Today's D Brief: New Russian weapon in space?; Putin’s Ukraine war, two years on; NATO defense spending on the rise; UAE pushes back on Mideast strikes; And a bit more.

House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Turner, R-Ohio, posted a vague national security warning late Wednesday morning that sent shockwaves around Washington for the rest of the afternoon and through much of the evening. “Today, the House Select Committee on Intelligence has made available to all Members of Congress information concerning a serious national security threat,” Turner said in a short message posted to social media just before noon. 

Without elaborating publicly, Turner said he’s asked the White House to declassify “all information related to this threat so that Congress, the administration, and our allies can openly discuss the actions necessary to respond to this threat.” In a letter to lawmakers, Turner described it as a “destabilizing foreign military capability that should be known by all congressional policymakers,” according to CNN.

Almost immediately, the rumor mills went into overdrive: What is the threat? Who is it from? Does it involve nuclear weapons? Why was Turner’s alert made public in precisely this way? How scared should we all be? Russia is believed to have recently launched a secretive military satellite into space; was it that? Instead of urging calm, Turner left it to nameless U.S. officials to explain the situation, insofar as possible given the classified nature of the threat. 

Almost immediately, attention turned to Russia, after sources told ABC News the threat concerned a space-based anti-satellite weapon with nuclear power involved somehow—though exactly how is not yet clear, since the issue remains classified. The New York Times reported the weapon had not been launched yet, “but that there was a limited window of time, which they did not define, to prevent its deployment.” 

Worth noting: “Deploying a nuclear weapon in space would be a significant advancement in Russian technology and a potentially dramatic escalation,” the Times reported. This is in part because “The Outer Space Treaty bans nuclear weapons in space, but Russia has been exiting many Cold War arms control treaties, seeing them as a restraint on its most important source of military power.”

Consulting recent history, Turner’s warning could involve a device known as “Ekipazh,” which writer Bart Hendrickx described in a lengthy 2019 report for Space News. That Soviet weapon project began, as so many space-based weapons did, in the 1960s. 

You might think of an orbiting reactor as “a small nuclear power station to power power-hungry electronic equipment,” said astronomer Jonathan McDowell. “The Soviet Navy had a long record of launching reactor-powered radar satellites (from 1970 to 1988), so this would not be a new power capability for Russia,” he added. Indeed, one of those devices is believed to have malfunctioned before “shower[ing] radioactive debris over northwestern Canada in January 1978,” according to Hendrickx. 

If deployed in space, orbiting such a device “appears to be grossly irresponsible,” said James Acton of the Carnegie Nuclear Policy Program, “because what do you do with a nuclear reactor in orbit when the satellite has finished its useful life? You really, really don't want it to burn up on re-entry which is the normal disposal ‘solution’ for satellites in [low-earth orbit].” (However, another space policy expert added, “as long as the orbit is high enough, it's the application that is destabilizing, not the reactor.”)

But if it’s an actual nuclear weapon and not just a nuclear-powered thing? Defense One’s Patrick Tucker unpacked some of those implications Wednesday evening, here

Senate Intelligence Committee leaders were seemingly more circumspect than Turner, and said in a joint statement that they’ve “been rigorously tracking this issue from the start.” They added, “We continue to take this matter seriously and are discussing an appropriate response with the administration. In the meantime, we must be cautious about potentially disclosing sources and methods that may be key to preserving a range of options for U.S. action.”

White House National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan was hounded with questions by reporters Wednesday afternoon, but had little to offer due to the classified nature of the threat. “We scheduled a briefing for the four House members of the Gang of Eight tomorrow,” he said, referring to the four party leaders in Congress and the leaders of the House and Senate intelligence committees. “So, I am a bit surprised that Congressman Turner came out publicly today in advance of a meeting…That’s his choice to do that,” Sullivan said. 

For what it’s worth, Congressman Turner recently returned from a congressional visit to Ukraine over the weekend with four other House lawmakers.  

Welcome to this Thursday edition of The D Brief, brought to you by Ben Watson with Jennifer Hlad. Share your newsletter tips, reading recommendations, or feedback for the year ahead here. And if you’re not already subscribed, you can do that here. On this day in 2003, protests against President George W. Bush’s plans to invade Iraq erupted across the globe, with at least eight million people demonstrating in more than 600 cities around the world. The Bush administration was unphased, and pushed ahead with what would later be remembered as one of the worst strategic blunders in American history.

Russia is alleged to have launched its new hypersonic Zircon cruise missile for the first time. It supposedly happened eight days ago in a missile barrage aimed at Kyiv. Post-strike missile fragments were analyzed by officials with the Kyiv Scientific-Research Institute for Forensic Examinations, who claim to have found “elements that are characteristic of the 3M22 Zircon missile,” since “Parts and fragments of the engine and steering mechanisms have specific markings,” the institute’s director said Monday on Telegram. The missile’s main advantage is its speed, which would allow it to evade most air defense systems currently in use. 

Skeptics abound, however, including Thomas Newdick of The War Zone, who warned Tuesday that the available post-strike evidence doesn’t yet seem to add up. However, he added, its use by Moscow would not necessarily come as a surprise. 

Ukraine appears to have begun using a new U.S.-provided weapon, the Ground-Launched Small Diameter Bomb, according to recent imagery posted to Telegram. Its main advantage is range—about 90 miles or so, which is about twice the range of Ukraine’s more traditional artillery systems. If its use is confirmed, that suggests it has taken 12 months from the time the U.S. promised Ukraine the weapon to when it was observed to have been used in combat. Newdick has more, writing Wednesday, here

The long view: Several think tanks and academics are cranking out their two-year anniversary commentaries and conferences on the war in Ukraine. That includes a particularly sobering assessment published Tuesday by Jack Watling and Nick Reynolds from the Royal United Services Institute in the UK. Among their predictions for the months to come: 

  • Despite steep manpower losses from 722 consecutive days of war, the Kremlin “believes that it can sustain the current rate of attrition through 2025,” Watling and Reynolds warn. And the latest known Russian planning anticipates that “victory should be achieved by 2026.”
  • On the other hand, “if Ukraine’s partners continue to provide sufficient ammunition and training support to the [Ukrainian military] to enable the blunting of Russian attacks in 2024, then Russia is unlikely to achieve significant gains in 2025,” they write. 
  • However, “Beyond 2026, attrition of systems will begin to materially degrade Russian combat power, while Russian industry could be disrupted sufficiently by that point, making Russia’s prospects decline over time.” There’s quite a bit more in their Tuesday report, which you can read over in full here

“It’s fair to say that the Ukrainians have lost the military initiative, at least for the moment,” said Seth Jones of the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies. Jones and several of his colleagues discussed the year ahead for Ukraine on Wednesday for CSIS. But Russia’s defense industry is perhaps most concerning in the mid-term, he said, and that’s in no small part thanks to the collaboration between Moscow and Tehran as well as Pyongyang and Beijing.

However, he cautioned, “I think it is way too early to assess the likelihood of victory by either side.” There are lots of examples from history where small powers wore down and defeated much larger ones—including “the Soviets losing in Afghanistan, the French and the U.S. in Vietnam, the U.S. and NATO in Afghanistan, the French in Algeria,” said Jones. There’s much more to that discussion over at CSIS, here

Pentagon chief Lloyd Austin discussed rising defense spending with NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg on Wednesday. According to the Pentagon’s readout, “NATO’s European Allies will invest a collective total of $380 billion in defense” in 2024. And that means, “For the first time, this amounts to 2% of their combined gross domestic product,” and it “follows an unprecedented increase in 2023, which saw a rise of 11% in defense spending across Allies.” 

Stoltenberg: “I expect 18 allies to spend 2% of their GDP on defense this year,” the alliance secretary-general said Wednesday, according to Reuters

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The U.S. Coast Guard seized a ship full of weapons and other military components in the Arabian Sea in late January, U.S. Central Command announced today. That ship was on its way to Yemen from Iran to deliver the supplies to the Houthis, and was loaded up with “medium-range ballistic missile components, explosives, unmanned underwater/surface vehicle components, military-grade communication and network equipment, anti-tank guided missile launcher assemblies,” and more, according to the news release, which is accompanied by the type of picture associated with Coast Guard seizures closer to home. 

The Yemen-bound ship was “yet another example of Iran’s malign activity in the region,” CENTCOM Commander Gen. Michael Kurilla said in the release. 

Strikes continue: The U.S. launched four self-defense strikes Wednesday and one Tuesday, all against targets in Houthi-controlled areas of Yemen, CENTCOM said. Those strikes took out eight mobile anti-ship cruise missiles, three aerial drones, and one explosive robot boat, all of which were “prepared to launch against ships in the Red Sea.” 

Those strikes may be harder to launch going forward, as United Arab Emirates and other countries have restricted the U.S. military’s ability to launch airstrikes against Iranian proxies from their soil, Politico reports. The U.S. has a large Air Force presence at an air base in UAE, as well as troops and air assets in Qatar, Kuwait, Bahrain, and elsewhere in the region. 

Developing: Politico, citing anonymous sources, reports that “several Arab countries,” especially those trying not to provoke Iran, are “increasingly restricting” the U.S. and other nations from “conducting self-defense operations from their soil,” including strikes in retaliation for attacks in Iraq, Syria, and the Red Sea. 

Update: The U.S. used its “flying ginsu” Hellfire missile to kill an Iran-linked militia leader last week in Baghdad, defense officials told the Wall Street Journal this week, which is about seven days after post-strike imagery pointed clearly to the ginsu missile, as The War Zone reported at the time.

Developing: President Joe Biden allegedly wants 18% fewer F-35s in 2025 than the Pentagon was planning, Reuters reported Wednesday, citing unnamed sources. Instead of ordering 83 of the next-gen fighter jets, Biden wants the Pentagon to buy fewer than 70, saving about $1.6 billion, as the administration looks for ways to save money. The jets cost between $80 million and $120 million. 

Driving this decision: Congress capped the size of the 2025 defense budget, which is expected to be $895 billion, with $850 billion of that for the Pentagon. Reuters has more, here