. So I am a bit surprised that Congressman Turner came out publicly today in advance of a meeting on the books for me to go sit with him alongside our intelligence and defense professionals tomorrow.”

Representative Jim Himes, Democrat of Connecticut and the ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee, said that the issue was “serious” and that Mr. Turner was right to focus on it. But he added that the threat was “not going to ruin your Thursday.”

Senator Mark Warner, Democrat of Virginia, and Senator Marco Rubio, Republican of Florida, said in a joint statement that the Senate Intelligence Committee had been tracking the issue from the start and had been discussing a response with the Biden administration. But the lawmakers said that releasing information about the intelligence could expose the methods of collection.

At the White House, when Mr. Sullivan was asked whether he could tell Americans that there was nothing to worry about, he replied that it was “impossible to answer with a straight ‘yes.’”

“Americans understand that there are a range of threats and challenges in the world that we’re dealing with every single day, and those threats and challenges range from terrorism to state actors,” Mr. Sullivan said. “And we have to contend with them, and we have to contend with them in a way where we ensure the ultimate security of the American people. I am confident that President Biden, in the decisions that he is taking, is going to ensure the security of the American people going forward.”

Mr. Turner declined to respond to questions on Wednesday. Jason Crow, Democrat of Colorado, said the new intelligence was one of several “volatile threats” facing the United States.

“This is something that requires our attention,” Mr. Crow said. “There’s no doubt. It’s not an immediate crisis, but certainly something that we have to be very serious about.”

Mr. Johnson, apparently trying to spread calm after Mr. Turner’s announcement, said there was “no need for public alarm.”

“We are going to work together to address this matter,” he said.

The Outer Space Treaty was one of the first major arms control treaties negotiated between the United States and the Soviet Union, and one of the last remaining in place.

If Russia exited the space treaty, and let the New START treaty limiting strategic nuclear weapons expire in February 2026 — as seems likely — it could touch off a new arms race, of the kind not seen since the depths of the Cold War.

“Ending the Space Treaty could open the floodgates for other countries to put nuclear weapons in space as well,” said Steven Andreasen, a nuclear expert at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs in Minneapolis. “Once you have orbital nuclear weapons, you can use them for more than taking out satellites.”

Erica L. Green, Luke Broadwater and Glenn Thrush contributed reporting from Washington.

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