Russia's anti-satellite project 'troubling' but not immediate threat, White House says

Senior official says President Joe Biden is looking to engage with Russia directly on the issue

The White House has been 'closely monitoring this Russian activity and we will continue to take it very seriously'. Reuters / MethaneSAT
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The White House on Thursday confirmed that Russia is developing a space-based anti-satellite capability that has yet to be deployed – a “troubling” development that has prompted President Joe Biden to seek direct engagement with Moscow.

National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said that though the project poses “no immediate threat to anyone's safety”, it is a cause for concern.

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

“That said, we've been closely monitoring this Russian activity and we will continue to take it very seriously.”

The development comes after Mike Turner, chairman of the intelligence committee in the US House of Representatives, issued an ominous statement on Wednesday warning of a “serious national security threat” and called on the Biden administration to declassify related information.

A New York Times report later described the project as involving a space-based nuclear weapon that could attack satellites, but Russia has dismissed the claim as a “malicious fabrication”.

Any attempt to put a nuclear weapon in space would be in breach of the Outer Space Treaty of 1967, signed by more than 130 countries, including Russia, Mr Kirby said.

He said that Mr Biden has been kept fully informed on the issue and that the intelligence community has serious concerns about a broad declassification of the intelligence.

Mr Biden has said that starting with private engagement on the issue would be a more effective approach, Mr Kirby added.

“He has directed a series of initial actions including additional briefings to congressional leaders, direct diplomatic engagement with Russia, with our allies and our partners as well and with other countries around the world who have interests at stake.”

Mr Kirby said White House National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan was scheduled to brief congressional leaders and committee heads on the latest intelligence later on Thursday.

Pentagon Press Secretary Maj Gen Pat Ryder declined to provide further details on the still-classified Russian capability.

“It's not an immediate threat. It's not an active capability. It's not been deployed,” he told reporters.

Space is becoming increasingly contested, in terms of seeing strategic competitors like China and Russia putting capabilities into orbit that could threaten national security and commercial capabilities, he noted.

The US military in 2019 created Space Force, an independent new branch focused primarily on protecting US space assets and tracking missiles.

The Pentagon has for years sought to "disaggregate" its satellite capabilities, relying on a network of small craft that would function even if one or two were destroyed.

"In a simpler time, you would put a large, exquisite satellite in the space that had lots of capabilities," Maj Gen Ryder said.

"That's a single point of failure versus going to much more numerous smaller satellites that are less expensive, that can be replaced more quickly, thus making it harder to take down a system, you know, in one fell swoop."

Thomas Watkins contributed to this report from the Pentagon

Updated: February 15, 2024, 9:12 PM