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If the Russians are developing a nuclear anti-satellite weapon, as leaked reports from the House Intelligence Committee suggest, two things can be said. First, the threat that such a weapon poses is not exactly new. Second, it is serious—even alarming.

Several countries have launched crucial military assets into outer space, but none more so than the United States. We rely on satellites for early warning of an enemy attack, for communications of all sort, and—through a network of GPS satellites—to guide “smart” bombs and missiles to their targets. If the GPS satellites were disabled, the commanders of many U.S. ships at sea would not even know precisely where they are.

In other words, if Russia or China were to launch a preemptive attack on U.S. communications networks, through cyber or anti-satellite weapons or a combination of both, America’s ability to wage war would be severely compromised from the first shot. (In the past decade, in response to cyberthreats, a few units in the U.S. Air Force and Navy have gone “offline” to the extent possible but only a few.)

Such scenarios have been contemplated, at least as a theoretical possibility, for some time now. Two years ago, a normally insouciant defense consultant with a high security clearance told me that a briefing he’d recently received on Russia and China’s anti-satellite, or ASAT, programs left him “shaken.”

The Russians and Chinese have tested ASAT systems of various sorts. In 2014, Russia launched an Olymp-K satellite and maneuvered it within 7 miles of two Intelsat communications satellites. If it had been carrying a weapon, it could have destroyed the pair easily. In 2021, Russia launched a rocket that ascended into space and blew up one of its own satellites that had been inactive for a while. China first did this back in 2007. Some U.S. defense analysts were alarmed, but the Pentagon did nothing in response.

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The United States does not have an active ASAT program, but it has “hardened” certain vital satellites to protect them from the radiation released by a space-based nuclear weapon—indicating that U.S. intelligence has long been aware of such a possibility.

U.S. Space Force, in a program called “Victus Nox,” has also developed small rockets that can be set up to launch replacement satellites into space very rapidly, ideally within 24 hours. These “Alpha” launch rockets, built by Firefly Aerospace, a Texas-based company, conducted a successful test this past September—but that was its first, and it followed several failures.

Several lawmakers who have seen the classified information on the topic have told reporters that Russia has not yet launched its new ASAT weapon. They say it poses a “medium-to-long term” threat; there’s “no need to buy gold” was one of several somewhat reassuring statements. In other words, if the information is true, Space Force has time to improve and build more Alpha rockets. But a case can be made that the Pentagon should have started building them long ago.

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Reports have varied on whether the new Russian system is nuclear armed or simply nuclear powered. If it is nuclear armed, that would be a violation of the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, which prohibits the U.S. and Russia from launching into space “any objects carrying nuclear weapons or any other kinds of weapons of mass destruction.” A nuclear-armed Russian ASAT weapon is also tactically puzzling, as detonating it would release radiation, X-rays, electromagnetic pulse, and other effects across a vast and indiscriminate range, disabling its own satellites as well as those of other countries.

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More likely, it’s nuclear powered. The advantage of nuclear propulsion is that it can release more energy—either to fire a laser weapon or to better maneuver the satellite—and it can last many years.

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The panic over Russia’s alleged advances—whether justified or not—erupted on Wednesday, when Rep. Mike Turner, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, released a statement warning of a “national security threat” related to a “destabilizing foreign military capability.” National security adviser Jake Sullivan appeared before cameras soon after, saying he was puzzled by this reaction, as intelligence officials were about to brief the “Gang of 8”—the chairs and ranking members of the House and Senate Intelligence Committees, as well as the majority and minority leaders in the two chambers, who are privy to the most highly classified matters—the next day.

Thursday morning, after the briefing, Turner issued a follow-on statement, saying he has made information on the threat available to all members of Congress and urged President Joe Biden to declassify it, so the public and allies can discuss its implications.

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The White House is reluctant to declassify everything about it, saying that would reveal “sources and methods” about how the intel was obtained. This suggests the information came from communications intercepts of Russian military officials or their design bureaus—not from data about an actual test.

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It is unclear, then, why Turner released his hair-on-fire statement when he did. Some speculate that he might have wanted to sound a high-decibel alarm about the Russians in order to prod the House into approving the Senate-passed bill on military aid to Ukraine. (Turner is an avid supporter of the bill.) Others say the intel came from a U.S. surveillance program that is about to expire; publicizing it might save the program, which Turner also very much supports. Or it might be simply that there is new, alarming information. Whether by coincidence or not, the news came less than a week after Russia launched a Soyuz-2-1v rocket with a classified military payload onboard.

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The United States and the Soviet Union tried to develop ASAT weapons in the 1960s. Both abandoned the effort in the 1970s. President Jimmy Carter initiated arms-control talks to ban ASAT weapons and tests. Negotiations were held in 1978 and 1979, but they collapsed when the Soviets invaded Afghanistan. Russia tried to revive the talks in 1982 and 1983, but President Ronald Reagan, in his first term, was hostile to any arms-control efforts. In his second term, after Mikhail Gorbachev became chairman of the USSR’s Communist Party, huge strides were made in nuclear disarmament—but ASATs were not part of the discussion, in part because banning ASATs would also have meant banning the Strategic Defense Initiative, Reagan’s “Star Wars” program, which he was determined to preserve at all cost.

It was another, unforeseen legacy of this misbegotten program that we may soon regret.

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The Real Takeaway From the “National Security Threat” Panic

31 5
15.02.2024
Tweet Share Share Comment

If the Russians are developing a nuclear anti-satellite weapon, as leaked reports from the House Intelligence Committee suggest, two things can be said. First, the threat that such a weapon poses is not exactly new. Second, it is serious—even alarming.

Several countries have launched crucial military assets into outer space, but none more so than the United States. We rely on satellites for early warning of an enemy attack, for communications of all sort, and—through a network of GPS satellites—to guide “smart” bombs and missiles to their targets. If the GPS satellites were disabled, the commanders of many U.S. ships at sea would not even know precisely where they are.

In other words, if Russia or China were to launch a preemptive attack on U.S. communications networks, through cyber or anti-satellite weapons or a combination of both, America’s ability to wage war would be severely compromised from the first shot. (In the past decade, in response to cyberthreats, a few units in the U.S. Air Force and Navy have gone “offline” to the extent possible but only a few.)

Such scenarios have been contemplated, at least as a theoretical possibility, for some time now. Two years ago, a normally insouciant defense consultant with a high security clearance told me that a briefing he’d recently received on Russia and China’s anti-satellite, or ASAT, programs left him “shaken.”

The Russians and Chinese have tested ASAT systems of various sorts. In 2014, Russia launched an Olymp-K satellite and maneuvered it within 7 miles of two Intelsat communications satellites. If it had been carrying a weapon, it could have destroyed the pair easily. In 2021, Russia launched a rocket that ascended into space and blew up one of its own satellites that had been inactive for a while. China first did this back in 2007. Some U.S. defense analysts were alarmed, but........

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