top of page

Securing the Final Frontier: Preventing a Space Arms Race

Indo-Pacific Analyst

Wikimedia Commons

On August 29, 1955, the White House formally announced that the United States would launch satellites into Earth orbit before the decade was out. Less than a week later, the Soviet Union responded with its own declaration of intent to launch a satellite 'sometime in the near future'. Two years later, with the launch of Sputnik from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in modern-day Kazakhstan, a new front of the Cold War was formally opened, as the Space Race witnessed both superpowers’ attempts to venture ever further into the skies beyond our planet.  


More than half a century on, the echoes of the Space Race continue to haunt 21st-century geopolitics, albeit in a different and altogether more concerning form. In 2020, both Russia and the U.S. appeared set to reignite their old rivalry in space, as the former carried out tests of the Nudol anti-satellite missile system whilst the latter issued a statement defending their right to deploy space-based weapons in defence of American interests. Yet in the decades since the Cold War's conclusion, space has become a vital part of life for the globalised society of the present day, with thousands of satellites providing critical services from telecommunications, climate change monitoring, and groundbreaking scientific research. With more nations funding their own space launches alongside private corporations, any space-based arms race would possess serious ramifications for the entire international community. With a limited legal framework currently doing little to deter any aggressive actions in this respect, space remains an open arena of global politics, arguably the largest and most important field of international security, which should be secured for future generations. 


As a theatre of geopolitics, developments in outer space are inextricably tied to events occurring on the ground and vice-versa. In 2019, the creation of the U.S. Space Force—a new branch of the nation's armed forces focused on extra-terrestrial warfare—signalled the possibility that space could be an active area of hostilities in future conflicts. That forecast was seemingly verified in November 2023, when an Israeli Arrow 3 missile intercepted a ballistic missile launched by Houthi rebels outside of Earth’s atmosphere, causing some media outlets to label the incident as the first ‘space battle’ in history. Despite the ground-based source of both weapons in this case, it remains clear that outer space is no longer an untouched region free from the plague of war.  


This concern, whilst hardly a novel one for diplomats, has garnered greater public and intellectual attention. With many facets of modern daily life dependent on satellite activity, their potential targeting in future conflicts raises a litany of questions about whether a new rulebook for warfare in space should be negotiated or if there should even be any discussion on a legally binding code of conduct for non-peaceful space operations. Yet the current situation, where hardly any restrictions on space weapons testing and deployment exist, is certainly untenable in the long run. Furthermore, unlike the race during the Cold War, the competition to secure space as a national strategic asset is a multipolar race—with other space powers such as China, India, and the European Union staking their claims in such endeavours. Another gulf is thus emerging between those countries with space-capable militaries and those without the resources to fund such costly R&D.  


Before serious deliberations on a binding instrument to prevent an outer space arms race can take off, the first hurdle is to settle significant differences between parties on what exactly constitutes a 'space weapon.' The most commonly used definition, Anti-Satellite Weapons (ASATs), makes little distinction between Earth-to-space or space-to-Earth weaponry, and experts have noted that the term also blurs the lines between purpose-built or dual-use systems. Indeed, the dual-use debate remains a critical sticking point for legal clarifications regarding the nature of a space weapon. With the rise of in-orbit satellite maintenance and repositioning procedures, it is imperative that governments agree on what actions mark the boundary between peaceful and hostile uses of outer space. Without these distinctions, nations can cover up their otherwise belligerent manoeuvres in outer space by referring to the lack of any clear grounds to consider them as aggressive actions.  


Two recent examples serve to illustrate this point. In January 2022, China's Shinjian–21 satellite conducted a routine de-commissioning operation by pulling another dead satellite out of Geosynchronous Earth Orbit (GEO) into a so-called 'graveyard orbit'. Although entirely legitimate under the terms of civilian operations, such capabilities could easily be repurposed in wartime to render enemy space assets (i.e. targeting and reconnaissance satellites) inoperable by moving them out of orbit. In August of that same year, a Russian spacecraft was noted to be operating dangerously close to a U.S. intelligence satellite, demonstrating the potential for espionage and sabotage to occur in outer space missions. Beyond these space-to-space cases, there is also the logical fear that space-to-earth weapons may soon be deployed, although the costs associated with such systems would make them prohibitively expensive to maintain for extended periods. Nonetheless, the groundwork for orbital bombardment weapons does exist and has already been utilised in 2019 by the Japanese Hayabusa2 space probe to collect samples of a distant asteroid for scientific research - another example of dual-use, Irrespective of the exact trajectory that ASATs and other space weapons take in the future, the point still stands: a clear framework to define them and delineate acceptable procedures for their use is the first step in the giant leap towards preventing an arms race in space. 


Certainly, there is not a complete vacuum surrounding regulations on the militarisation of outer space, although the foundations are rather outdated and the pillars considerably shaky. At the global level, five United Nations treaties on outer space currently make up the guidelines surrounding cooperative behaviour beyond our atmosphere: the 1967 Outer Space Treaty (OST), 1968 Rescue Agreement, 1972 Liability Convention, 1976 Registration Convention, and 1979 Moon Agreement. Of these, the OST is by far the most substantial and is regarded by many nations as the bedrock upon which any other treaties concerning outer space should be modelled. Besides holding states to peaceful principles in outer space, the Treaty also bans any party from stationing Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMDs), such as nuclear warheads, in outer space or on celestial bodies, whilst the construction, testing, and deployment of military assets on the Moon and other celestial bodies—but crucially not space itself—is also prohibited. Under the auspices of the Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS) and the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA), the OST and its accompanying conventions form the backbone of the international modus operandi regarding spacefaring efforts. 


The challenge for diplomats and the larger policy-making landscape when it comes to regulating weapons in outer space is the extent to which new laws can be applied and how they might be enforced. In some quarters, governments have taken their cue from a more liberal interpretation of the OST, wherein the sovereignty of nation-states enables them to possess the sole jurisdiction over space activities. In meetings of the Group of Governmental Experts (GGE) on preventing an arms race in outer space, representatives of these Member States assert that national laws which abide by the five UN treaties provide adequate governance and that any attempts to subordinate national security in space to supra-national mechanisms are unlikely to succeed. Countries with this stance include the United States, Japan, and India. In 2020, NASA's Artemis Accords were scrutinised by other countries, notably Russia and China, for promulgating this nation-centric view of space governance and arms restrictions.  


On the other side of the negotiating table are those States calling for a new legally binding instrument with supra-national supervision and enforcement. Russia and China have led this bloc of countries in debates at the GGE and UN assemblies—specifically the First and Fourth Committees. Their proposals are centred around a draft Treaty on the Prevention of the Placement of Weapons in Outer Space (PPWT), which contains among its clauses a stipulation that signatories will commit to 'no first placement of weapons in outer space.' Unsurprisingly, these proposals have been criticised as encroaching upon the sovereign right of self-defence, and the drafts do not currently address the testing or deployment of Earth-to-space weapons. Countries advocating for a middle ground between the two sides have pointed to the merits of Transparency and Confidence-Building Measures (TCBMs), which would aim to foster a norms-based environment of collaboration and mutual benefit in outer space operations.  


 However, another complication in concluding any new set of rules on outer space weapons is their connectivity to all other matters pertaining to space exploration and non-military operations. Logically, the argument for greater sovereign rights in space applies just as easily to resource extraction as to security questions. In this regard, there is an additional dimension of private sector stakeholders such as SpaceX. Alongside the forums discussing the prevention of an arms race in outer space, other negotiations on a litany of related matters are occurring at the regional and bilateral levels. Whilst it would be too ambitious to suggest that these separate sessions be combined into one comprehensive 'Space Treaty', it would be a step in the right direction to identify and synthesise points of consensus across the various sub-topics of outer space usage. For example, the agreement that data-sharing should be part and parcel of any commercial treaty on outer space could be a point of compromise in the space weapon legislature, with states being required to declare their dual-use assets in GEO to a universal database.  


Transcending the binary deadlock on the issue of how is also crucial since the acquiescence of all States will be the sine qua non of any future treaty's success. In this regard, it would be ideal to move beyond the usual division of political commitments vs. legally binding accords by combining the two. States could, as part of TCBMs, issue bilateral or multilateral declarations on elements of space weapon development and production, whilst binding measures would hold them accountable for breaches in cases of deployment and collateral damage. This last point is particularly pertinent since space debris from even the smallest collisions or explosions can have unforeseen impacts on neutral parties' satellites, adversely affecting global societal connectivity.  


Many governments have already recognised these characteristics and inherent complexities of space-based warfare, but the objective of settling their differences for the greater good seems likely to take more time. With geopolitical tensions across the world already heightened by ongoing conflicts and lingering global issues, we can ill afford to risk the cosmos becoming yet another frontier for armed confrontation and competition. It would serve the international community greatly if the innovative energy that first propelled humanity to the stars more than half a century ago were harnessed to ensure that any group's conquest of outer space could never happen.


bottom of page