Russia’s progress in space-based nuclear weapons worries the US

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

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

The officials said the new intelligence, which they did not describe in detail, raised serious questions about whether Russia was preparing to withdraw from the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, which bans all orbital nuclear weapons. But since Russia does not appear to be close to deploying the weapons, they said, it is not considered an immediate threat.

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

ABC News previously reported that intelligence services had ties to Russian space-based anti-satellite nuclear weapons. Current and former officials have said the launch of the anti-satellite was not imminent, but that there was a limited time frame, which they did not define, to prevent its deployment.

Concerns about placing nuclear weapons in space go back 50 years. The United States has experimented with versions of the technology but never deployed them. Russia has been developing its space capabilities for decades.

US military officials have warned that both Russia and China are moving towards greater militarization of space, as all three superpowers work on ways to blindside the others.

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

Deploying nuclear weapons in space would represent a significant advance in Russian technology and a potentially dramatic escalation. The Outer Space Treaty bans nuclear weapons in space, but Russia is abandoning many Cold War arms control treaties, seeing them as limiting its most important source of military power.

Mr. Turner’s statement, and his decision to share the information with others in Congress, sparked a debate in Washington on Wednesday about what constitutes intelligence.

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

The intelligence was developed in recent days, and while important, officials said it was not the type of warning of any imminent threat. But Mr Turner called for his release.

“I demand that President Biden declassify all information related 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 unusual step of voting Monday to make the information available to all members of Congress — a move that upset some officials because it is unclear in what context, if any, the intelligence in the committee’s possession was presented. In a memo to lawmakers, the House Intelligence Committee said it was about “destabilizing foreign military capabilities.”

Capitol Hill is mired in bitter political conflict over whether the United States should mobilize resources to counter Russian threats to Ukraine, a cause most Democrats and some Republicans — including Mr. Turner — see as essential to protecting America’s national interests. security. However, most Republican members of the House of Representatives, including Speaker Mike Johnson, are rejecting calls to bring the Senate’s $60.1 billion foreign aid package to Ukraine to a floor vote.

Former President Donald J. Trump fired up Republican opposition, saying over the weekend that he would encourage Russia to “do whatever it wants” to any NATO country that did not spend enough money on its own defense.

Other officials said Mr. Turner used the new intelligence more than would otherwise have been expected, perhaps to build pressure to push the House to accept the additional funding request for Ukraine that the Senate passed this week.

That measure, providing military aid to Ukraine, Israel and Taiwan, faces an uncertain outlook in the House. While many Republicans oppose additional funding, Mr. Turner is an outspoken advocate of more aid to Ukraine and recently visited Kiev, 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, saying only that he was scheduled to meet with the chairman on Thursday.

“Tomorrow we have scheduled a briefing for House members of the Group of Eight,” Mr. Sullivan said, referring to a group of congressional leaders from both parties. “It was in the books. So I’m a little surprised that Congressman Turner came out publicly today before the meeting on the books to go with him tomorrow along with our intelligence and defense professionals.”

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

Sen. Mark Warner, Democrat of Virginia, and Sen. Marco Rubio, Republican of Florida, said in a joint statement that the Senate Intelligence Committee had been following the issue from the beginning and had discussed a response with the Biden administration. However, lawmakers said the release of intelligence information could reveal collection methods.

At the White House, when Mr. Sullivan was asked if he could tell the American people 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 number of threats and challenges in the world that we face every day, and those threats and challenges range from terrorism to state actors,” Mr. Sullivan said. “And we have to fight them, and we have to fight them in a way that ensures the ultimate security of the American people. I am confident that President Biden, in the decisions he makes, will ensure the security of the American people in the future.”

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

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

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

“We will work together to resolve this issue,” he said.

The Outer Space Treaty was one of the first major arms control agreements negotiated by the United States and the Soviet Union, and one of the last remaining in force.

If Russia pulls out of the space treaty and allows the New START treaty limiting strategic nuclear weapons to expire in February 2026 — which seems likely — it could trigger a new arms race not seen since the depths of the Cold War.

“Tearing up the Outer Space Treaty could open the door for other countries to put nuclear weapons in space,” said Steven Andreasen, a nuclear expert at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs in Minneapolis. “When 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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