DoD Official Warns Congress About Russia’s Potential Use of a Nuclear Weapon in Space

John Plumb
(DoD/EJ Hershom)

Welcome to this week’s installment of The Intelligence Brief… on Wednesday, lawmakers in Washington were warned about a potentially devastating Russian anti-satellite nuclear weapon during a House Armed Services subcommittee hearing. In our analysis, we’ll be focusing on 1) what the assistant secretary of defense for space policy recently said about the possible Russian threat, 2) the Biden Administration’s 2025 space budget request, 3) current issues with overclassification, and 4) how the military policies of U.S. foreign adversaries like Russia could potentially endanger the orbital activities of virtually all spacefaring nations.

Quote of the Week

Space capabilities are essential to overall military effectiveness and central to the [DoD’s] integrated deterrence strategy.”

– John Plumb, Assistant Secretary of Defense for Space Policy

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With that all behind us, it’s now time to examine the recent statements offered by John Plumb, the assistant secretary of defense for space policy, during a recent hearing on Capitol Hill where he expressed the Biden Administration’s concerns over the potential development of a Russian nuclear weapon for use in space.

Official Warns of Potential Use of Russian Nuclear Weapon in Space

On Wednesday, John Plumb, the assistant secretary of defense for space policy, told lawmakers on Capitol Hill that an anti-satellite nuclear device Russia is suspected of developing represents a potential threat to all spacecraft currently operating in orbit.

Plumb, who made the statements at a House Armed Services subcommittee hearing, said the Department of Defense is primarily concerned with Russia’s ambitions to “ultimately fly a nuclear weapon in space which will be an indiscriminate weapon,” and that while not an imminent threat, it is nonetheless one that has Biden administration officials on alert.

News of the weapon first became known in February, when a mysterious “national security threat” was revealed by Ohio Representative Mike Turner in a posting on social media, where Turner requested “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 to this threat.”

Plumb, the first Assistant Secretary of Defense for Space Policy who it was recently revealed will be stepping down from his position, made the statements on Wednesday while discussing the U.S.’s proposed space budget for the coming year, which follow numerous developments in recent years indicating Russia’s potential use of anti-satellite weaponry that could endanger the space operations of other nations.

The U.S. Space Budget Request

While Plumb’s statements about the potential use of a Russian nuclear weapon in space is what made it into the headlines this week, at the heart of the assistant secretary of defense for space policy’s testimony on Wednesday had been the President’s $33.7 billion Fiscal Year 2025 space budget request, which allocates more than two thirds for procurement and research, development, testing, and evaluation in a series of investments aiming to protect the Joint Force, as well as to ensure operational capability in a contested and congested space environment. ​

In his statement provided during Wednesday’s hearing, Plumb said that Beijing and Moscow are rapidly developing space and counterspace capabilities that could imperil the Joint Force if left unmitigated. Alongside Russia’s potential use of counterspace systems that could target the U.S.’s space-based communications systems relied on for both military and commercial operations, the People’s Republic of China is aiming to expand its space monitoring and precision strike capabilities as well.

John Plumb
Dr. John Plumb, Assistant Secretary of Defense for Space Policy, is greeted by U.S. Army Gen. James Dickinson, U.S. Space Command commander, on June 29, 2022 during Plumb’s visit to USSPACECOM headquarters, Peterson Space Force Base, Colorado (U.S. Space Command photo by Petty Officer 1st Class John Wagner).

According to Plumb, the Pentagon hopes to prioritize resilience in space control, which it hopes will help the U.S. military prevent potential conflicts. Among the architectures discussed during Wednesday’s hearing had been the Space Development Agency’s proliferated satellite architecture, which is being implemented to help protect and enhance communication capabilities, as well as defense systems for early warning detection and tracking of missile threats.

Additional focuses within Biden’s FY 2025 space budget focus on cooperation with allies and partners, with an emphasis on the Combined Space Operations Initiative (CSpO) to help facilitate collaboration among likeminded nations, in addition to the continuation of dialogue with countries like Japan and India in the furtherance of such goals.

Problems with Overclassification

Another focus of Plumb’s statements on Wednesday involved overclassification of space activities, which the Administration says are potentially impacting the flow of information and communication with U.S. allies and partners.

“My office has led the charge to fix this,” Plumb told lawmakers on Wednesday. “In coordination with the Intelligence Community, we spent more than a year completely rewriting a 20-year-old legacy space classification policy, which reflected priorities of a different time and a different security environment.”

“That legacy policy limited our ability to share information within the Department, limited our ability to cooperate with our allies and partners, and limited the ability of our industry partners to provide cost effective and timely solutions to difficult problems,” Plumb said. “Ultimately, it limited our ability to adequately plan and train for conflict.”

Last December, Deputy Secretary of Defense Kathleen Hicks officially approved the new space classification policy. Plumb said on Wednesday that “there is now a concerted effort to decrease the siloed nature of space activities.”

Foreign Adversaries Endangering Space Operations

“Russian military doctrine embraces multi-domain attacks, using both reversible and irreversible capabilities, to target adversary satellites,” Plumb said on Wednesday, citing existing evidence of Moscow’s use of “cyber intrusions against commercial satellite communication networks… and actions that it views commercial satellites providing space-based services to Russia’s adversaries as potential targets.”

Artist’s concept of a Russian anti-satellite weapon (DIA/Public Domain).

Regarding the development of a Russian nuclear weapon with anti-satellite capabilities, Plumb warned lawmakers that the new capability “could pose a threat to all satellites operated by countries and companies around the globe, as well as to the vital communications, scientific, meteorological, agricultural, commercial, and national security services we all depend upon.”

“Our competitors recognize the importance of space to the United States,” Plumb added, “and they continue to develop and field capabilities designed to deprive us of the advantages of space during conflict.”

“Our approach is in stark contrast to the behavior of our competitors,” Plumb added during his statement to lawmakers, adding that the U.S. will “continue to call on our competitors to demonstrate their commitment to preserve space as a safe domain.”

That concludes this week’s installment of The Intelligence Brief. You can read past editions of The Intelligence Brief at our website, or if you found this installment online, don’t forget to subscribe and get future email editions from us here. Also, if you have a tip or other information you’d like to send along directly to me, you can email me at micah [@] thedebrief [dot] org, or Tweet at me @MicahHanks.

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