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

On the other hand, the weaponisation of space refers to a more aggressive and offensive use of space assets for development, testing, and deployment of weapon systems designed to destroy targets, either terrestrial or in low-Earth orbit, or from the ground in outer space.

Outer Space as a potential battlefield

Starting from the late 1950s, the Soviet Union and the US focused significant resources on intensive development of combat space assets while contemplating outer space as a potential battlefield. They planned, tested, and even partially deployed various types of space weapons. They included weapons designed to incapacitate or destroy satellites, i.e. anti-satellite (ASAT) weapons, and anti-ballistic missile (ABM) weapons. Most of the early ASAT systems fell under the category of kinetic energy weapons (KEWs) which were based on the concept of hitting a satellite in orbit by a co-orbital weapon or a ground- or air-based missile.

First attempts to employ aircraft-borne ASAT missiles were made in the US in the late 1950s and early 1960s, as a part of programs to develop air-launched nuclear ballistic missiles. The B-47-launched ASAT missile tested in the Bold Orion program and the satellite interceptor (SAINT) program were two notable research and development efforts by the US military. In fact, an intercept conducted by the Bold Orion vehicle on 13 October 1959 was the world’s first successful ASAT intercept with a missile.2

In 1962 the Soviet Union began the development of its most significant ground-based ASAT project Istrebitel Sputnikov (IS), or satellite killer, that used the R-36 super heavy ICBM as a booster. Once the satellite was detected, the missile was launched and after making one to two orbits, approached its target and exploded a shrapnel warhead close enough to destroy the spacecraft. The first successful test intercept was conducted in February 1970 and the system was declared operational in February 1973. The IS system was followed in the 1980s by a more advanced interceptor IS-MU that continued in operation until it was decommissioned in 1993.3

Remarkably, at that time even space nuclear explosions were considered as a possible means to counter an adversary’s strategic ballistic missiles. However, both sides quickly realised that such explosions could cause immense collateral damage to satellites in orbit and to terrestrial installations, both military and civilian, so Moscow and Washington came to an agreement to abandon this idea. This agreement was reflected in the 1963 Test Ban Treaty banning nuclear weapon tests except for those conducted underground. It was signed by the governments of the Soviet Union, the United Kingdom, and the US in August 1963, and opened for signature by other countries.