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US Confirms Russia Pursuing ‘Space-Based’ Anti-Satellite System

Russia Developing ‘Anti-Satellite Capability,’ White House Confirms
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Russia Developing ‘Anti-Satellite Capability,’ White House Confirms

The new national security threat that sent some in Washington into a tizzy and sparked calls urging Americans not to panic, is a new Russian anti-satellite capability, the White House confirmed Thursday, again emphasizing there is no immediate threat to life or limb.

White House National Security spokesperson John Kirby declined to go into details about the emerging Russian capability but said that U.S. intelligence agencies have been tracking Russia’s pursuit of such systems for a while, and that Washington has been reaching out to allies on next steps.

"This is not an active capability that's been deployed," Kirby told reporters. "And though Russia's pursuit of this particular capability is troubling, there is no immediate threat to anyone's safety."

"We are not talking about a weapon that can be used to attack human beings or cause physical destruction here on Earth," he added.

The explanation, and the effort to reassure the public, came just more than 24 hours after a leading U.S. lawmaker took to social media, demanding U.S. President Joe Biden declassify intelligence so the American public and U.S. allies could formulate a response.

Republican Representative Mike Turner, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, issued a statement Wednesday warning of "a serious national security threat."

"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," Turner added.

But both the White House and Pentagon on Thursday downplayed the need for that type of urgency, while conceding the Russian advancement is cause for concern.

"We're taking this potential threat very, very seriously," Kirby said, adding that U.S. intelligence agencies have been aware of Moscow’s pursuit of what he described as a "space-based" anti-satellite capability for "many, many months, if not a few years."

"But only in recent weeks now has the intelligence community been able to assess with a higher sense of confidence exactly how Russia continues to pursue it," he said.

U.S. defense officials, likewise, emphasized the emerging Russian capability does not come as a surprise.

"We are tracking what this is," said Pentagon press secretary Major General Pat Ryder.

U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin "is part of the national security team that's been briefing the president," Ryder told reporters, adding that there is still a gap between Russia’s ambitions in space and what it is currently capable of doing.

"It's not an immediate threat. It's not an active capability. It has not been deployed," he said.

White House national security spokesperson John Kirby speaks during a press briefing at the White House in Washington, Feb. 12, 2024.
White House national security spokesperson John Kirby speaks during a press briefing at the White House in Washington, Feb. 12, 2024.

For its part, Russia on Thursday dismissed the U.S. allegations about an anti-satellite capability as a "malicious fabrication."

Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov accused Washington of engaging in a ruse to get U.S. lawmakers to spend more funds.

"It is obvious that the White House is trying, by hook or by crook, to encourage Congress to vote on a bill to allocate money, this is obvious," Peskov told reporters in Moscow.

Despite some consternation among some White House officials and members of Congress about the way the public was alerted to the threat, there is general agreement in the U.S. that the danger is real.

The top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, Representative Jim Himes, said Wednesday the threat is "a significant one." And the leading Democrat and top Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee noted they have been tracking developments "rigorously," describing the matter as serious.

Some arms control experts warn that the ramifications of a new Russian anti-satellite capability could be far-reaching.

"This would affect the global economy, the society writ large," said Daryl Kimball, director of the Arms Control Association.

"China would be deeply concerned. India would be extremely concerned — countries that Russia has better relationships with than they do with us," Kimball told VOA. "So, I think there would be stinging rebuke. That might be enough to encourage Russia to back down."

U.S. intelligence agencies have been warning for years that Russia and China have been pursuing "a full range of anti-satellite weapons," noting that the development and use of such systems "could degrade U.S. intelligence gathering abilities."

One of the most recent declassified U.S. intelligence assessments warned that Moscow continues to "field new anti-satellite weapons to disrupt and degrade U.S. and allied space capabilities."

Russia "is developing, testing, and fielding an array of nondestructive and destructive counterspace weapons — including jamming and cyberspace capabilities, directed energy weapons, on-orbit capabilities, and ground-based ASAT [anti-satellite] capabilities," the Office of the Director of National Intelligence wrote in its 2023 Worldwide Threat Assessment report.

But U.S. officials appear to acknowledge that the new Russian capability takes those ambitions a step further.

The NSC’s Kirby, while briefing reporters at the White House, said the capability the Kremlin is pursuing "would be a violation of the Outer Space Treaty to which more than 130 countries have signed up, including Russia."

That treaty, which entered into force in 1967, prohibits nations from placing into space "any objects carrying nuclear weapons or any other kinds of weapons of mass destruction," and further bans the installation of such weapons on celestial bodies.

For now, Kirby says the White House intends to keep most of the information classified, while working with allies on how to respond.

He said the U.S. has also reached out to Moscow, though there have yet to be any real conversations on Russia’s attempts to achieve the new space-based anti-satellite capability.

As for the U.S. lawmaker who ignited the initial clamor, he said after being briefed by top White House, Pentagon and intelligence officials late Thursday that he is satisfied, for now, with the U.S. approach.

"We all came away with a very strong impression that the administration is taking this very seriously and that the administration has a plan in place," Turner said. "We look forward to supporting them as they go to implement it."

Still, top U.S. officials warned of a possible fallout from Turner’s decision to take his concerns public, saying that intelligence agency sources and methods may have been compromised.

"We're asking ourselves that very question right now," said Kirby. "We're working our way through that analysis right now with the intelligence community."

Some information in the report came from Reuters.

VOA’s Katherine Gypson and Anita Powell contributed to this report.