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War Tactics in Space is Business as Usual

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On November 15th, 2021, U.S. officials noticed debris floating in orbit. Soon thereafter, Russia confirmed the launch of an anti-satellite weapon. Russia had successfully hit and destroyed their own satellite – a test – spewing debris through space. 

This debris cannot be removed and will remain in space for years. At best it will be a nuisance to space-faring efforts. At worst, it could damage vital assets like the International Space Station, potentially hurting crew members. The surprising thing isn’t that this happened, but that similar events have been commonplace since the dawn of the space age. 

When Apollo 11 landed on the moon in 1969, the whole world stopped to watch. It was a feat of technological prowess that sparked the imagination of everyone. Terraformation, Mars colonies, and a solar-system-spanning human future suddenly seemed more than science fiction. If we could put a man on the moon, the possibilities were endless. 

But the international environment was tense.

We were in the midst of the Cold War. It was Sputnik’s origin – the Soviet Union – that led the United States to enact legislation in support of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) in 1958, and eventually put a man on the moon.

In this context, the space race might have been more war tactics than moon-based amusement parks. 

The United Nation was swift to act. The 1967 Outer Space Treaty, according to space experts Michelle L.D. Hanlon and Greg Autry, was a general document aimed at preserving space exploration for all. Except for two important caveats: 1) No missiles from the moon or other celestial bodies – they must be used exclusively for “peaceful purposes” 2) A commitment to taking other treaty members’ interests into account when conducing space activities. 

As Hanlon and Autry point out, these caveats leave room for interpretation. Space law hasn’t been updated since, though several attempts have been made to rein in the otherworldly wilds. 

Since the 1967 treaty, our space adventures have continued. Additional sovereign states have joined the space race. Our spacecrafts have flown to Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune. A handful of private spacefaring companies have sprung into existence. The limits of what space has to offer and who can take advantage of these possibilities is shifting. 

At the same time, the potential for war from space has never been far from our leaders’ minds. 

On November 1st, 2021, the United Nations approved five draft resolutions aimed at “preventing an arms race in outer space.” Russia’s anti-satellite testing two weeks later wasn’t illegal, but the debris left behind isn’t about legality. 

In addition to the threat of space debris, one cannot ignore the reason for satellite destruction. Russia is not the first country to add to our collective debris in pursuit of weapons testing. The United States demonstrated this power as early as 1985. China and India have since followed suit.

The UN briefing on the recently approved resolutions offer some light on the situation. Russia was one of nine countries to oppose the draft resolution “Reducing space threats through norms, rules and principles of responsible behaviors.” 

India abstained from the vote, reportedly because the draft did not “address prevention of an arms race through a legally binding instrument and diverts from that objective.” The Philippians echoed this thought, noting that their support “must not be misconstrued to mean the existence of weapons in outer space is acceptable.”

A second approved draft resolution received a different cohort of nay votes. “No first placement of weapons in outer space” (also known as NFP or L50) saw opposition from the United States, among other countries. 

In defense of this decision Ambassador Robert Wood writes: “First, the NFP initiative does not adequately define what constitutes a ‘weapon in outer space.’ Second, the NFP initiative contains no features that would make it possible to effectively confirm a State’s political commitment ‘not to be the first to place weapons in outer space.’ Third, the NFP initiative is silent with regard to terrestrially-based anti-satellite weapons, which constitute a significant threat to outer space systems.”

Several delegates responded negatively to the votes placed against L50:

“The representative of Egypt, referring to ‘L.50’ and ‘L.53’, said that whereas his delegation appreciates efforts in favour of consensus, it is clear that the aim of some States is to turn outer space into a battlefield. “

“The representative of China expressed regret that recorded votes were requested on ‘L.50’ and ‘L.53’.  Indeed, a certain country remains recalcitrant and provokes confrontation, claiming to work towards a shared future while continuing to challenge that concept.”

International relations are never clear cut, but Russia’s anti-satellite weapons testing can also be seen as a preemptive defensive move, and it may be the least of our worries.

 

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