The Russia-US Melee: Cold War Redux in Space?

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The Russia-US Melee: Cold War Redux in Space?

Tensions emerging from the Ukraine crisis don’t auger well for future cooperation in space.

The Russia-US Melee: Cold War Redux in Space?
Credit: Global Panorama via Flickr

Building on the popularity of the 1975 Hollywood blockbuster and cult classic Jaws, a sequel was put out in 1978. For many the legacy of this eminently forgettable offering lays in its tagline: “Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water…” Following Russia’s recent expansionist tendencies in Ukraine, the West is left to wonder if it is in for a Cold War redux that captures the tone and tenor of the first go round.

Russian irrendentism has prompted Western sanctions, which in turn have met with a Russian response. And at the forefront of Russia’s sanctions backlash is space cooperation. To what extent this de-orbiting relationship impacts global space safety and security is yet to be seen.

But alas, the pas de deux between Moscow and Washington appears to be coming to an end. Despite NASA’s claim that it still maintains a very good relationship with Roscosmos, the Russian space agency, Moscow has indicated that it will withdraw from the International Space Station (ISS) in 2020. This comes on the coattails of the U.S. announcing its intent to extend operations of the space station, from 2020 to 2024 earlier this year. Russia’s intention to withdraw from the ISS will most probably disrupt the current space commons dynamic; countries will need to scramble for solutions or modify strategic plans based on denied access to critical dependencies. Despite advances, the role for increased private sector participation is fraught with many unknowns: legal and regulatory liability; attribution; manufacturing resilience; intelligence data sharing; project financing; and mission assurance.

Russia is also planning to put the kibosh on selling the Russian-built RD-180 engine. The significance of having a sole supplier to power the first stage of United Launch Alliance’s Atlas 5 rocket – one of two main satellite-launching workhorses for the U.S. military space program – is not just financial in nature, but also strikes a direct blow at Washington’s space leadership aspirations.

Not insignificantly, Russia has also announced a proposal to shut down 10 of the United States’ GPS signal-reception stations located on Russian territory from June 1 (there are 11 “infrastructure stations” for the U.S.-run Global Positioning System in 10 Russian regions). The timing for this proposed directed-denial appears reactionary; however, this threat is rooted in the U.S. thwarting Russia’s introduction of Glonass – the only global competitor to the U.S. satellite navigation system – since the request was made in 2012. While the U.S. and the erstwhile Soviet Union had achieved a degree of cosmic détente with their cooperation on the ISS, this cooperation is rapidly deteriorating, and has geopolitical and geostrategic implications that exceed the two powers alone.

As Europe seeks to reduce its reliance on Russian energy supplies and the U.S. invokes sanctions, Putin is making news for his predilection for cutting deals with Beijing, among them increased Russian-Chinese cooperation in space ventures. While the Chinese precariously move towards a deeper trade alliance with Russia beyond cheap gas, their alignment on space cooperation – even if only for technology transfer – has the United States concerned.

Will Russia’s proposed implementation of Glonass capabilities in Cuba and existing plans for Iran pull even more U.S. and European security analysts out of hibernation in the wake of Ukraine’s ongoing contestation? And how will Russia contend with China’s aspirations of developing a competing, state-owned Glonass product, known as Beidou? The dual-use benefits from Beidou’s latest breakthroughs will be shared by China’s growing deep water navy and the general public alike. To what extent will advances in China’s positioning accuracy raise the specter of competition between Moscow and Beijing? The answers are not to be found in the recently signed Sino-Russian Joint Declaration on a new stage of comprehensive strategic partnership of cooperation. Russia’s direction is clear; however, China’s strategy remains uncertain. Can the U.S. engage China in a way that encourages stewardship and sets an example for Russia? While space is a national priority for both Russia and China, an articulation of Washington’s priority with respect to space is sorely needed.

Since the 2007 ASAT test conducted by China, U.S. hackles have been raised. That said, there have been some positive efforts aimed at reducing global apprehensions with regard to space security, however. One example: recommendations of various methods for improving cooperation and reducing the risks of misunderstanding and miscommunication in various space activities, as found in the final report of the United Nations Group of Governmental Experts (GGE) on Transparency and Confidence Building Measures (TCBMs). Also, since 2008 there have been serious discussions underway with respect to formulating an international Space Code of Conduct (CoC). Initially, this European sponsored idea of a non-binding and voluntary mechanism had few takers. Following revisions to the proposed draft, and tacit encouragement displayed by major spacefaring states like the U.S., Russia and China toward discussions on the topic, a normative space security regime is evolving.

Reinforcing the evolving normative framework on space security is the interesting lack of developing (and testing) of kinetic means for satellite destruction in response to China’s 2007 ASAT test. Actions taken by the U.S. with respect to the interception of one its satellites (USA-193) for alleged human safety concerns certainly had the effect of demonstrating that America still has the latent, redoubtable capacity to match China’s contentious counterspace activities. Additionally, U.S. secrecy over the exact intent behind its space plane X37B has been questioned. While not particular to the U.S., the indiscriminate nature of ballistic missile defense (BMD) weapons compared to kinetic energy antisatellite (KE-ASAT) weapons is still a fuzzy area. Targeting satellites or targeting missiles is purely about intentionality, as the operative word is targeting. Non-kinetic weapons also figure prominently in China’s arsenal of counterspace weapon as the problem of space debris is equally disruptive to all seafaring nations. Dismantling command and control capabilities through cyberwarfare may reduce the asymmetric advantage that the United States military relies upon. As it stands today, there is no current tit-for-tat scenario in space. It is hoped that the collective stewardship ethos for outer space activities – or space commons mentality – continues to be upheld by all existing and aspiring spacefaring nations.

As more and more stakeholders enter the space arena there is a risk that there will be more debris, more accidents, and greater potential fallout from space activities. Consequently, it behoves Russia, China, Europe and the U.S. to work together to create a normative framework for space security – a concept that extends beyond pure military operations, but includes infrastructure protection and resilience.

Various fragile states and frontier markets are keenly looking forward to deriving social, economic, law enforcement, and military benefits from space technologies. The best examples for this could be states like Afghanistan and Egypt. Afghanistan started using its first ever satellite in April of this year. As geopolitics shift on land, relationships in space can also be affected. With Egypt’s perception that the U.S. has turned its back on it in its hour of need, Cairo turned to Russia early last month to launch the reconnaissance satellite called EgyptSat 2. Egypt’s necessity-driven decision due to heightened terrorist activity in the Sinai may end up costing much more in the long run, and may lead to burgeoning space-related conflict.

Melissa S. Hersh is a Washington, D.C.-based risk analyst and Truman National Security Fellow. Dr Ajey Lele is a Research Fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analysis, New Delhi.