Awareness of the damaging effects of anti-satellite (ASAT) missile tests is growing. The most recent test, conducted by Russia in 2021, produced a cloud of space debris that forced astronauts on the International Space Station to take shelter in lifeboats. Today, the remaining debris continues to menace satellites and humans in space.
Building on recently completed research on space norms, partners Project Ploughshares and Spectrum Space Security examine potential pathways to arms control and other military restraints in outer space. Norms are at the core of this process. But norms are not a standalone tool to ensure strategic stability and collective well-being in a domain subjected to intense power rivalry and warfighting activities. In other domains of military activity, arms control and other restraints have successfully enhanced the security of all parties.
Just as China’s first permanent space station Tiangong (“heavenly palace”) nears competition, the International Space Station (ISS) is, apparently, nearing its end. With war in Ukraine as a backdrop, Russia has stated its intentions to withdraw from the partnership that built and has maintained the ISS as a permanently crewed human habitat in low Earth orbit for more than 20 years.
The entire terrestrial-space infrastructure is threatened by new technology and a deteriorating international security environment, in which more and more states see space as an appealing target for disruption and even violence. This threat to our way of life could be on the scale of climate change, with repercussions that will be felt for generations.
I am here on behalf of both Project Ploughshares – a Canadian peace and arms control research institute – and the Canadian Pugwash Group, which is committed to the abolition of weapons of mass destruction and has a long tradition of “dialogue-across-divides.” Both of these organizations have long supported efforts to develop formal arms control mechanisms for outer space.
This document reflects research and analysis conducted by Project Ploughshares Senior Researcher Dr. Jessica West and Gilles Doucet of Spectrum Space Security on how the existing normative framework in outer space can serve as a basis for informing the development of additional norms of behaviour for security-related activities.
“There’s a good display of goodwill and broad engagement. I think there’s points of consensus on what needs to be done. We need to find common understandings of how international laws apply in space,” says Jessica West, a senior researcher at the research institute Project Ploughshares based in Waterloo, Ontario, who’s attending the meeting.
As the tools and methods of warfare continue to evolve, it is critical that arms control, disarmament, and normative regimes also advance. Warfighting applications of today’s emerging technologies, including artificial intelligence (AI), outer space, and cyber capabilities are becoming more apparent andhold enormous potential for expansion if left unregulated. Such capabilities clearly have the potential to be used in harming civilians, violating international humanitarian law, and creating unpredictable and even unintended escalation of conflict. In this context, compliance with existing arms control measures and humanitarian principles is essential. Yet new arms control frameworks are also needed to mitigate these risks and maintain global commitments to disarmament.
Space is increasingly critical to modern life on Earth. But there is growing concern that, as it becomes more economically and strategically important, tensions between different space actors are heightening in a manner that could lead to conflict. The accelerating proliferation of counterspace capabilities, as well as the enactment of national policies that deem space an operational or warfighting domain, underlines the very real nature of threats that exist and highlights the importance of keeping space peaceful.
On November 15, 2021, seven astronauts on the International Space Station (ISS) were ordered to take shelter because of the possibility of catastrophic collisions as the station passed through a cloud of debris. The astronauts remained in lifeboats while the ISS passed through the cloud multiple times.