If anyone doubts the existence of a space arms race in the twenty-first century, sadly we have more evidence that it is in full swing. On Wednesday last week, the 15th of April, Russia launched a direct ascent missile from a mobile unit – essentially a large truck – into outer space. Known as the Nudol system, the test was apparently aimed at testing the capacity to destroy a satellite in space, but it did not hit any target. General Jon Raymond, chief of space operations for the recently established U.S. Space Force, and commander of USSPACECOM, condemned the test and stated that the test “provides yet another example that the threats to U.S. and allied space systems are real, serious and growing.” But we should read this anti-satellite weapon (ASAT) test in the full context of projection of power and projection of force in space operations: Russia’s test is highly likely to be in answer to the space dominance assertions made by the U.S., and if we want to see a halt or even reduction to the apace arms race, it is incumbent on the U.S. to alter its rhetoric.
First, it is important to see the test in perspective. This was the tenth time since 2014 that Russia launched the Nudol system, only some of which were even successful as flight tests, and none of which have actually hit a target in space. The fact that this most recent test didn’t hit a target, and therefore didn’t create any space debris, means that the threat level is very low. Compare this with India’s direct ascent ASAT test in March last year, which caused at least 400 pieces of debris to remain in orbit for several months. Debris orbiting at approximately 5 miles per second can cause fatal damage to satellites, and can cause a knock-on effect of even more debris, which can be catastrophic for our high dependency on space-based services. Given the Nudol test didn’t hit anything, as astrophysicist expert Jonathon McDowell put it: “it’s unclear why the US has its knickers in a twist.” That said, Russia has also been making highly complex deliberate manoeuvres with objects in space, coming up close to a U.S. government owned satellite, which suggests some kind of intelligence gathering, leading to the U.S. feeling understandably nervous about Russian space weapons tests.
However, as I wrote in my CERL blog post last year in response to India’s ASAT test, India, China, Russia and the U.S. have all demonstrated a direct ascent ASAT capability, and the three leading space actors have all demonstrated the capability to manoeuvre objects in space. There are also developments across the board of various counterspace technologies such as lasers and means of cyber attack. It is therefore not a case of one rogue or threatening actor, rather we have a space arms race among the biggest players in space, which creates a threat to the stability of space for us all, given how highly dependent we are on space for so many civilian services as well as military ones.
The problem is that while the U.S. sees this recent Russian test as justification for needing a Space Force, and needing to protect its assets from threats, Russia is simply doing exactly the same thing in response to the creation of Space Force, the public rhetoric surrounding its creation, and the development of U.S. counterspace technologies. And thus we have an escalatory cycle.
With the establishment of the Space Force at the end of 2019, the U.S. put in place a military arm to fortify its official stance that space is a warfighting domain. While there is no doubt that space is now integral to supporting terrestrial warfare, with space -based systems such as GPS, communications satellites, command and control satellites, systems used for remote piloting, and tracking movement of allied and enemy troops, this does not necessarily turn outer space itself into a warfighting domain. Indeed, Article IV of the 1967 Outer Space Treaty states that the Moon and all other naturally occurring “celestial bodies” shall be used “exclusively for peaceful purposes”; and Article III prescribes that all activities in outer space shall be “in accordance with international law…in the interest of maintaining international peace and security and promoting international co-operation and understanding.” Moreover, whereas wars are usually fought with respect to control over a certain territory – be it terrestrial, maritime or air – Article II of the Outer Space treaty determines that no State shall claim sovereignty in outer space, and in the words of Article I, outer space is “the province of all mankind”.
Calling space a warfighting domain has raised the ire of potential adversaries, such as China and Russia, and has even caused disagreement with allies. For example, no other NATO partner uses the same nomenclature, despite their similar uses of space for military purposes. Notably, in 2019 the NATO members agreed upon a different term in its space policy, instead declaring that space is an “operational zone”. Arguably, this term is more descriptive, and is certainly less inflammatory than the U.S. preferred term, since nobody can deny that space is integral to military and security operations nationally, regionally and globally.
The policy that comes paired with the establishment of Space Force has also raised some eyebrows. The national security interests are legitimate: the need to protect space-based assets from adversarial threats, particularly in a time where there is renewed great power competition. However, the language of some influential defense studies and public policy documents all point towards a move towards offensive space control and attempting space dominance.
However, a Strategic Multilayer Assessment study commissioned by the DoD, “Contested Space Operations, Space Defense, Deterrence, and Warfighting”, concludes that dominance in space is not critical to U.S. nor allied defense. This aligns with the argument made in a key paper written for the Atlantic Council in 2016 by space security and arms control experts Joan Johnson-Freese and Theresa Hitchens, who argue that what is needed is “strategic rebalancing”, and that seeking to dominate space militarily will likely lead to a counter-productive escalatory cycle of competition. If we want to protect our space based assets and those of our allies, we need to reduce the risk of an arms race, rather than incite one.
As noted by Frank Rose, former State Department Assistant Secretary in charge of arms control during the Obama Administration, in an article in Breaking Defense: military might alone is not the answer to those threats — diplomacy is also needed. And for diplomacy, Rose gives the State Department “very low marks….[it] has essentially been absent” in trying to find ways to lessen tensions in space.
Perhaps one of the most frustrating things in this respect is the U.S.’s refusal to enter into any negotiations on a space arms control treaty, or even to provide or support alternative mechanisms such as a non-binding instrument which could curtail the current space arms race. There is nothing under international law that precludes ASAT testing of any sort, and Article IV of the Outer Space Treaty only prohibits the placement of nuclear weapons or other weapons of mass destruction. Russia and China have co-sponsored a proposed Treaty on the Prevention of the Placement of Weapons in Outer Space, but the U.S. refuses to negotiate, citing the lack of verification measures and the impossibility of defining what is a weapon in space. The U.S also withdrew support for the ill-fated International Code of Conduct for Outer Space Activities in 2015, and more recently blocked international attempts to discuss and alternative space arms control treaty at the UN level.
As General Raymond himself puts it in his statement following the recent Russian test: ““It is a shared interest and responsibility of all spacefaring nations to create safe, stable and operationally sustainable conditions for space activities, including commercial, civil and national security activities.” Those safe, stable and sustainable conditions require diplomacy, cooperation, and policies that reflect the sense of shared responsibility. They require pro-active moves with respect to arms control agreements, and they require an understanding that military dominance in space is not possible – nor desirable – the way it might be in other domains.