Russia, China Join Efforts to Prevent Arms Race in Space
Andrei AKULOV | 30.10.2013 | FEATURED STORY

Russia, China Join Efforts to Prevent Arms Race in Space

The international security agenda still has an important gap to fill. There are many reasons to be concerned about the development of space weapon and related missile defense technology, including the vast waste of resources that accompanies any arms build-up and the physical results of fighting in outer space. The two leading nations - Russia and China – have a history of raising the issue to tackle the threat. It’s not just words and calls but a concrete and comprehensive international initiative they are coming up with to add to the UN agenda. 

Speaking at the United Nations on October 17, 2013 Mikhail Ulyanov, director of the Department for Security Affairs and Disarmament at the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, informed the audience that Russia and China decided to submit a draft resolution on transparency and trust in space activities to be reviewed by the United Nations. The diplomat emphasized that the reason for coming up with the initiative was «a lack of legal obligations prohibiting the placement of weapons in space is a factor that is negatively affecting strategic stability and preventing the establishment of new treaties on nuclear weapons». The draft treaty is to rectify the situation and fill the gap on the agenda of the Geneva Conference on PAROS (the prevention of an arms race in outer space). 

Space and the problem of its weaponization

The history of space weaponization goes back to the late 1950s, when first antisatellite systems went through tests. As yet, however, weapons have not been stationed in space. Nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction are banned from space under the 1967 Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, Including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies, which is usually called the Outer Space Treaty. The treaty barred signatories from launching into Earth’s orbit any nuclear weapons or any other types of weapons of mass destruction, as well as banned the installation of such weapons on celestial bodies and the use of any other method to put such weapons in space. But the Outer Space Treaty mentions no restriction on conventional weapons in space. 

SALT I, the first Soviet-American treaty on limiting strategic arms, included a mutual obligation not to attack spacecraft. But in 1983 U.S. President Ronald Reagan turned the tide by promoting the Strategic Defense Initiative that envisaged placing in space strike weapons to hit Soviet strategic missiles in flight. In 2002 President Bush Jr. abandoned the ABM treaty of 1972 which limited missile defense systems. It became obvious that the United States was ready to return to developing potential space strike systems, like, for instance, lasers, kinetic and particle beam systems. Many elements of the US missile defense system currently being developed or planned possess dual-use characteristics and could become space weapons. Missile defense allows countries to develop offensive technologies under the pretense of defense. For example, Kinetic Energy Interceptors deployed in California and Alaska are launched into space to smash incoming missiles which presupposes the capability to destroy satellites as well…

The UN resolutions and discussions show that there is a general agreement that placing weapons in outer space should be prevented. The overwhelming majority of UN member states is concerned that the weaponization of this domain will spark arms race and insist that a multilateral treaty is the only way to prevent such a development of events. It is emphasized that a treaty would not limit space access, but rather prevent such limitations. In 2006, Russia argued that if all states observe a prohibition on space weaponization, there will be no race. Russia and China also support establishing an obligation of no use or threat of use of force against space objects and have submitted a draft treaty to the UN on preventing the placement of weapons in outer space.

However, due to the structure of the international legal regime and to the objection of a small number of states, like the USA, for instance, a treaty has not yet been negotiated to comprehensively prevent the deployment of space-based weapons. 

On 12 February 2008, Russia's Foreign Minister, Sergey Lavrov, addressed the Conference and presented the Russia’s draft Treaty on the Prevention of the Placement of Weapons in Outer Space, the Threat or Use of Force against Outer Space Objects (PPWT) backed by China. It was the first draft treaty on this issue formally introduced to the UN Conference on Disarmament. Before that China and Russia had presented several «working papers» on preventing an arms race in outer space and the draft treaty refined elements from previous joint documents. Back then Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said the treaty was designed «to eliminate existing lacunas in international space law, create conditions for further exploration and use of space, preserve costly space property, and strengthen general security and arms control». The Russia-China initiative in 2008 never came to anything in concrete terms opposed by the United States. Then acting U.S. deputy assistant secretary for threat reduction export controls and negotiations Donald Mahley said, «Additional binding arms control agreements are simply not a viable tool for enhancing the long-term space security interests of the United States or its allies».

US space policy trends

In July 2010, the Obama administration released the document called the US National Space Policy. It states that America shall pursue bilateral and multilateral transparency and confidence-building measures to encourage responsible action in, and the peaceful uses of, space. While claiming that it is open to considering space-related arms control initiatives, the US argues that such proposals must meet the «rigorous criteria of equitability, effective verifiability, and enhance the national security interests of the US and its allies». The Russian-Chinese joint draft treaty on the Prevention of the Placement of Weapons in Outer Space (PPWT), put forward on 2008, did not meet these criteria. The United States systematically argues that an arms race in outer space does not yet exist, and it is therefore unnecessary to take action on the issue. The rest of the international community agrees that, because there is not yet an arms race, now is the time to prevent weaponization of space. At that the United States does not come up with any initiatives of its own. The US military continues to invest in programs that could provide space-based weapons capabilities. It presents major opportunities to companies interested in profitable business while the dominance of outer space leads to further profits in conventional warfare. Superiority in conventional warfare relies on military assets in space, especially satellites, which are used for intelligence, remote sensing, navigation, and monitoring, among other things. Since the US currently asserts its political will through force, protection of its own space assets and posing threat to those that belong to other countries is key to guaranteeing US dominance.

On December 11, 2012 the Orbital Test Vehicle Boeing X-37B - the first US unmanned vehicle to return from space and land on its own - went through its third test flight. It was birthed by NASA in 1999 to be shifted to the military in 2004. The X-37B, an unmanned robotic reusable vertical take-off, horizontal landing spacecraft, can re-enter Earth's atmosphere and land autonomously. The robot can even adjust its course in space instead of following the same predictable orbit once it's aloft. The spacecraft's orbital endurance is enabled by its solar array, which generates power after deploying from its payload bay making it remain in orbit up to 270 days. The X-37B is about 29 feet (8.8 meters) long and 15 feet (4.5 m) wide, with a payload bay about the size of a pickup truck bed. Two X-37B vehicles could fit inside the payload bay of a space shuttle. The specific identity of the payload has not been revealed. There are different versions of what the spacecraft is supposed to do while circling the planet at declared orbits varying from 200 to 750 kilometers above the Earth’s surface. The initial idea was that the spacecraft is a new type of a surveillance satellite that can change orbits to fly above the desired territory on Earth. This version is substantiated by the fact that the craft flew over Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, North Korea and Pakistan and changed orbits not once. It's almost certainly a spy plane, or, at least, a testbed for space surveillance gear and a launch platform for miniature spy satellites. It was also called a testing model for a future «space bomber» that will be able to destroy targets from the orbit. Some question whether the X-37B itself might be a delivery system for a nuclear bomb while others suggest that the X-37B is a satellite-tracker or a satellite-killer. It could be both. 

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The weaponization of space will undermine international security, disrupt existing arms control instruments and entail a string of negative effects (things like space debris). It may spark a devastating arms race distracting resources from the real problems faced by humanity today. The US withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty in 2002 with subsequent development of US ground- and sea - based systems has already increased tensions with Russia and China. The deployment of space-based technologies will result in the rejection of new treaties to regulate nuclear weapons and their delivery systems. The situation makes face the obvious choice: either a race of space weapons or a limitation based on international treaties, which is what Russia and China are proposing. Now the ball is on the other side of the field.

Tags: Missile defense  China  Russia  US