Global Agenda Military Affairs

Is Moscow preparing to deploy weapons of mass destruction in space?

Jerguš Lajoš

Russia vetoed a resolution in the UN Security Council to ban weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in outer space despite solid support from other member states. The resolution was intended to address growing concerns about the potential militarisation of space – an area that has hitherto been free of open military conflict. Russia’s decision to veto the resolution reflects deep geopolitical tensions and illustrates the difficulty of reaching a consensus on space security governance in the face of divergent national interests.

The legal framework regulating the militarisation of outer space is set out in the 1967 Outer Space Treaty. This treaty prohibits the placement of nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction in Earth’s orbit or on any celestial object. Despite its ground-breaking role in space management, the treaty does not address different types of weapons or military technologies that have evolved significantly since its inception. As states continue to develop and deploy sophisticated satellite and anti-satellite technologies, the treaty’s limitations have become increasingly apparent, raising the need for an expanded legal framework to address emerging challenges.

In response to developments in space technology and potential threats, the United States and Japan have proposed a resolution to extend the scope of the Outer Space Treaty. Their resolution aimed to expand the legal framework to prohibit not only nuclear weapons but all categories of weapons of mass destruction in outer space. This proposal, which received the support of 63 countries, aimed to prevent the development of a space arms race. However, despite the strong support, the resolution was opposed by key players on the world stage, namely Russia and China, which viewed the proposal through the lens of their strategic interests and global rivalry.

Russia vetoed the resolution on the grounds that the proposal was motivated by political interests rather than genuine security concerns. Russian officials criticised the resolution for its narrow focus and lack of comprehensiveness, particularly with regard to the types of weapons included. Russia and China proposed an alternative resolution calling for a complete ban on all military weapons in space, which was seen as an effort to balance the influence of the United States and its allies in setting the space security agenda. However, this counter-proposal failed to gain the necessary support, leading to a stalemate in the Security Council.

Washington and Tokyo perceived the need for a resolution because of compelling concerns that Russia is working on the development of anti-satellite weapons (ASAT) that could act as a global threat. According to the latest intelligence reports, the new type of weapon under development could potentially be equipped with nuclear capabilities and capable of operating from space. These advances indicate a significant shift towards more aggressive space warfare technologies capable of targeting and destroying satellites critical to global communications, navigation and surveillance systems. The secretive nature of Russia’s military strategy regarding ASAT raises significant concerns about their potential deployment and the broader intent of their use.

The implications of Russia’s advances in ASAT technology are far-reaching, as these capabilities could disrupt or disable critical satellite infrastructure, affecting everything from civilian communications to global security systems. In addition, the deployment of such weapons could lead to the generation of debris in orbit. In the long term, debris would pose a danger to all objects in space because it would increase the risk of collisions. This situation underlines the need for a comprehensive international dialogue and the establishment of robust legal frameworks that could regulate the militarization of space. Without effective controls and regulatory agreements, ongoing developments in this military technology could accelerate an arms race in outer space, escalating global tensions and undermining the stability and security of space activities.

However, it is worth mentioning that, in the same way, throughout the Cold War and even today, the United States has pursued a policy aimed at achieving and maintaining dominance in outer space. These policies include major initiatives such as the Strategic Defence Initiative (SDI), known as Star Wars, which aimed to develop a missile defence system capable of intercepting and destroying incoming missiles from space.

Although the ambitious SDI never fulfilled its expected potential, it set the stage for continued U.S. efforts to dominate space through advanced military technologies. During the Trump administration, the Space Force was established to focus on space conflict issues. This historical context underpins current U.S. space strategies, which often provide an incentive for other countries to develop their own space capabilities, thereby complicating the international dialogue on space security to some extent.

In light of the current circumstances, the reaction of the international community to this veto has been a mixture of some disappointment and a dose of determination for the negotiations to come. Supporters of the resolution, including many Western countries and their allies, expressed concern about the implications of the veto for the future of space governance. The failure to adopt the resolution not only reflects current geopolitical divisions but also highlights the difficulties in managing the shared global space commons. The divergent reactions underline the need for a different approach to diplomacy and negotiations that can take into account the different interests and security concerns of all countries that use space. It is essential to overcome the differences between space-faring countries through increased diplomatic efforts and the development of treaties that cover all types of weapons. Such measures are essential to ensure that space remains a conflict-free and accessible domain for future generations.

Photo credit: by spirit111 from pixabay/Canva.com

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