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Expanding Space Arms Control

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Message Jason Sibert

This Is What A New Space Arms Race Will Look Like Kamikaze satellites, orbital lasers, and anti-satellite missiles -- these are just some of the weapons being developed in an arms race to militarize space.
(Image by YouTube, Channel: Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty)
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The United States is currently experiencing the last days of the tumultuous Donald Trump presidency.

We will soon be in the early days of Joe Biden's administration. While the media has concentrated on possible unrest during the inauguration, the world around us is brimming with conflict. The geopolitical tug-of-war between the United States, Russia, and China are extending into the nuclear realm and into the final frontier - space.

Although the media has given little attention to the subject, space has become more militarized over the years. The United States relies on satellites to track potential threats to its security. Our reliance on space capabilities has led to an effort on the part of our adversaries to check our power in space by developing offensive capabilities to deceive, disrupt, deny, degrade, or destroy space systems during times of conflict. Russia and China are the primary suspects on developing these capabilities but France, India, Iran, Japan, North Korea, and the U.S. are doing the same. Victoria Samson and Brian Weeken's story "Enhancing Space Security: Time for Legally Binding Measures" stated that more nations, and non-state actors, are likely to join the space weapons club.

To give one an idea of how grave this situation is, there have been 20 anti-satellite weapons tested by four different countries since 2005, a rate of testing that hasn't occurred since the 1960's. The international legal framework on space weapons is permissive. The 1967 Outer Space Treaty bans the placement of nuclear weapons or any other weapons of mass destruction in space, but there are no restrictions on non-nuclear weapons in space. The Charter of the United Nations prohibits aggression in space just like it does on earth, but there is no consensus on how this applies to armed conflict in space.

Top military and political leaders have voiced alarm over the proliferation of weapons in space, but there has been little discussion given to legally binding measures to stop them. Samson and Weeken suggested it is time for the U.S. to embrace space arms control. However, space is unique, and we cannot simply embrace measures that have been taken in other realms.

The multilateral forums that have discussed space arms control have yielded little in the way of results. Most of the legally binding proposals have taken place within the Conference on Disarmament, which has worked to prevent a space arms race since the 1980's. Russia and China have been active in the CD. The two nation-states have supported the Prevention on the Placement of Weapons in Outer Space treaty. The U.S. sees the treaty as an excuse for China and Russia to demonize the U.S. on space militarization while the two countries develop ground-based space weapons systems, which are not covered in PPWT. The United Nations Disarmament Commission, part of the UN General Assembly, established a working group to work toward confidence building measures on space arms control. The group was not able to convene in 2019 because Russian delegates had visa issues. In 2018, the UN Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space concluded an eight-year effort to develop voluntary guidelines for the long-term sustainability of space.

The U.S. should lead the way on space arms control because we are the most powerful country in space. One of the problems with space militarization is the amount of space debris being created in ASAT (anti-satellite) weapons testing, as 5,000 pieces of debris have been created since the 1960's. This poses a threat to orbiting satellites. A legally binding agreement to ban ASAT weapons tests, or at least the type that creates debris, would be a starting point, as stated by Samson and Weeken.

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Jason Sibert worked for the Suburban Journals in the St. Louis area as a staff writer for a decade. His work has been published in a variety of publications since then and he is currently the executive director of the Peace Economy Project.
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