August 09, 2020 at 08:09PM
A Russian satellite weapon shows the danger of hazy rules in space
KOSMOS 2542, a Russian satellite lofted into space atop a Soyuz rocket on November 25th last year, was “like Russian nesting dolls”, remarked General John Raymond, commander of America’s space force, in February. Eleven days after its launch it disgorged another satellite, labelled Kosmos 2543. General Raymond’s analogy was more apt than he imagined. On July 15th, as it swung high over northern Europe, Kosmos 2543 itself spat out another object, which sped away at over 140 metres per second.
Russia says that it was merely a “small space vehicle” to inspect other satellites. Nonsense, says America; it was a projectile. “What they’re doing is signalling to the world that they are able to destroy satellites in orbit with other satellites,” complained Christopher Ford, the State Department’s top arms-control official, on July 24th. “That is a very disturbing, provocative, dangerous and ill-advised thing for them to be doing.”
In fact, America has done its share of muscle-flexing in space. During the cold war, America and the Soviet Union developed a dizzying number of ways to blow up, ram, dazzle and even nuke enemy satellites. They conducted two-dozen anti-satellite tests between them, ten of which were kinetic—physically striking their targets—according to data collected by the Secure World Foundation (SWF), a non-profit group.
That competition faded in the 1990s, but as satellites became vital to civilian life and military operations, providing everything from routine navigation services to battlefield telemedicine, they became juicier targets. China has conducted ten tests over the past 15 years, including a spectacular kinetic one in 2007 that created a huge cloud of space debris, prompting America to mount its own demonstration the next year. India conducted its first kinetic test in 2019. Several countries have also practised manoeuvering their satellites close to others, sometimes provocatively so. Lasers (which have also been tested) and cyber-attacks (for which it is hard to get information) allow cheaper and simpler means of disruption.
This competition carries obvious risks. Destroying satellites—whether in tests during peacetime or in anger during war—creates debris. Much of that from China’s strike in 2007 will remain in orbit into the next century, putting other space objects at risk. One especially troubling scenario, known as the Kessler syndrome, is that space debris becomes so numerous that a single collision results in a cascading effect, rendering entire swathes of orbit unusable. Threatening certain satellites also makes people jumpy, because some perform sensitive missions, such as watching for nuclear launches or transmitting nuclear orders.
There is worryingly little by way of law or custom to check a space arms race. President Donald Trump said America would pursue “dominance in space” when he directed the Pentagon to establish a new military branch, the Space Force, two years ago. Other powers have made no such boast, but their actions speak for themselves.
The Outer Space Treaty of 1967 bans weapons, bases and “military manoeuvres” on the moon (or other celestial bodies), and nukes in orbit, but not much else. Russia and China have long sought a new treaty that would ban all weapons in space. Both countries see it as an opportunity to prevent America from deploying space-based anti-missile systems which might threaten their own nuclear forces. America and its allies pooh-pooh this idea. They argue that a treaty would be impossible to verify—and therefore ripe for cheating—in part because, as Mr Ford puts it, “anything that can manoeuvre in space at all can function quite effectively as a ‘space weapon’.”
In contrast to a treaty, Europeans have proposed a voluntary and non-binding code of conduct. The vast majority of non-Western countries would prefer a formal treaty, says Daniel Porras of SWF. Though most of these states are not space powers today, he says, many are likely to become so in the future, so their buy-in is important.
A group of government-appointed experts has met regularly at the United Nations to hash out these issues, most recently last year, without reaching a consensus. Aiming to break the impasse, later this month Britain will publish a draft UN resolution asking all countries to offer their views on responsible and threatening behavior in space, with the results to be published in a report by the UN’s secretary-general and submitted to the General Assembly next year.
On July 27th American and Russian officials held a 13-hour “space security exchange” in Vienna, their first such talks in seven years. Both sides agreed to continue talks “to reduce the risks of misunderstanding, help prevent or manage space-related incidents, and prevent inadvertent escalation”, according to the State Department. In a paper published on July 24th on arms control in outer space, Mr Ford points to cold-war pacts, like the Incidents at Sea Agreement of 1972—which forbids America and the Soviet Union from simulating attacks on one another’s ships and performing “aerobatics” over them, and obliges them to keep a safe distance when spying—as a “space-useful precedent” that could inform new rules of the road. All that is encouraging, but the idea that it will yield new international law is implausible, not least when other arms-control agreements are collapsing.
Nevertheless, space is not a legal vacuum. In peacetime, the UN Charter, the Outer Space Treaty and the Constitution of the International Telecommunication Union all impose various restrictions on what spacefaring nations can and cannot do. One article of the Outer Space Treaty, for instance, says that states must consult others if they get up to anything which “would cause potentially harmful interference”, like an anti-satellite test (the rule has rarely been heeded). In wartime, International Humanitarian Law (IHL), sometimes called the Law of Armed Conflict would kick in, as it does on Earth. This is based on principles such as distinction between combatants and civilians, precautions to limit civilian casualties and proportionality between civilian harm and military advantage. But precisely how humanitarian law should apply in a place with no humans is not always clear.
Military officers in the midst of a crisis or a war do not have time to convert abstract legal principles into tangible advice. In the past, that gap has been filled by manuals written by legal and technical experts which provide unofficial but influential guidance for specific domains, like war at sea. The most prominent recent example is the Tallinn Manual, published in 2013 and revised in 2017, which sets out how existing international law applies to cyber operations.
An equivalent effort for space is now under way. The Manual on International Law Applicable to Military Uses of Outer Space (MILAMOS) is spearheaded by McGill University, in Montreal, and a separate Woomera Manual by the University of Adelaide. Both hope to publish their respective documents next year.
The space domain presents some particularly thorny issues, says Hitoshi Nasu of the University of Exeter, who co-directs the Woomera Manual project. “Traditionally, particularly in the terrestrial context, the only issue is whether something is a legitimate target or not. In space there is an additional question that needs to be resolved: who is the victim of the attack?”
Space objects are often owned by more than one country. Australia and America share bandwidth on military communication satellites, for instance. They are often dual-use, with the same satellite “bus”, or frame, carrying both military and civilian sensors. Over the past decade, the Pentagon has put its payloads on three commercial satellites and plans to pay Japan’s civilian navigation satellites to host others. Even a purely military satellite can play a vital civilian role—consider America’s military-owned network of GPS satellites.
Even when a satellite’s national affiliation and role are clear-cut, defining an attack and judging its legality is far from clear-cut. Michael Schmitt, a law scholar, and Kieran Tinkler, a British air force officer who is currently a professor at the US Naval War College, point out that it is unclear whether jamming a civilian satellite’s communication links would violate the prohibition on attacking civilian objects.
Blowing up a military satellite, they say, might or might not constitute an indiscriminate (hence illegal) attack, depending on whether it could be disabled by other means, how much debris is produced and whether that debris burns up quickly or—as China’s is expected to do—sticks around for generations. “It’s an explosion that continues to circle the earth and threaten everyone that comes along in the future”, says Chris Johnson, an expert in space law who advises the MILAMOS project. “The space domain is so fragile”.
Mr Nasu reckons that, perhaps surprisingly, the major powers are genuinely interested in complying with international law in war, because no one wants to give rivals an excuse to break the rules. “When I talk to Chinese scholars, some of whom are working for the government or the People’s Liberation Army, they see the utility of [wartime] IHL and they are studying the subject.” The trickier issue, he says—and arguably the more pressing one—is clarifying the day-to-day rules in peacetime, before the laws of war have kicked in, which might help avert a conflict in the first place.
Questions such as how close one satellite can get to another before it constitutes a threat are live and important. In January America complained that Kosmos 2542 and 2543 had tailed an American spy satellite in an “unusual and disturbing” way (American satellites have also sidled up to their rivals in the past). As space gets more “congested and contested”, as space-watchers put it, the diplomats and lawyers have their work cut out.
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