April 12 marked the 60th anniversary of Yuri Gagarin’s first human space flight in 1961. It also became an occasion for fresh appeals for maintaining the sanctity of outer space. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, delivering a special message on the occasion, said, “We support the start of negotiations on the development of an international legally binding instrument prohibiting the deployment of any types of weapons [in space], as well as the use of force or threat of force.” Echoing similar sentiments, China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson Zhao Lijian said earlier in the week, “we are calling on the international community to start negotiations and reach agreement on arms control in order to ensure space safety as soon as possible.” Lijian added that “China has always been in favor of preventing an arms race in space, it has been actively promoting negotiations on a legally binding agreement on space arms control jointly with Russia.”
There is little doubt about the growing concern regarding the growing threats to the peaceful utilization of outer space for the good of all, but it is difficult to be optimistic about any immediate resolution to the myriad problems that outer space governance faces.
In 2008, Russia and China proposed 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), and a revised text was introduced in 2014. It has not elicited much support outside of a small coterie of states. The recent calls by the two states are unlikely to see much traction in the face of a number of developments in the space realm as well as in the broader international security climate.
Russia and China are, of course, not the only countries calling for space security and arms control measures. The United Kingdom’s recent proposal, “Reducing Space Threats through Norms, Rules, and Principles of Responsible Behaviors” offers a fresh approach, looking at space security threats from a bottom-up perspective. The absence of a prescriptive element in the U.K. proposal is particularly welcome. Given the lack of progress in critical areas such as in defining a “space weapon,” the U.K. proposal focuses on behavior. Ambassador Aidan Liddle, the U.K.’s Ambassador and Permanent Representative to the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva, in a recent Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office blog, wrote that there was need for a different approach to space security: “one that looks at the behaviors that might exacerbate tensions and drive competition, not just at military hardware.” There have been earlier efforts as well in this direction. The European Union’s efforts at an International Code of Conduct for Outer Space Activities (ICoC) (2013), a new UN Group of Governmental Experts (GGE) on transparency and confidence building measures (TCBMs) in 2013, and the 2018-19 GGE on further practical measures for the prevention of an arms race in outer space (PAROS) are some of the other initiatives over the last decade. But none of these have led to any meaningful outcomes.
Meanwhile, the threats to the governance of outer space are growing. With increasing dependence on space, states are investing in counter-space capabilities that could deny adversaries any advantage in outer space. While counter-space capabilities including kinetic anti-satellite (ASAT) weapons are not new, those programs had been halted for a couple of decades until China conducted its first successful ASAT test in January 2007. Earlier, the United States and the Soviet Union had conducted a number of ASAT tests, but both recognized the negative consequences of their actions and had not conducted any ASAT tests since the mid-1980s. China appears to have conducted many more ASAT tests since then, though they are calling them “missile defense tests” to avoid international condemnation.
The changing balance of power dynamics and the spread of technology to a large number of states means there are many more players now, making writing new rules of the road extremely challenging. This has been evident in many of the recent space governance proposals, which have failed to garner the requisite support not for lack of understanding and appreciation of the threats and challenges to outer space, but simple as a result of power rivalries.
In particular, several recent studies have shown growing counter-space capabilities across Asia. Last week, the U.S. Office of the Director of National Intelligence (DNI) in its annual report of global threats to U.S. national security, stated that the Chinese military “will continue to integrate space services – such as satellite reconnaissance and positioning, navigation, and timing (PNT) – and satellite communications into its weapons and command-and-control systems to erode the US military’s information advantage.”
The report added that counter-space weapons will be “integral to potential military campaigns by the PLA” and that China possesses counter-space weapons that are meant to target U.S. space systems as well as those of its allies and partners. Beijing is also reportedly continuing “to train its military space elements and field new destructive and nondestructive ground- and space-based antisatellite (ASAT) weapons.”
The report also noted that China has deployed ground-based ASAT weapons that can destroy satellites in low Earth orbit (LEO) and “ground-based ASAT lasers probably intended to blind or damage sensitive space-based optical sensors on LEO satellites.” The report also assessed that Russia is deploying new ASAT systems to “disrupt and degrade U.S. and allied space capabilities,” adding that Russia is further “developing, testing, and fielding an array of nondestructive and destructive counterspace weapons – including jamming and cyberspace capabilities, directed energy weapons, on-orbit capabilities, and ground-based ASAT capabilities.”
Earlier in the month, the Secure World Foundation (SWF) and the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) released their respective reports on the global counter-space capabilities. Both of these reports highlight the major developments over the past year in terms of the development, testing, and deployment of counter-space capabilities. In addition, the reports also cover the development and testing of technologies for rendezvous and proximity operations (RPO) in both LEO and geosynchronous orbit (GEO), which could result in a co-orbital ASAT capability. Because of the major power competitive politics that have plagued global governance debates, even the development of technologies with apparent civilian and peaceful applications – including RPO technologies – are looked upon with wariness and suspicion.
These developments point to the urgent need to review existing global governance instruments as well as develop new measures that curb the current destabilizing trends in space security. But going by recent efforts, including the last GGE in 2018-19, which could not even produce a consensus report at the end of the deliberations, there are serious difficulties in developing an international consensus, which continues to be the biggest problem facing the outer space regime. Progress will probably require developing small, technical agreements rather than large, overarching, all-encompassing agreements that are too difficult under current international circumstances.