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Diluted disarmament in space: Towards a culture for responsible behaviour

Starlink Mission/SpaceX Flickr
Starlink Mission/SpaceX Flickr
Nivedita Raju

Rapid commercialization

Humankind depends on outer space for numerous services, ranging from telecommunications and navigation to disaster management and national security. While the use of space was once associated only with governments, the private sector has become increasingly involved in providing some of these services.

Notably, the latest launch of Starlink satellites for a SpaceX ‘megaconstellation’ is being lauded for connecting remote regions with high-speed connectivity. SpaceX plans to introduce 12 000 satellites into its Starlink constellation and this ‘megaconstellation’ will be the first of many, with companies such as OneWeb and Amazon planning to introduce similar satellites in the future. 

The development of megaconstellations has several implications for space security, the first being a dramatic increase in the number of satellites in orbit. This increase of satellites will create greater prospects for interference, both through physical collisions and disruption of signals with other systems. The need for enhanced security protocols for outer space is therefore needed now more than ever before. This SIPRI Essay highlights the importance of space security and delineates the limited regulation under international space law. It proposes a new approach to developing disarmament measures for space. 

The importance of space security

Given our dependence on space, security is essential to the use of these technologies. Space assets can be defined as machine-made objects launched or intended to be launched into space, and include spacecraft, satellites, space vehicles, payloads and their components. Space-based assets are dual-use; they are crucial to a state’s national security and also serve civilian purposes. Unfettered military uses of space can have catastrophic results as countries depend on space assets for communications, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance. Space assets also play a critical role in monitoring climate and forecasting weather. This can be decisive in a country’s economic output, for example, if a country is heavily dependent on agriculture. 
Damaging another state’s assets—even temporarily—can render a state extremely vulnerable. The role of space assets in past conflicts is visible in the 1990–91 Gulf War, where GPS and remote sensing were central to military operations. Space security is essential to ensure global stability. It can help mitigate the impact of conflict—or avoid conflict altogether—and promotes norms enshrined in international law.

Rising geopolitical tensions have popularized the notion that space will play a fundamental role in future conflicts. Ironically, the continued emphasis on this rhetoric, is by itself, likely to heighten mistrust between states and trigger conflict. Earlier this year, the US Space Command accused Russia of conducting an anti-satellite weapon (ASAT) test and slammed Russia’s official position on space disarmament as being contradictory to its actions. While Russia’s activities require further analysis, President Donald J. Trump’s administration has veered alarmingly towards a combative stance on space security. This is reflected in statements made by President Trump as well as recent policies, such as the Space Force Doctrine. The promotion of offensive capabilities and the rhetoric of ‘space superiority’ is likely to escalate tensions in an already suspicious environment. For these reasons, space security measures are required to preserve international stability and regulate threats to space assets.

Inadequate provisions in international space law 

The 1967 Outer Space Treaty 

The 1967 Outer Space Treaty opened for signature in the wake of the cold war with the primary objective of ensuring the ‘peaceful’ use of outer space. The first provision of the Treaty acknowledges the equal freedom of all states to use outer space. Subsequent provisions impose limitations on how that freedom should be exercised.

Article IV of the Treaty is of particular relevance to the military uses of outer space, as it provides that states shall not ‘place in orbit around Earth’, ‘install’, or ‘station…in any other manner’ nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction in outer space. Since these terms are not defined in the Treaty any such weapons that remain in lower-Earth orbit or geostationary orbit for a period of time could be considered as being ‘placed in orbit’, as a full rotation in orbit is not specified. Despite this language, the word ‘transit’ is palpably absent, which indicates that the United States and the Soviet Union did not intend to outlaw the transit of such weapons in space, including intercontinental ballistic missiles. Furthermore, the restrictions under Article IV extend only to nuclear weapons and weapons of mass destruction. As a result, other forms of weapons are beyond the scope of this article. 

Counter-space technologies

As commercial entities introduce more and more satellites, it is important to understand how these space assets can be impaired. Counterspace technologies are designed to disrupt, interfere or destroy components of an adversary’s space systems. They range from kinetic to non-kinetic forms, as well as electronic and cyber means of warfare. Specific technologies include: direct-ascent and co-orbital anti-satellites, terrestrial lasers that can ‘dazzle’ satellites, as well as intentional interference with signals, such as ‘jamming’ or ‘spoofing’. Existing space treaties do not sufficiently regulate counter-space technologies. 

The political dynamics between actors in space has changed considerably since the 1950s, as the original two space powers (the USA and Russia) are no longer the only players. Now, numerous states, including China, France, India and Japan possess counter-space capabilities. Article IX of the Outer Space Treaty plays an important role in regulating counter-space technologies as it requires states to be ‘guided by the principle of cooperation and mutual assistance’ and that states should conduct activities ‘with due regard to the corresponding interests of all other states parties to the Treaty’. This provision also requires states to engage in international consultations if they have ‘reason to believe’ that an activity would cause ‘potentially harmful interference’ with activities of other states. While a state’s ‘reason to believe’ is a subjective and the use of non-binding language weakens this article, states that use counter-space technologies nonetheless risk violating this provision. Destructive ASAT testing that generates debris can be interpreted as interfering with other states’ activities. Similarly, jamming and spoofing are also forms of harmful interference. 

Jamming raises further questions under international law. The International Telecommunication Union (ITU), which is responsible for the assignment of orbital slots and frequencies to governmental administrations, defines ‘harmful interference’ as interference which ‘seriously degrades, obstructs or repeatedly interrupts a radiocommunication service’. The ITU, both in its Constitution and Radio Regulations, views harmful interference on a technical basis, i.e., the sole consideration being whether this act has occurred. Jamming however, is a type of harmful interference that occurs with intent. The legal complexities surrounding jamming are manifold. Article 48 of the ITU Constitution exempts military radio installations from this provision, indicating consensus that communication interference is an accepted means of warfare. Lawfulness is dependent on the facts and circumstances of each case. For example, could jamming by one state amount to a use of force under international law? Does this require continuous jamming by the interfering state, or perhaps physical destruction of the device of the target state? Laser dazzling, which involves directing energy at optical sensors on a satellite to escape observation, raises similar questions regarding the use of force. These questions clearly raise the need for appropriate security regulations.

Recent disarmament measures 

There have been noticeable attempts to introduce new disarmament measures at the international level. These include: (a) the UN General Assembly resolutions on prevention of an arms race in outer space (PAROS) and transparency and confidence-building measures; (b) a draft Code of Conduct for Outer Space Activities proposed by the European Union; (c) Russia and China’s draft Treaty on Prevention of the Placement of Weapons in Outer Space and of the Threat or Use of Force Against Outer Space Objects; and (d) the Guidelines for the Long-term Sustainability of Outer Space Activities adopted unanimously at the Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space forum in 2018. Most recently, the United Kingdom announced a proposal for a draft UN resolution on responsible behaviour in outer space. Out of these measures, the instruments which have been successful in becoming adopted by states are still non-binding, do not operationalize the norms they contain and fail to include non-state actors. Further progress at the international level has since been difficult, as states are unable to achieve consensus on how to proceed further.

A new culture of space governance

New regulations to strengthen space security and clarify legal ambiguities cannot successfully be introduced through the classical top-down approach that operates on a state-to-state basis. Rather, the commercialization of space demands a new culture of space governance, which provides a platform to all stakeholders in the space sector, including companies and civil society organizations. Non-state actors are contenders with their own interests, who have the potential to define norms for responsible behaviour in space. It is therefore imperative to look beyond the UN fora, and instead create new institutions for such dialogue, where both state and non-state actors would be incentivized to participate.


Nivedita Raju is an Associate Researcher at SIPRI.