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

The most recent case of use of the “hit-to-kill” ASAT by the US military occurred in February 2008 when the US Navy downed its own decommissioned reconnaissance satellite in low-Earth orbit at an altitude of 250 km by SM-3 ABM interceptor specifically designed for the AEGIS sea-based missile defense system. The remains of the spacecraft soon entered the dense layers of the Earth’s atmosphere and quickly burned up. At these heights, objects only “live” between 1 to 4 days.

China and India

Since the 1980s China had been developing “hit-to-kill” technology as both an ASAT weapon and ballistic missile defence, and in January 2007, Beijing tested its first anti-satellite system, using a converted ICBM to hit its dead meteo-satellite “Feng Yun” at an altitude of 865 km.9 The destruction created a cloud of more than 3,000 pieces of space debris, much of it will remain in orbit for decades, posing a significant collision threat to other space objects in Low-Earth orbit as at height of 600 km and above it takes up to 30 years for the remaining debris to come down and burn up in Earth’s atmosphere. It was the first known successful satellite intercept test since 1985, when the US conducted a similar anti-satellite missile test.

At the end of March 2019, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced that New Delhi had successfully used a ballistic missile interceptor to destroy an orbiting satellite and stated that the country is now “an established space power.” Along with this, Modi gave an assurance that India continued to maintain that “space should not be an area for warfare.”10 Even so, India’s successful ASAT test indicated that it was joining a short list of major players – China, the US and Russia – able to undertake a kinetic intercept of satellites in low Earth orbit.

The Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ statement on the Indian test underscored that “the one-sided and unlimited expansion of the global US missile defense systems, as well as the reluctance to abandon plans for putting weapons into space, make other states think about improving their own similar potentials in the interests of strengthening their national security.” Concerned with the proliferation consequences this test could have, Russia offered India the opportunity to actively join the efforts of the international community developing a multilateral legally binding instrument for keeping outer space peaceful.11

Successive US administrations, invariably insisted on the necessity to maintain primacy and freedom of action in defending national interests in space, hardly ever disguising their view of space as an extension of military power. Notwithstanding the assertions on adherence to the principle of peaceful uses of space, US doctrinal documents on national security have always postulated the need to strengthen dominance in space. At times this has been nuanced, at other times more assertive, undulating from one presidency to another.