Politics and Government

Russia is developing nuclear capability to threaten satellites, source says

The U.S. Capitol building is pictured in October 2023. National security adviser is expected to brief a select group of lawmakers on Thursday.
The U.S. Capitol building is pictured in October 2023. National security adviser is expected to brief a select group of lawmakers on Thursday.
Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Russia is developing a space-based nuclear capability that has the potential to threaten the U.S. and its allies, according to a source familiar with the matter. Russia's capacity could allow it to target satellites, the official said.

National security adviser Jake Sullivan told reporters he plans to meet with House leaders on Thursday, though he did not confirm the topic of the briefing.

It is unclear what exactly the capability is that Russia is working on — importantly whether it is a nuclear-powered device or a nuclear weapon.

What the rules are around weapons in space

The U.S., Russia and China already have the capability to attack satellites, but the Outer Space Treaty of 1967 explicitly bans the use of nuclear weapons in space.

The treaty states instructs nations "not to place in orbit around the Earth any objects carrying nuclear weapons or any other kinds of weapons of mass destruction, install such weapons on celestial bodies, or station such weapons in outer space in any other manner."

Experts questioned whether a nuclear weapon would be useful against a satellite. In the vacuum of space, a nuclear explosion wouldn't create a destructive shock wave, like it does here on earth, says Brian Weeden, chief program officer with the Secure World Foundation and an expert on space weaponry.

Other nuclear effects, such as a powerful electromagnetic pulse that can destroy electronics, would likely fry numerous satellites, not just the target, Weeden says.

"That's going to have a ton of other repercussions on all the Russian satellites and all of China's satellites," Weeden says. "And I'm pretty sure the Chinese are not going to be happy about that."

Weeden believes it might be more likely that Russia is developing a space-based nuclear reactor, which could in theory be used to power electronic warfare equipment in orbit.

The Russian embassy did not return NPR's request for comment.

Top lawmakers will get a briefing

Before news of Russian anti-satellite capabilities emerged — first reported by ABC News, Washington Post and others — House Intelligence Committee Chair Mike Turner, R-Ohio, publicly called on President Biden to declassify information "concerning a national security threat." Turner said doing so would help Congress, the administration and U.S. allies "openly discuss the actions necessary to respond to this threat."

In response, Senate Intelligence Chairman Mark Warner, D-Va., and ranking member Marco Rubio, R-Fla., said that their committee "has the intelligence in question, and has been rigorously tracking this issue from the start."

Their statement added: "We continue to take this matter seriously and are discussing an appropriate response with the administration. In the meantime, we must be cautious about potentially disclosing sources and methods that may be key to preserving a range of options for U.S. action."

National Security adviser Sullivan said in a White House briefing Wednesday that he was "a bit surprised" at Turner's statement because he said there was already a meeting planned with top House leaders, including Turner, on Thursday.

Without giving information on the topic at hand, Sullivan said he had reached out to the "Gang of 8" — which includes the House and Senate leadership as well as the top members of the House and Senate intelligence committees — earlier this week to offer a personal briefing. Sullivan called such outreach "highly unusual" for a national security adviser.

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