Updated 29 October 2022. The extent of space satellite capability and numbers in space now, pale in comparison to what it was ten years ago. And the dangers of conflicts have also heightened. Indeed, we have just learned that Russia may be considering shooting down commercial Western satellites because they are seen as aiding Ukraine in the war.
Konstantin Vorontsov, deputy head of Russia’s delegation at United Nations General Assembly First Committee, “The Disarmament and International Security Committee” recently stated “Quasi-civilian infrastructure may be a legitimate target for a retaliatory strike,” adding that the use of such satellites to support Ukraine was “provocative “. Further, he clarified:
“We are talking about the involvement of components of civilian space infrastructure, including commercial, by the United States and its allies in armed conflicts.”
And Vladimir Putin in a confrontational speech yesterday at an annual foreign policy conference, while saying he was not intending to use nuclear weapons, continued to accuse the United States and its allies for their assistance to Ukraine, but implicitly did not back away from threats his government has made with respect to intelligence satellites.
If Russia were to follow through it could potentially lead to a direct confrontation between Russia and Ukraine’s Western allies, led by the United States. Even more perilous, if the threat and action extended to NATO government satellites, it would be hard to gauge how far this would go in being considered an act of war.
For now, there was no immediate reaction from the Biden administration or satellite providers. However yesterday the Pentagon released a trio of documents outlining the United States national defense strategy, its nuclear posture and its policy regarding missile defense — a much-anticipated public accounting of how the Biden administration plans to counter threats from adversary nations. Yet, how pertinent the positions presented in these documents are to current challenges – such as the threat to satellites – is open to question since the documents’ authors acknowledge that they were not updated since March — when the classified versions of them were shared with Congress.
The documents paint China as the main, “pacing” challenge for the United States, while Russia is seen as presenting a more “acute” threat as Vladimir Putin is actively waging a war in Ukraine and threatening to employ nuclear weapons in combat. As the Washington Post writes: “its prescriptions for tamping down the crescendo of the nuclear drumbeat emanating from the Kremlin are general in nature.” Russia is not seen as a systemic challenge over the long term.
But our concern here is with the short-term. This is not the first instance in which there have been prospects of space Damoclean sword threats between major powers.
Space war threats and what can be done to counteract them
In 2019 the Washington Post published an article titled “The new space race pits the U.S. against China” – this time with regard to “Moon exploration, resource development and colonization. Back then, space war as such was not in the picture – yet.
A few days ago, on 20 October 2022, the news came out that Chinese scientists simulated a nuclear blast against satellites. Their computer experiment suggests warhead detonated in near space could disable threats such as Elon Musk’s Starlink satellites (that have been put at the disposal of Ukraine in its war effort).
Today (29 October) the news came in that Russia is once again doubling down on its nuclear threats: It continues to push the nuclear-weapons question, claiming that the accelerated deployment of modernized U.S. B61 tactical nuclear weapons on Europe’s NATO bases lowers the “nuclear threshold.”
All this is happening against a backdrop of the 1967 United Nations “Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies”, better known as the Outer Space Treaty. 107 countries are parties to the treaty, including all the major space players.
The treaty explicitly forbids any government to claim a celestial resource, and bodies in outer space are not subject to national appropriation by claim of sovereignty, by means of use or occupation, or by any other means (Article II).
Written over 55 years ago, the treaty was developed before rapid advancements in knowledge capture and technology, and before the expansion of new private commercial entities which compete in new directions, including all manner of information gathering.
And since China landed its Chang’e 4 probe on the far side of the moon on 2 January 2019, it made us more aware than ever that our outer space future could turn into a space race, spurred by rising competition for raw materials and claims of theoretical sovereignty by countries which have the technological and financial resources and intent to enter into the fray.
Furthermore, and this is crucial, the Outer Space Treaty (Article IV) prohibits “testing weapons of any kind, conducting military maneuvers, or establishing military bases, installations, and fortifications.” While nuances of “defensive” weaponry get blurred in terms of satellites providing warnings of a missile launch, or actional ground intelligence, an act to preemptively destroy them is an untested proposition.
And we know that three major potential actors in this regard – China, Russia, and the United States – have the scientific capacity and the weaponry to do so if their political leadership chooses to do so.
Which brings in the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals, approved in 2015, and specifically SDG 16 which “aims to promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels.” It lies at the intersection of sustaining peace and other development goals.
SDG 16 has explicit targets, but none directly related to space threats to peace. That said, it is possible to extrapolate from the one below, namely:
- Ensure public access to information and protect fundamental freedoms, in accordance…. international agreements.
But this is a stretch to be sure; should there be the next generation of new SDGs, if countries can recognize self-interest, this is a subject that should be addressed.
The question is whether there are any other international instruments that can partly deal with space war avoidance?
Twenty years ago, the United Nations General Assembly declared 6 November of each year the International Day for Preventing the Exploitation of the Environment in War and Armed Conflict. Since then, the observance has focused international attention on everything from blood diamonds and other conflict resources to the intentional targeting of the environment through scorched earth tactics.
Today we need to better understand the linkages between peace, conflict, and sustainable development, including going beyond earth – to cover everywhere humans are able to reach.
A way must be found to avoid an escalation that leads to a common nightmare of countries deciding that outer space is a proxy battleground. Given the political will and recognition of the high risks, there is enough in existing international agreements to begin to build a basis for agreement now—or start on a new comprehensive treaty defining aggression avoidance measures in space.
Editors Note: The opinions expressed here by Impakter.com columnists are their own, not those of Impakter.com. In the cover photo: A Russian artist’s vision of a nuclear attack Cover Photo Credit: Mihan(AKA)Zed (cc)