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From New York Times, I'm Michael Barbaro. This is The Daily. Today, US officials now acknowledge a growing fear that Russia may be trying to put a nuclear weapon into Earth's orbit. But as my colleague Eric Lipton explains, their real worry is that America could lose the battle for military supremacy in space. It's Wednesday, February 28th.


Eric, this story began in a pretty unusual way. I actually watched it unfold on social media in real-time, and it started with a very cryptic message from a member of Congress. So just tell us about that.


Sure. Well, Representative Mike Turner, who's chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, put out a message saying, Today, the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence is made available to all members of Congress information- That he had information concerning a seriousish national security threat. It was an unusual a statement from the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee.


I'm requesting that President Biden declassify all information relating to this threat so that Congress, the administration, and our- And so he didn't really tell us what this was about, but he- He just told us to be very scared.




And it immediately set off a scramble of national security reporters to try to figure out what that message meant. And pretty quickly- Congressman Turner is referring to a foreign military capability, and that foreign military is the Russian military. Reporters heard that this had to do with Russia and with a new type of military threat.


And what exactly was this new military threat?


The intelligence that our New York Times colleagues have collected is that Russia is preparing to put a weapon in space that would blow up a nuclear device, and when it did that, it would be used to target United States surveillance satellites.


Okay, so here we need to slow down and explain what that means, why it's so alarming, why nukes would ever be in space. So just disentangle all of that.


I think that few Americans realize just how vital space is to the military defense of the United States. For decades, the United States has been building, effectively, school bus size satellites that cost a massive amount of money. They're these exquisite systems that just sit there in space and provide incredible information. And We rely upon all of the assets that we have for navigation, for communication, for missile defense, for missile targeting. It's something that is one of the great powers of the United States is to have all of this equipment floating around above us. But the real flaw in the United States military space system is that there aren't very many of them, and you don't have to take out too many of them to severely disable the United States capacities.


Got it. So back to this congressman, Turner, and his message. Why would the Russians need a nuclear element to their efforts to challenge America's satellite programs in space?


Russia sees potentially a nuclear weapon as a way to take out large numbers of satellites in an instant. Wow. It would fry them, it would destroy them, it would create all kinds of debris in space. And I think what's really going on here is the Russians, in the early stages of their invasion of Ukraine, were really frustrated that they were not able to really block the ability of the Ukrainian military to continue to communicate. And that's because the Ukrainian military was relying on SpaceX and Elon Musk and his network of Starlink satellites to continue to operate. And it was actually in late 2022 when the Russians said, You know what? Those American satellites are getting in our way, and we may choose to target those satellites in the future. I think that's what might be going on right now.


Got it. Russia has decided that a way for it to achieve any military advantage over the US and have success in things like its invasion of Ukraine is to be able to threaten the United States satellite infrastructure in space in such a way that might make it hard for the US to effectively fight back against Russia.


That's right. I mean, on the ground, Russia has been using what they call GPS jammers to disrupt the signals from satellites that are coming down in Ukraine on the ground as they're fighting the war. But every Everything from the location of the soldier on the ground to when there's a missile that's launched that's targeted in the United States to how a ship communicates with another ship, everything goes through space. I think that's one of the weakest points that the United States has, and it's the ability to mess up or disable their space-based communications targeting surveillance.


You're saying that when a rival like Russia thinks about how it could actually and efficiently take out America his eyes and ears of our entire military. It turns out there's really only one answer, and that's by doing it in space.


Right. It doesn't matter how big and powerful the weapon systems are. If they can't target and they can't communicate, they're basically useless.


Okay, so if you believe that Russia could put a nuclear weapon in space that could hurt our ability to have eyes and ears on what they're doing, that would be very scary. But how confident are we that Vladimir Putin can, in fact, put a nuclear weapon in space that's capable of doing that?


Given that, in fact, there's already been nuclear tests in space in the 1960s, the idea of them doing this is not out of the realm of technical possibilities. It would be a violation of an international treaty, but Russia hasn't shown much concern about violating international treaties. I don't think technically it would be that much of a challenge. It would destabilize the world because suddenly you'd have nuclear weapons in space, and it would cross a line that so far no one has crossed. But the notion, can it be done? I think it could be done.


I guess the question is not just, can it be done? But how confident is the US that Russia intends to do it and how quickly?


That's really unclear. And I think that there's a lot of speculation even about exactly what this weapon might be. It could be a nuclear-powered anti-satellite device that blows out satellites, but just be nuclear-powered. It could be a nuclear weapon in space that explodes and blows out anything anywhere nearby. And we don't know when this potential Russian weapon is going to go up into orbit or whether or not, in fact, it ever really will. But what this does show a bit is that it's a bit of a hale Mary by Russia, a way to try to exert its influence in space at a moment when Russia is actually a declining power relative to the other nations in the world.


Just explain that. How can Russia be a declining power right now in space?


Russia is not launching nearly as frequently as it had been, and its whole infrastructure around building new satellites is in decline, particularly compared to China, which is launching at a crazy pace right now in putting up all kinds of new commercial communication systems, but also devices that could become offensive weapons against the United States. So at the end of the day, when I talk to people at the Pentagon, despite the noise that Russia is making about potentially putting a nuclear weapon in space, the biggest The threat to United States in space is actually China.


We'll be right back.


Eric, we started off talking about the threat that it seemed Russia posed to the United States because of its willingness to potentially put a nuclear weapon in space. Now, you're saying that for the US military, the real threat in space is China. Just explain that.


China, as of at least the last decade, as part of a overall significant surge in its military capacity, space has been an incredibly intense focus. It has been launching at a really rapid pace far ahead of Russia. It's not only putting communication satellites up there, but it's putting systems that could potentially potentially grab onto, move, and disable American military satellites.


How does that work? How does something that they launch into space grab onto an American satellite?


Well, in January 2022, China put a satellite into space that had an arm that reached out and grabbed another satellite that was there in geosynchrotous orbit, and it dragged it to a different location.


Basically, they found a way to put a tow truck up in space and showed that if they wanted to, they could move any satellite.


That's right. They showed that they had the ability to not only send satellites up there, but to send trucks that had the capacity to grab on to maybe an enemy's surveillance system and basically put it into a dead zone. Another thing that China did was in 2007, this is quite a while ago, they launched a missile up to about 530 miles, which is far into space, and they destroyed another satellite that was in orbit, and it created an incredible cloud of space debris, the largest amount of space debris ever tracked. It was quite a worrisome thing for the United States to see that China has the capacity to launch missiles from the ground that would destroy satellites and blow them up in low Earth orbit.


Got it. So both examples that you just are much more targeted than what Russia is contemplating, moving one satellite or using a missile to take one out. But the upshot is that China can disrupt our eyes and ears in space in a probably better, more efficient way than Russia. And you're saying, given how much stuff they put up in space, they're more likely to already be able to do it than Russia, which is still trying to get to that point.


Right. I mean, the big difference between Russia and China right now as a space threat is that China is moving rapidly on both offensive and defensive systems. China is talking about building a state network of 13,000 satellites. I mean, on a scale that's just completely outside of what Russia is attempting to do. China is investing a lot more money, and it's moving much faster right now to put new systems in space. And those systems are both going to threaten United States satellites and also have a surveillance that would almost rival the United States.


I want to understand where the US sits in all of this, because when it comes to space, it feels like the thing that would make the US military so anxious about a rival's advancements in space is if we couldn't match them or we couldn't properly respond to them. What is the US readiness right now to basically match or fight back against whatever Russia and China are doing in space?


Everyone I talk to from the Pentagon and also former Pentagon officials all agree that the United States maintains clear dominance in space. It has more satellites for surveillance and missile targeting and missile defense than any other nation. Both the United States and China have moved in a really rapid way into a new domain, and that is low Earth orbit. That's about no greater than 1,200 miles off the surface surface of the Earth, and it's the area where SpaceX has put more than 5,000 satellites for its Starlink system. That's the focus right now, is the flood that zone with lots of relatively cheap, quickly manufactured, easy to replace satellite systems, and the United States wants to put at least a thousand satellites into low Earth orbit for its military purposes in the next several years. Among the many concerns that the American military has is that China is moving so rapidly right now to build out its own system that unless the United States really accelerates what it's doing, that soon China could be close to matching what the US has in space. And that China now has enough surveillance capacity in space to target American military capacity in any type of a conflict.


I mean, imagine the scenario where China decides to invade Taiwan and the United States decides that it's going to help defend Taiwan. If all of our military assets are immediately visible to China, they could be targeted even before they got to the Taiwan Straits or even before they got within range to have a military engagement. And simultaneously, China's offensive space weapons were disabling American satellites so that the United States could no longer communicate. That's the fear that the military has right now, is both of those things could suddenly happen if the United States is not building up its own space capacity and its space weapons to disable Chinese satellites.


Got it. The worry, and it's very specific, is that if China can achieve the same level of military prowess in space as the US, then the US loses any power it has to deter China from doing something like invade on because we know, and they know that we know, that they can basically shut down our systems before and during that invasion and make it impossible for us to stop them.


It would severely degrade military capacity if they to wipe out a good share of our satellites, and they're racing to try to avoid that.


Eric, what does it look like for the US to race to avoid China meeting America's capabilities where they currently are? How does the US US military do that? Obviously, it would need to either slow China down or the US itself would need to speed up and race ahead of China.


There's two primary things that are happening right now. One is to build out US offensive systems to disable Chinese or Russian satellites. So that includes jamming systems. They just signed a new contract to build new devices that could jam Chinese or Russian satellites and disrupt their signals, laser systems that could destroy satellites from the ground or from space, and also other systems that they, just like the Chinese, have built a tug in space, the United States potentially is going to build its own systems that could grab and disable other satellites in space. The second piece of this plank is to build out a massive investment in space capacity by the United States to build a whole new architecture in low Earth orbit with hundreds, if not more than a thousand satellites that would be so many, so redundant that you couldn't effectively disable the United States military capacity. Because even if you were to shoot out a certain number of them, there would be yet more of them. Sort of like Starlink right now, the SpaceX Starlink. If it loses a certain number of its 5,800 satellites, they just switch and they rebuild the network among the remaining satellites.


Basically, everyone knows that the next time there's a major war with a major that there's going to be offensive activity in space, and both sides are preparing for that.


Wow. I mean, what you're clearly describing is a new space race, a space race that's about which of these three global superpowers can take out the other satellites and use their satellites offensively and defensively to achieve military supremacy.


Yeah, that's right. I think that there's a new space race that's underway right now, and it is more intense than at any time since really the 1960s when the United States and Russia were testing weapons in space for the first time. It is very intense. The increase in spending on space right now radically exceeds anything that the Navy or that The traditional Air Force or the Army is doing. More dollars are pouring into space defense right now as a percentage increase. It's more than any other part of the military.


Eric, this makes me wonder how much the US, in its efforts to do those those two things you just described, out in space, is ultimately reliant on contractors the private sector, and in particular, Elon Musk. This guy who has put so many satellites up in the sky, but who's mercurial and unique, to put it diplomatically. So is the US plan for staying ahead of both Russia and China to ultimately put more and more power in the hands of Elon Musk?


Right now, there's no question that SpaceX and Elon Musk plays an extraordinarily dominant role in the ability to launch to orbit. And the military is excessively reliant on SpaceX. So at this moment, it's an uncomfortable domination by SpaceX. Of the 9,400 objects in orbit right now, 5,235 of them are SpaceX Starlink satellites. So almost all of the satellites in orbit that from any nation in the world are Elon Musk. But the Department of Defense realizes that it can't be so reliant upon one company for launch. And so the Pentagon is also signing contracts with small launch companies to quickly be able to put military satellites into space with just a few days notice. And so there's a lot of money that's being spent to build out this capacity. Right.


So what you're really saying is that this new space race is going to come with and foster a new space military-industrial complex that's going to be the recipient of many billions, maybe trillions of dollars in taxpayer money.


That's right. I mean, the United States is already in the middle of an incredible explosion in the commercial space industry because the number of commercial launches is growing at a really crazy rate. And in the entire world right now, there are approximately 10,000 objects in orbit. And within the next 10 years, the expectation is going to be something like 25,000 satellites in orbit. So there's a huge boom right now in the space industry globally.


Eric, when I step back, it feels like the inevitable outcome of this new space race, this weapons space race, is a very potentially expensive version of what we already have, which is that famous concept of mutually assured destruction. It's this idea that all three of these countries have nuclear weapons, and it keeps us all in check. Russia, China, the US. We don't attack each other directly because we all fear that the other country attacked would fire back in obliterating ways that would never make it worth it. Isn't that where we're headed with this battle over space? All three countries are going to be spending a tremendous amount of money, eventually, to reach some loose parity that prevents us all from doing something really horrible the other country.


I mean, I reject your premise. I think that, in fact, the thing that the United States is concerned about is it has had such a massive advantage in space for so long, and it's been so central to our global military supremacy. And suddenly, if you have another nation that's walking in and becoming your rival in that environment, I mean, that's really worrisome to the American military. And they're determined to prevent China from matching the United States military capacity in space.


You're saying this is not about the three countries ever achieving parity. It's about the US ensuring that parity is never achieved. Because if it's achieved, then everything changes.


Right. I think that basically the Pentagon wants to ensure that it can maintain dominance in space and not just parity, because space-based dominance is so vital to the way that the United States military has operated for years now.


Eric, thank you very much. We appreciate it.


Thanks for having me.


We'll be right back.


Here's what else you need to know today. On Tuesday, present Biden submitted House and Senate leaders to the White House in an attempt to avoid the latest potential government shutdown. That shutdown, which could begin at midnight on Saturday, would be the result of strident demands from House Republicans who have attached right-wing policies to basic spending bills that have made them impossible to pass in the Senate.


We believe that we can get to agreement on these issues and prevent a government shutdown, and that's our first responsibility Absolutely.


As he left the White House, Republican House Speaker Mike Johnson expressed optimism that a shutdown would be averted.


We have been working in good faith around the clock every single day for months and in weeks, and over the last several days, quite literally around the clock, to get that job done.


And in a rebuke to President Biden, more than 100,000 Democratic voters in Michigan cast protest ballots that declared themselves uncommitted to express disapproval of the President's handling of the war in Gaza. That number far exceeded the goal of 10,000 uncommitted ballots that activists had set for themselves and could spell trouble for Biden in the general election. Michigan is a key swing state where Biden defeated Donald Trump in 2020. Today's episode was produced by Michael Simon Johnson and Carlos Prieto, with help from Will Reid and Mujdj Zadie. It was edited by Lexie Diao, contains original music by Marion Lozano, Dan Powell, and Pat McCusker, and was engineered by Alyssa Moxley. Our theme music is by Jim Brunberg and Ben Lansferck of Wunderly. That's it for The Daily. I'm Michael Beboro. See you tomorrow..