letter to editor

The geopolitical tug-of-war between the United States and China and Russia, allied in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, needs to be contained.  

We’re currently looking at a dangerous situation in Ukraine between the US and Russia, and Taiwan is guaranteed to be a hot point for the US and China in the future. Although it might not be in the headlines right now, keeping this struggle within limits is important for all of those that believe in a world governed by law and not constant warfare. Last month, the United Nations General AssemblyFirst Committee, responsible for international security, approved a compromise resolution that sets into motion a new open-ended working group to develop rules of the road for military activities in space.  The committee wants to develop legally binding measures on certain space weapons, beginning with anti-satellite weapons (ASAT).  

The United Kingdom sponsored the resolution, stating: “that the creation of long-lived orbital debris arising from the deliberate destruction of space systems increases the risk of in-orbit collisions and the potential for misunderstanding and miscalculations that could lead to conflict.” An example of the negative impacts of space debris - on Nov. 15, 2021, Russia launched an interceptor from its Nudol ground-based ASAT system to destroy one of its own aging satellites in low Earth orbit. The collision created at least 1,500 pieces of trackable debris that will pose a threat to orbiting objects for years to come.   

Arms Control Association Executive Director Darryl Kimball stated how irresponsible various nation-states have been on this issue in his story “A Small Step Toward an ASAT Ban”: “Russia is not the only nation to act in such an irresponsible manner. China, the United States, and India have also demonstrated the ability to destroy satellites with ground- or air-launched missiles. In 1985, the United States successfully tested an air-launched missile to destroy a weather satellite. In 2007, China used a ground-based SC-19 ballistic missile to destroy a weather satellite. In 2008, the United States used a modified ship-based SM-3 missile defense interceptor to destroy a failed U.S. intelligence satellite. In 2019, India used a ground-based Prithvi ballistic missile to destroy one of its own target satellites.” 

This show of ASAT capabilities is destabilizing for our country and other countries as well. If we don’t turn the tide, then an arms race is space is certain. The 1967 Outer Space Treaty prohibits the placement of nuclear weapons in space, but there are no restrictions on other types of weapons in that domain. Efforts to launch talks that might produce new understandings on maintaining the peaceful use of space have yielded nothing over the years.  

China and Russia have long advocated for a treaty that only bars the placement of any weapons in space. The two countries favor the Prevention of the Placement of Weapons in Outer Space (PPWT). The proposed international law defines a “space weapon” as an object placed into orbit with the intent of harming other space objects. There is a problem with this, as the Russian Nudol system, which flies a suborbital trajectory, would not be a violation. But their proposed ban would restrict potential U.S. efforts to develop space-based missile defense interceptors while allowing suborbital ASAT capabilities. 

For years, the United States has been wary of any legally binding restrictions on ASAT systems in part because they might restrict U.S. ground-based missile defense capabilities or a possible space-based kinetic anti-missile system that could involve several orbiting interceptors that provide a thin defense against intercontinental missiles. 

President Joe Biden’s Interim National Security Strategic Guidance stated that the US “will lead in promoting shared norms on space.”  A United Kingdom UN resolution, which was approved 163–8 with nine abstentions, is expected to win final approval by the UN General Assembly this year. It would authorize the working group to begin operating in 2022 with a final report due to the General Assembly in the fall of 2023. To its credit, the resolution also emphasized the need for verification of legally binding arms control regarding space systems. 

The UK-led initiative represents a breakthrough that creates the potential for a legal framework for space weapons. As the process unfolds, the US, Russia, China, and India could help build momentum and reduce tensions by declaring unilateral moratoriums on any further testing of their ASAT weapons that could create dangerous orbital debris and agree to participate in the working group next year.