On the eve of the 2022 Olympic Games in Beijing, Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a joint statement on entering a new era of international relations—including in outer space.
The February 4 statement enunciated the importance of maintaining international space law, “preventing an arms race in outer space,” and supporting the United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space. The two leaders declared their opposition towards US plans to develop global missile defense and “attempts by some States to turn outer space into an arena of armed confrontation,” according to a translation by the China Aerospace Studies Institute at Air University. The leaders also vowed to “make all necessary efforts to prevent the weaponization of space and an arms race in outer space.” The Putin-Xi pact is surprising because it illuminates an unfortunate disconnect between the States’ actions and words for ensuring the sustainability of space and the potential for norms, rules, and law to better that future. To help address this divide, it’s important to keep our shared space history in mind when evaluating how to develop multilateral frameworks for cooperation.
Focusing First on Russia
On November 15, 2021, Moscow conducted a kinetic physical counterspace weapon test by launching a direct-ascent anti-satellite (ASAT) missile against Cosmos-1408. This ASAT weapon unleashed an orbital debris field of approximately 1,500 pieces in Low Earth Orbit (LEO).
Orbital debris—space junk—is harmful because it poses a serious, chronic, and indiscriminate threat to all spacefaring and aspiring spacefaring States. According to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) the top security threat to spacecraft, satellites, and astronauts is orbital debris because “collisions with orbital debris can pit or damage spacecraft in the best case scenario and cause catastrophic failures in the worst.” Collisional cascading, also known as the Kessler Syndrome, is a dangerous phenomenon because it renders orbits less accessible for all states to reap the scientific, technological, and economic benefits of outer space.
Following Russia’s destructive ASAT test, 163 members of the UN General Assembly voted to promote a dialogue on norms of responsible State behavior in space. They established an open-ended working group (OEWG) on reducing space threats. Interestingly, China and Russia opposed the OEWG’s formation. The OEWG’s first meeting was originally scheduled for February 14 in Geneva, but based on the Russian delegation’s multiple objects and the escalating crisis in Ukraine, the meeting was delayed to May.
Collectively, these actions raise concerns about escalatory potential and how to ensure stability under the 1967 Outer Space Treaty. Overall, space history is a human story of customs and contradictions with its genesis in the 1967 Outer Space Treaty. The preamble of the Outer Space Treaty promotes “the exploration and use of outer space for peaceful purposes” in furtherance of a global interest. Fundamentally, peaceful purposes is about being a good steward of space. This Russian ASAT test strains the friendly and commons-minded underpinnings of the Outer Space Treaty. But to be fair, Russia is not alone in launching anti-satellite weapons; the United States has also conducted destructive anti-satellite tests against its own satellites, most recently in 2008, as did India in 2019 with Mission Shakti and China in 2007.
Turning to China
In January 2007, China launched a ballistic missile from the Xichang Space Launch Center against an inactive 1-ton Chinese weather satellite called Fengyun-1C. China’s kinetic physical ASAT test generated over 3,000 pieces of orbital debris—which still plagues Low Earth Orbit today.
Concerns about space becoming an, contested competition zone with Russia, Iran, Korea, and were also for China Department’s Northwarned in the Defense 2020 Space Strategy. In March 2021, Russia’s Roscosmos space agency and the China National Space Administration signed two agreements to establish a shared lunar research center and pursue deep space exploration. China and Russia “increasingly see space as a warfighting domain” reasons for the annual US Intelligence Community’s 2022 Threat Assessment. For example, the People’s Liberation Army is integrating space capabilities into its weapon platforms and command and control systems “to erode the US military’s information advantage” in warfighting. Lieutenant General Stephen N. Whiting, Commander of US Space Operations Command at Peterson Air Force Base, Colorado, tested to Congress in 2021 that China is developing counterspace weapons like Shijian-17, a co-orbital satellite equipped with a robotic arm “that could be used to grapple US or allied satellites,” in addition to non-kinetic physical counterspace weapons like “ground laser systems which could blind or damage our satellite systems.”
Beijing is also challenging the United States’ standing as a top leader in aerospace power and exploration by assembling its own space station, the Tiangong Station. As noted in the Center for Strategic and International Studies’ new Space Threat Assessment, China presently has completed two of four crewed missions to assemble the planned Tiangong Station with spacecraft Shenzhou-12 and Shenzhou-13. China’s next crewed mission, Shenzhou-14, is tentatively scheduled for May 2022. This crewed mission will connect two additional space laboratory modules—Wentian and Mengtian—to the station’s core module, Tianhe. Shenzhou 15 will be the final crewed mission of this initial phase, setting a record of six taikonauts aboard the Tiangong Station. The China Manned Space Agency expects Tiangong Station will be “fully operational” by the end of 2022.
Approaches to Competition in Outer Space
Curiously, the Outer Space Treaty, which represents the nucleus of international space law, does not define “peaceful purposes.” While Article IV of the treaty does prohibit certain weapons in space, the interna- tional itself “does not declare that space itself must be used for peaceful purposes.” Despite this ambiguity, the Outer Space Treaty endures as customary international law. This is significant because customary international law carries a certain status of general acceptance and practice such that it becomes “binding on all states” to follow.
The Biden administration’s approach to space activities has largely focused on advancing norms, rules, and principles for the security and sustainability of space. The administration’s Space Priorities Framework declares that the United States will work with the private sector, allies, and partners to “lead in the development of new measures that contribute to the safety, stability, security, and long-term sustainability of space activities.”
In US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin’s memorandum responsible on the tenets of behavior in space, he wrote that space operations will be conducted “with due regard to others and in a professional manner,” which includes behavior like reducing the generation of orbital debris and communicating with spacefaring nations to “enhance the safety and stability of the domain.” In sum, the Biden administration’s mantra of responsible behavior in space could be summarized as the Four S’s—ensure the safety, security, stability, and sustainability of outer space.
Military conflict in space is highly undesirable because it impacts every State’s ability to safely access and use outer space. Thankfully, there is hope. On February 22 the United States, United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Germany, and France signaled their commitment to maintaining the safety and sustainability of space by jointly releasing the Combined Space Operations Vision 2031. Cooperation here is critical, for as the authors point out, “the lack of widely accepted norms of responsible behavior and historical practice increases the possibility of misperceptions and the risks of escalation.” To that point, the Biden administration is committed to building the Four S’s in concert with norms, rules and law; the Putin-Xi joint statement also signals a shared interest in advancing the “long-term sustainability” of space. The task going forward is how to unite these visions in pursuit of one common goal for ensuring space stability—a dialogue which many OEWG stakeholders hope will occur in May.
Zhanna L. Malekos Smith is an assistant professor in the Department of Systems Engineering at the United States Military Academy, West Point.
Photo credit: NASA