In Search of a Legal Solution to the Weaponisation of Space: A Russian Perspective

Author: Zvedre, Y. K.
Published in National Security Journal, 09 July 2020

to the Treaty exclusively for peaceful purposes” and expressly forbids “establishment of military bases, installations and fortifications, the testing of any type of weapons and the conduct of military maneuvers on celestial bodies.”28

Following the adoption the Partial Test Ban Treaty and the Outer Space Treaty, the Soviet Union and the US took the third, though rather indirect, step in space arms control, signing in 1972 the Treaty on the Limitation of Anti-Ballistic Missile Systems (ABM Treaty). This document formally dealt with the ground-based and space-based missile defense systems and components. At the same time, it had a strong anti-ASAT connotation and potential, extending protection to either country’s “national technical means of verification,” i.e. early warning and reconnaissance satellites launched for verifying treaty compliance.29

The ABM Treaty alongside the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (SALT 1) also signed on 26 May 1972, became the first international legal codification of military non- destructive support systems in orbit. The concept of non-interference with national technical means of verification of the arms control regimes compliance was also taken over into the 1987 Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty and appeared in supsequent US–Soviet Union/Russia arms control treaties. This obligation was made multilateral in the 1990 Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE) Treaty.

It should be noted that the prohibitions on the use of weapons in outer space set forth in the norms of the international space law are not comprehensive in nature, but only apply to weapons of mass destruction (WMD). Thus, the 1967 Outer Space Treaty does not ban placement of conventional weapons in near-Earth orbit, and only the Moon and other celestial bodies and near-Earth orbit are excluded from military activities.30 None of the agreements contains a universally accepted definition of “space weapons”, “weapons in outer space”, “use of force” or “threat of force.” That is the main reason why many states (including Russia) keep arguing that existing legal instruments are insufficient for safeguarding freedom of exploring outer space as “the common heritage of mankind.”

In 1981 and again in 1983 the Soviet Union was the first country to introduce to the United Nations a draft treaty calling for a ban on all existing ASAT systems and banning deployment of weapons of any kind in outer space. The US refused to participate in multilateral negotiation on either the 1981 or 1983 draft treaties, claiming the Soviet initiatives were mere propaganda to turn the world public opinion against President Ronald Reagan’s SDI, and inhibit the progress of this program. In its turn, Moscow branded the SDI a clear violation of the 1972 ABM Treaty that had committed the US and the Soviet Union to refrain from developing space-based missile defense systems while limiting ground-based ABM assets in order to prevent a new and costly arms race.