Has the first shot been fired in space?

Jessica West Ploughshares Monitor, Space Security

By Jessica West

Published in The Ploughshares Monitor Volume 41 Issue 3 Autumn 2020

What if space has already been weaponized?

This is the claim of the United States military. Following the official establishment of the Space Force in January 2020, a new Defense Space Strategy published in June presents a strategy for “winning wars” in a domain that it depicts as “weaponized” by Russia and China. Russia and China have made similar accusations against the United States.

But despite more obvious military posturing in space, including a growing number of anti-satellite demonstrations from Earth, until recently—as far as we know—the line between political hype and the actual deployment of weapons hardware in orbit has remained uncrossed.

Then, on July 15, according to the United States and some allies, Russia fired a projectile from a spacecraft. If true, the event would be the first known test of a weapons system orbiting in space.

July 15: A shot in space?

On July 23, the United States Space Command Public Affairs Office released information that, on July 15, Russia “injected a new object [Object 45915] into orbit from Cosmos 2543” and “released this object in proximity to another Russian satellite.” This action was judged to be a non-destructive co-orbital (space-based) anti-satellite (ASAT) weapon test.

Dr. Jonathan McDowell, an astrophysicist at Harvard University, calculated that the object was released at “a fairly high relative velocity” compared to its host satellite. Public orbital information indicates that it was ejected at 700 kilometres/hour—a higher speed than would be expected if it were merely “released” into space. Because of the speed, analyst Brian Weeden of Secure World Foundation tweeted, “That’s a projectile being fired, not a satellite deployment.” British Air Vice-Marshal Harvey Smyth posted a similar tweet.

However, according to the Russian Ministry of Defence, on July 15, “a small space vehicle … inspected one of the national satellites from a close distance using special equipment,” providing “valuable information about the object that was inspected.” In this narrative, the object was part of a satellite-servicing or inspection capability.

Was this a weapons test?

With no destroyed target, it’s hard to say. Not all antisatellite tests are destructive. Many tests fail. And there are reasons why an actor might choose not to conduct a destructive ASAT test. One is concern for the environment; the intentional destruction of objects in orbit creates debris. A direct hit in the location of the test (500-800 kilometres above Earth) would have created a lot of debris. A non-destructive or flyby test, particularly in close proximity to other objects, still allows testing of speed, reach, and precision of a system.

It is known that the Soviet Union developed and tested co-orbital antisatellite weapons during the Cold War. The Space Security Index has documented efforts in recent years to revive several of these legacy programs. There are plausible indications (some say evidence) that Russia’s space-based inspection program is linked to an active weapons program.

Still, there are other plausible explanations. The event could be linked to an inspection or satellite servicing experiment, as Russia maintains. It could also have been used to test sensors for applications such as missile detection. Indeed, some experts suggest that, while fast, the object travelled more slowly than might be expected of a kinetic weapons test.

Was the July 15 action legal?

Russia has stated that its actions in July “did not breach any norms or principles of international law.” If true, this is mostly because those norms and principles have many gaps.

For example, testing a space weapon is not illegal. The 1967 Outer Space Treaty, which lays out the legal principles for the peaceful use of outer space, bans the placement of weapons of mass destruction in orbit, or on the Moon or other celestial bodies. It is silent on the use of conventional weapons. Efforts to create legislation that bans such use have been stalled for almost four decades. Proposals by Russia and China for a new treaty or a political declaration have been labelled hypocritical and rejected by many Western states.

Instead of a ban, the United States and its allies emphasize the need to develop norms of responsible behaviour. Currently, however, such standards are neither well developed nor universally agreed upon.

Previous moratoria on the testing of anti-
satellite weapons have been voluntary and self-imposed. They began to unravel following China’s ASAT demonstration in 2007. Any international outcry against such behaviour has focused on the production of space debris. Other norms developed to ensure the safety and sustainability of outer-space activities are relevant, but all are voluntary. And none are clearly linked to military activities.

What should the international community do?

Russia’s actions on July 15 clearly disturbed some states. Could Russia have acted more responsibly to allay international fears? Absolutely. Are there clear standards and processes that Russia should have followed? No.

So, what is the solution?

Current work by Project Ploughshares on the security of outer space points to the feasibility of extending existing rules and best practices associated with safety and sustainability to military and security activities. A recent survey that we conducted of more than 100 global space experts suggests that these rules and practices—which relate to transparency, due diligence for safety, due regard for the environment, and collaboration—are both applicable and reasonable.

Practices that might have allayed concerns in July include advanced notification of manoeuvres and maintaining a safe distance from foreign satellites. In general, such measures reduce the level of threat through enhanced transparency and confidence in space activities. They also help to reduce the chance for mishaps and misperceptions, as well as the risk of conflict escalation.

We can preserve peace in outer space

What July 15 clearly revealed was the poor state of international relations and governance of outer space. Yet another wakeup call, this event illustrates the immediate need to create better rules in space that make permitted activities more transparent, safer, and more predictable, while at the same time restricting or prohibiting activities that are dangerous and harmful.

Peace in outer space is precarious, but can be saved. As experts around the globe assert, and our current research shows, there are practical and feasible steps rooted in existing norms of behaviour that could be taken in the short term to enhance security in outer space.

Such steps would increase the transparency of military space activities and help to build the trust needed to support long-term arms-control measures. Indeed, the assertion that Russia launched an object with the “characteristics of a weapon” suggests that we may finally be ready to identify what those characteristics might be.

The time to act is now, before more shots are fired.

Photo: Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev talks with U.S. President John F. Kennedy during the Vienna Summit in 1961. It is known that the Soviet Union developed and tested co-orbital antisatellite weapons during the Cold War. NASA

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