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

In the late 1950s the Cold War between the Soviet Union and the United States (US) was rapidly expanding. The flights of the first satellites and appearance of intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) made the threat of spreading the arms race outside of Earth’s atmosphere quite real. The leaders of both superpowers, fully understanding the military and political opportunities that missile technologies offered, gave primary emphasis in their space efforts to national security objectives. Outer space was turning into an area of active competition, thus, making the appearance in Earth’s orbit of weapon systems designed to destroy or disrupt objects in outer space, and on the ground (from space), distinct possibilities.

Henceforth, issues related to the appearance of such attack weapon systems have been occupying a prominent place in practically all doctrinal national security documents of both countries. For example, current Russian Federation Military Doctrine considers “the intention to deploy weapons in space” to be one of the “major external military threats” facing Russia. This threat viewed within the context of broader threats, that is outlined as the “deployment of strategic missile defense systems undermining global stability and violating the established balance of forces related to nuclear missiles, implementation of the global strike concept, as well as deployment of strategic non-nuclear systems of high-precision weapons; proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, missiles and missile technologies”.1 Alternatively, the conceptual approaches of the US towards space exploration have always included provisions emphasising the need to strengthen dominance and guarantee leadership in space based on the freedom of action in defending national security interests.

Nowadays, outer space is an increasingly vital domain of military activities, and military power is increasingly reliant on the use of space technology. Therefore, the term militarisation of outer space is widespread and often used to describe the use of space for military purposes. This comprises the role space military assets are playing in strategic planning and maintaining the strategic nuclear balance, ensuring transparency and predictability of military activity and modern combat operations. They include spacecraft designed for military command and control, reconnaissance, surveillance, communications, radar, navigation, cartographic and meteorological support, and ballistic missile attack warning.

It is generally recognised that the existence of such military space assets does not have a negative impact on the global strategic situation. Their functioning contributes to better transparency and predictability and ensures prevention of dangerous incidents that may occur during daily activities of the armed forces, guarantees arms control compliance and verification. Importantly, the existing norms of international space law do not impose any restrictions on development, testing and deployment of the military assets in outer space.