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A new Russian weapon system for targeting satellites is under development

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

On Capitol Hill today, President Biden's national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, has been briefing key House leaders about a new Russian weapon under development. A source has confirmed to NPR that the weapon is some kind of space-based nuclear system for targeting satellites. NPR science and security correspondent Geoff Brumfiel has been tracking these developments all day. He joins us now. Hi there.

GEOFF BRUMFIEL, BYLINE: Hi.

SUMMERS: So tell us, Geoff. What's the latest coming out of the White House about this new weapon?

BRUMFIEL: Well, it does sound pretty serious. But speaking today, National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby tried to strike a note of calm.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOHN KIRBY: We are not talking about a weapon that can be used to attack human beings or cause physical destruction here on Earth.

BRUMFIEL: He did confirm this was an anti-satellite weapon, but he said that the capability is not active, that it hasn't been deployed yet and there was no immediate threat.

SUMMERS: Right. Well, that's reassuring, but I do have to ask you here, what exactly is an anti-satellite weapon?

KIRBY: I think it's worth talking about. I mean, satellites have become this really indispensable part of modern warfare, and we've seen that in Ukraine in particular. The Ukrainian army has been using SpaceX's Starlink satellites to help with targeting and communications, and Russia has been really frustrated by that. Now, Russia has a missile it can use to shoot down one satellite, but Starlink has thousands of satellites in orbit. You can't fire a missile at every one. And so Russia might now be looking at these new capabilities and, you know, nuclear capabilities. That's sort of what we're talking about.

SUMMERS: OK. So when I'm hearing you describe nuclear weapons in space, things are sounding a little dicey. But can you just break it down for us? What do we actually know here?

BRUMFIEL: I spoke to James Acton, a physicist at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. He says it's very telling that U.S. officials aren't calling this a nuclear warhead or a nuclear bomb. They're calling it a nuclear capability.

JAMES ACTON: Nuclear capability is - right, that's vague. That could mean a nuclear weapon, or it could mean a nuclear-powered something or other.

BRUMFIEL: And, like, a nuclear weapon could do real damage against the constellation of satellites like Starlink, but he was doubtful it was a bomb.

ACTON: I'm skeptical - not by any means certain but somewhat skeptical it's a nuclear weapon because it's basically impossible to maintain a nuclear weapon if you put it into space.

BRUMFIEL: Turns out they're like cars. I don't know. They need their oil changed or something. But aside from that, it's also super-illegal under the Outer Space Treaty of 1967. We're not allowed to have nukes off Earth, and neither are the Russians. Kirby's comments further make it sound like it's not a nuclear bomb because, of course, those could hurt humans, quite a lot of humans. And so that makes it likely this is some sort of nuclear power source.

SUMMERS: OK. Say more. How can a nuclear power source zap satellites?

BRUMFIEL: Well, the idea here is that you can have a nuclear source that generates electricity. The Russians have built these in the past to do things like track U.S. ships during the Cold War. Brian Weeden is with the Secure World Foundation, an expert at space weaponry. He says Russia's restarted its efforts to develop powerful new nuclear reactors, and that could be one of the applications.

BRIAN WEEDEN: And one of the interesting applications that is discussed is electronic warfare.

BRUMFIEL: Now, this is real James Bond stuff. You know, this would be some satellite that could zap other satellites. I should add, the U.S. Pentagon and NASA have also ramped up programs to develop space-based nuclear reactors in recent years, but those efforts...

SUMMERS: Right.

BRUMFIEL: ...Are more about electricity and propulsion for exploration to the moon and deep space.

SUMMERS: NPR's Geoff Brumfiel. Thanks so much.

BRUMFIEL: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Geoff Brumfiel works as a senior editor and correspondent on NPR's science desk. His editing duties include science and space, while his reporting focuses on the intersection of science and national security.
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