On July 23, the U.S. Space Command (USSPACECOM) released a statement saying that Russia had “conducted a non-destructive test of a space-based anti-satellite weapon.” According to the statement, Russia, on July 15 “injected a new object into orbit from Cosmos 2543” in close proximity to another Russia satellite. This reportedly is similar to a prior Russian in-orbit activity undertaken in 2017. The latest Russian action also comes against the backdrop of a Russian anti-satellite test in April, when it fired a missile into space. Although Russia did not destroy any target during this test, the April test along with the July one raises doubts about Russia’s rhetoric of non-weaponization of space.
If these activities continue unabated, it will only further intensify competition among the major space players, potentially leading to weaponizing space. The space security regime is already in trouble; the Russian test creates additional problems. The experience of the UN Group of Governmental Experts (GGE) on Prevention of Arms Race in Outer Space (PAROS) is a reflection of the current poor state of dealing with issues of global space governance. The failure of the major space powers to address space security challenges and agree upon a future path will be detrimental to maintaining space as a safe, secure, and sustainable domain.
This is not the first time that Russia has undertaken such an action. In 2017, the Russian “inspector” satellite Cosmos 2519 released a subsatellite, Cosmos 2521. The United States has been direct and harsh in its criticism of Russia. Well before the July tests, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Ford categorically characterized Russian actions thus: “Not to put too fine a point on it, but Cosmos 2521 demonstrated the ability to position itself near another satellite and fire a projectile” (italics in original). Quoting Gen. John W. “Jay” Raymond, commander of USSPACECOM, Ford explained that the U.S. has specific concerns because Russia has repeatedly demonstrated its capabilities in this regard. Apparently, there were two other Russian satellites, Cosmos 2542 and 2543, that were launched by Russia in November and December 2019 and these have undertaken maneuvers close to a U.S. satellite in low earth orbit. The United States views these actions, Ford said, as “highly provocative.”
U.S. criticism became even sharper after the July 23 Russian test. Raymond noted that “the United States, in coordination with our allies, is ready and committed to deterring aggression and defending the nation, our allies and vital U.S. interests from hostile acts in space.” Ford said that this action “highlights Russia’s hypocritical advocacy of outer space arms control, with which Moscow aims to restrict the capabilities of the United States while clearly having no intention of halting its own counterspace program — both ground-based anti-satellite capabilities and what would appear to be actual in-orbit anti-satellite weaponry.”
Meanwhile, Russia has rejected the U.S. claims as “propaganda.” The Russian Foreign Ministry argued that the test “did not create a threat for other space equipment and most importantly, did not breach any norms or principles of international law.” Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov also dismissed the U.S. claims, saying that “Russia has always been and remains a country that is committed to the goal of fully demilitarizing outer space and non-deployment of any kinds of arms in outer space.”
It has to be noted that Russia has been trying to push initiatives to prevent weaponization of space for some time. Russia, along with China, has been calling for a treaty banning the placement of weapons in outer space. In 2008, the two together submitted a draft Treaty on the Prevention of the Placement of Weapons in Outer Space, the Threat or Use of Force Against Outer Space Objects (PPWT). A revised text was submitted in the summer of 2014. A second Russian proposal is that of the “No First Placement” initiative, in which countries are expected to voluntarily agree not to be the first to place weapons in outer space.
Neither of these proposals have found many takers for a number of reasons. First, many countries argue against a treaty-based mechanism in the current international political climate. They would instead prefer political instruments such as transparency and confidence building measures (TCBMs) or a code of conduct, all of which are non-legal instruments. But other countries argue that while non-legal measures can be useful, they cannot be a substitute for legal instruments. Second, there are also practical issues such as the definition of a “weapon” in space. In the absence of definitional clarity, it is likely to be difficult to come up with a mechanism to prevent the placement of weapon in outer space.
While there is merit to both these arguments, the reality is also that unless steps are taken to improve transparency and predictability with regard to outer space activities, states will likely find themselves spiraling toward weaponizing outer space.
Even as the war of words continues, there will need to be practical measures to deal with the increasing threats to space. We are witnessing a number of escalatory actions including ASAT tests, cyber and electronic warfare targeted at space assets, and now what appears to be an actual kinetic weapon in space. Unless decisive steps are agreed upon by the major space players, access to space for civil and peaceful as well as security requirements will be harmed. While formal treaty mechanisms have been favored previously, today’s contentious global politics may not allow for such measures in the near term. These trends are of course dictated by global power transition leading to a new and competitive geopolitics. Therefore, expecting to develop a legal measure in the near term will remain difficult. Finding alternate approaches, such as developing norms of responsible behavior, may be a better path.