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UN Security Council
The UN Security deadlocked in a May 20 debate on a Russian resolution to ban weapons in space, weeks after Russia vetoed a resolution regarding nuclear weapons in space. (credit: UN Photo/Manuel ElĂ­as)

Power politics transcends space security

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For some years now the mockery of space security has been on display at various international forums, particularly at the United Nations (UN). Recently, the UN Security Council (UNSC) voted against a resolution presented by Russia and China that would ban member states from placing weapons of any kind in outer space. Before this, the US-Japan resolution specifically to ban the deployment of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) was vetoed in the UNSC by Russia.

Today, space security is being held hostage to the policies of mainly the US on one hand and Russia and China on the other.

Interestingly, the UN General Assembly (UNGA) was successful in adopting a resolution in support of the destructive DA-ASAT (direct accent anti-satellite) testing moratorium in December 2022. There was a very good support to this mechanism with 155 states voting in favor while nine voted against and nine abstained. The sizable number of states voting in favor broadly indicates that there is a global acceptance to the idea that space weaponization should be a “no-go.” However two prominent states that voted against this resolution are Russia and China.

On February 12, 2008, China and Russia jointly submitted to the Conference on Disarmament (CD) the draft Treaty on the Prevention of the Placement of Weapons in Outer Space, the Threat or Use of Force against Outer Space Objects (PPWT) in its plenary session. Subsequently, on June 10, 2014, Russia and China submitted a second draft of this treaty to the CD. However, the US (and perhaps some of its allies) are not in favor of any discussion on this mechanism.

All in all, there are major differences among the UNSC Security Council's five permanent members, aka the P5. Today’s P5 is “P3 plus P2”, with the US, UK, and France on one side and China and Russia on the other. Since these two power blocks (with veto power) are at loggerheads with each other at geopolitical, geostrategic, and geoeconomic levels, it is highly unlikely that they would be able to find common ground when it comes to aspects of space security, at least in near future.

Against this it could be said with certitude that, today, space security is being held hostage to the policies of mainly the US on one hand and Russia and China on the other. It is not the purpose of this article to debate on who is right and who is wrong, but to say simplistically that the rest of the world is becoming a victim to their differences when it comes to space security.

It should be mentioned that there are other issues regarding space security, such as the policies of states like North Korea and Iran. Also, Pakistan and China may have their own views about the conduct of the 2019 ASAT test by India. On October 31, 2023, an Israeli Arrow-2 missile defense system intercepted a missile launched by Hothi rebels from Yemen. This interception happened outside the atmosphere at an altitude of approximately 100 kilometers. This could be considered the first instance of any form space combat.

All this indicates that the challenges to space security are not going to emerge only from the counterspace programs of the states like the US, Russia, and China. However, if these states, which are P5 members, remain at loggerheads, then no positive movement towards starting a constructive debate on space security can ever happen.

Structures like the Group of Governmental Experts (GGA) and Open-Ended Working Group on Reducing Space Threats through norms, rules, and principles of responsible behaviors are good initiatives for constructive engagements. However, the basic assumption behind these mechanisms is that they let us look for low-hanging fruit. Since establishing a space regime with a legally binding mechanism is not achievable, they help us look for a soft law option. But even soft options are not working. In the recent past, a sincere approach like International Space Code of Conduct did not work.

Broadly, no agreement (soft law or hard law) towards establishing any trustworthy space security architecture is possible in at least the near future. On the other hand, challenges to space security are increasing and hence there is a need to push for the establishment of a space security regime. Following are examples to highlight why there should be an urgency to address the issues of space security.

Recently, the US has claimed that Russia had launched a “weapon” capable of attacking other satellites in space. According to the experts, the launch of Cosmos 2576 on May 16 amounts to launching a space weapon. This could be an inspector satellite in low Earth orbit and appears to be currently trailing a US spy satellite. There is a possibility that Russia is testing co-orbital ASAT technology. Also, there were claims that Russia is developing an ASAT nuclear weapon. Obviously, the Kremlin has refuted the claims of the US officials, but in the recent past, the Kremlin also denied that Russia would ever invade Ukraine!

The need of the hour is to have a universally acceptable, verifiable, and multilaterally negotiated legally binding instrument for space security. This topic is too important to be left to the Americans, Russians, and Chinese.

Going to space is a costly affair and developing technologies in government laboratories costs more than in the private sector. For many years, the private sector has been directly or indirectly linked with the space programs of various states. At present, the private sector is increasingly associated towards advancing the global space agenda. In the ongoing Russia-Ukraine conflict, the role played by private space sector towards assisting Ukraine is well known. It was reported that during September 2022, Ukrainian forces had planned an attack on the Russian naval fleet based at Sevastopol in Crimea. The Ukrainian forces had asked for assistance from the Starlink network. However, since Elon Musk was not keen to expand the war towards Crimea, he refused any assistance. According to him, he had a discussion with the Russian ambassador to the US and was cautioned that any acceleration of the war on Crimea would lead to a nuclear response. Hence, he decided to avoid any possible entry of nuclear weapons into the conflict. This could possibly be the first case in history when a private individual has taken a decision on aspects of a potential nuclear conflict!

Mainly owing to technology disruption, the expanse of space security is increasing. Moreover, the presence of private players is going to create a paradoxical situation for space security. Russia has already claimed that in the future commercial satellites could become valid targets for their counterspace capabilities. The question is how much this piecemeal approach (say, a ban on DA-ASAT) for securing space would eventually be beneficial?

What is important today is to holistically address the issue of space security and identify a comprehensive approach to address the issues related to space security. There is a criticism that major space powers first test technologies to their full satisfaction and then subsequently introduce mechanisms to prevent other states from developing such technologies. Thus, there could be concerns that any internationally agreed mechanism for space security could impede the effectiveness of existing missile defense systems.

The challenges associated with space debris are well-known. In general, the probability of debris impacting active space systems could be more for countries and agencies that have more active satellites. In the last few years, the dependence of humanity on space for conduct of various activities has accelerated. The US, Russia, and China cannot hold the world hostage just to secure their own interests in space. The need of the hour is to have a universally acceptable, verifiable, and multilaterally negotiated legally binding instrument for space security. This topic is too important to be left to the Americans, Russians, and Chinese.

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