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Wednesday, February 21, 2024

The UN Wants to Curb Anti-Satellite Missile Tests

On Monday, Japanese ambassador and delegate Ichiro Ogasawara helped kick off a United Nations meeting in Geneva by declaring that his country will not test satellite-exploding weapons. “I have the pleasure to announce that Japan commits not to conduct destructive direct-ascent anti-satellite missile testing,” he said. With that, Japan officially joined the call made by US Vice President Kamala Harris in April for a moratorium on such weapons tests.

As the UN conference continued, Germany announced it would forgo such tests too, bringing the total to five countries, including Canada and New Zealand. Only a few days earlier, while leading the latest National Space Council meeting, Harris had announced that the Biden administration would soon introduce a resolution at the UN General Assembly to halt such tests internationally.

International negotiations are never short and sweet, and the ongoing debates at the UN this week are no different. Russia, China, and India—the three nations other than the US that have actually done such tests—haven’t given any sign that they’d join a moratorium. But 10 months after Russia tested a missile that blew a defunct satellite into smithereens, flinging clouds of garbage throughout an already junk-clogged low Earth orbit and putting the International Space Station and spacecraft at risk, the need for the UN to develop clear rules seems more pressing than ever.

“I think a challenge we’ll be facing is that states have different priorities and visions of what space activities should be like, and they have different ideas about the most important threats to be addressed. But I also think there are a lot of points of convergence,” says Almudena Azcárate Ortega, a space security researcher at the UN Institute for Disarmament Research and a speaker at the meeting. She points to the goal of preventing the weaponization of outer space and halting actions that create debris in orbit—like anti-satellite missile tests.

This week’s meeting is the second of four, following the first one in May. It’s part of a long-term process at the UN that began last year, showing how nonbinding rules or norms—rather than a new international treaty—could be the way forward for reducing threats in space. It could become the first major international effort since negotiators brokered the historic Outer Space Treaty 55 years ago, which emphasized that space should be used for peaceful purposes and prohibited nuclear weapons there. But with numerous satellites and spacecraft now in orbit, belonging to many countries and companies, and with the rising risk of damage from floating debris, a lot has changed since then.

For decades, space policy debates at the UN had exposed a fissure between the US, Russia, and China. The latter two countries had long advocated for binding international agreements, like a treaty for the prevention of the placement of weapons in space, and an accord for the prevention of an arms race in outer space. (These are often referred to by their acronyms, PPWT and PAROS.) But past US administrations rejected those efforts. Until the Biden administration, they also opposed developing less formal international agreements.

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Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has also created challenges for space diplomacy. At the UN meeting, several diplomats expressed support for Ukrainians in their statements. Each time, the Russian delegate reminded the chair that comments are supposed to remain focused on the issues at hand. “Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is going differently now, and Russia has a different delegate. It is possible they’re trying to be more hardline and shut down conversation,” says Victoria Samson, the Washington office director for the Secure World Foundation, a nonpartisan think tank based in Broomfield, Colorado, and a speaker at the UN meeting.

Despite that clash in perspectives, the ongoing work to develop nonbinding norms—like agreeing to not destroy satellites in orbit—could provide a path to progress. “I think this opens up the door. We’re working on norms, rules, and principles right now, but we could have a legally binding instrument in the future,” Azcárate Ortega says.

To garner broad agreement, such norms focus on behaviors, not capabilities. For example, countries with ballistic missiles and missile-defense systems could develop the technology for a missile that could destroy spacecraft. But what matters to the UN process is not whether a nation has such technology at its command, but whether they actually use it in a way that creates dangerous orbiting debris.

While anti-satellite missiles are a major threat, delegates have raised concerns about other potential weapons, too. For example, space systems are vulnerable to electronic and cyberweapons, as the conflict in Ukraine has shown. The US, Russia, and China are researching the technology for lasers that could be fired from the ground and dazzle or damage a satellite’s sensors.

Furthermore, a dual-purpose technology, like a robotic arm for servicing spacecraft or removing junk from orbit, could in principle be repurposed as a weapon against a rival’s spacecraft. And dual-use spacecraft that provide communications or imaging during war, including government and commercial spacecraft used in the Ukraine conflict, can become military targets, too.

In such situations, these spacecraft can appear dangerous to those on the ground—depending on how they’re used. “That includes satellites that are used in weapons targeting: GPS, for example. If you are fighting a military that uses GPS for precision warfare, then those GPS satellites technically are a space threat to you,” says Bleddyn Bowen, a space policy researcher at the University of Leicester in the UK and speaker at the meeting about space-to-Earth threats.

To avoid misunderstandings that can escalate tensions, it’s important for nations to be clear about their plans for a certain spacecraft or technology so that other governments don’t assume the worst, says Jessica West, a senior researcher at the research institute Project Ploughshares based in Waterloo, Ontario, who attended the first UN meeting. “There are multiple solutions being proposed, and the first is transparency. Lots of states are making reference to the need to coordinate, the need to get consent if you’re going to engage in an activity that might have a repercussion on another object,” she says.

But international diplomats are surely tired after many back-to-back arms control meetings this year, West says. These include the June meeting in Vienna on the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, and the August review conference in New York on the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which ended in failure when Russia opposed the final document.

Nevertheless, the UN’s space threat meeting will set the stage for the next one in January, and could provide momentum for nailing down solutions to other longstanding issues, Bowen suggests, like creating clear rules for managing space traffic, setting up keep-out zones near critical spacecraft, and ensuring that nations are more transparent—and prompt—when submitting information to the UN’s record of objects launched into space. “These discussions are still very much about identifying common problems, so solutions are a long way off,” he says. “These things have been spoken about for a long time. I’m ready to see some detail. I’m sick of hearing the mantra: ‘We need norms.’ Yeah, well, get on with it then.”

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