Arms race in outer space


The Outer Space Treaty is the ‘Magna Carta’ of international space law. It details the most fundamental rules and principles applicable to activities related to the space domain. Outer space is the ‘province of all mankind’ and is to be used for peaceful purposes only. At the same time, however, space has always been a militarized environment. In recent years, the militarization of space seems to be really taking off. If this trend continues, space might just become the new battlefield. Various states possess anti-satellite (ASAT) weapons, and testing these results in a significant amount of space debris (junk that orbits around earth). NATO recently formulated an overarching space policy and officially recognized space as an operational domain of warfare. After years of debate in the United States Congress, President Trump launched the Space Force in December 2019. France and several other states have similar plans.
Clearly, states are becoming increasingly proactive when it comes to the (further) militarization of outer space. Forty years ago this month, the Senate approved the Outer Space Treaty, which bars signatory states from placing into orbit any objects carrying nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction. Although it has helped protect space for peaceful uses by all countries, the treaty has not closed off all threats to the safety of military and civilian space assets and the pursuit of other types of space-based weapons. For instance, some countries have developed offensive weapons capabilities that can shoot down satellites in orbit using ground-based ballistic missiles. The United States is now contemplating “defensive,” space-based, kinetic-energy missile interceptors. The time has come once again for states to engage in dialogue on space security and avert a new and dangerous arms competition in the heavens. Renewed talks to come up with some common rules to promote greater security in space have taken place in Geneva this week, amid growing tensions between Russia and western countries.
UJN says that the move received wide-ranging support and participation from civil society and member states – including all five permanent members of the Security Council –With some 25,000 satellites orbiting around the Earth since 1957, when the Soviet Union successfully launched Sputnik 1, and the rising militarization of space in the last decade, there is growing concern that conflict could ignite at any moment. The first meeting of the Open-ended Working Group on Reducing Space Threats took place in Geneva from May 9 to 13. It was the result of a UN General Assembly resolution last December, seeking to promote norms, rules and principles of responsible behaviours among countries already present in the cosmos – or which are planning to have a presence in space.
Equally important, there is no review mechanism of the treaty as there is with other major treaties which are why all Member States need to find common ground on new norms, rules and principles, to plug legal gaps that might be exploited by space-faring nations. To date, China, Indian Russia and the US have reportedly used anti-satellite (ASAT) technology, sparking concerns about attempts to weaponise space – and the fact that an unknown number of fragments may now be hurtling around around earth in low orbit, threatening spacecraft including the International Space Station.