Military use in outer space: why Russia’s satellite weapon is problematic

Last month the United Kingdom and the United States of America accused the Russian Federation of firing a satellite weapon into outer space.

At first glance, reading this headline on a news portal would cause you to raise an eyebrow, shrug and eventually sigh at the never-ending political bickering between these three states. Yet in actual fact, a deeper issue lies at stake here which few people are aware of.

The Outer Space Treaty

Primarily, it must be set out that outer space remains a domain which is prohibited from state appropriation of any kind. The Outer Space Treaty of 1967, to which all three States are parties to and were actually the depositaries of, prohibits national appropriation as well as precludes the placement of weapons in outer space.

The origins of the Outer Space Treaty, which to date is referred to as the ‘Magna Charta’ of space law, are owed to the then urgent need to find a diplomatic solution to the tensions in the aftermath of the Cold War.

In 1957, the Soviet Union launched Sputnik 1 without the go-ahead of any of the other states, dispelling the safety . This was the impetus for the development of space law and the necessity of multi-lateral treaties on this matter. The UN felt the need to intervene in order to prevent a hostile environment in outer space.

Certainly, at a time when tensions between states ran high over the possibility of a nuclear war in outer space, the primary aim of the treaty, as deduced from its preamble, was to liberalise outer space.

Indeed, the Outer Space Treaty repeatedly mentions in its provisions that outer space is to be utilised for ‘peaceful purposes’ and ‘for the benefit of mankind’. In a utopian world, this would translate to states exploiting outer space in a peaceful manner, purely for the development and betterment of man. Whilst this is often largely the case, with states succeeding in using outer space for the development of technology, science and education, history has been a sufficient educator in the fact that political tensions between states pose a serious threat to this harmony in outer space.

In academia, the term ‘peaceful purposes’ in itself gives rise to a debate as to its meaning, although it is generally conceded that this phrase means ‘non-aggressive’. In adopting this interpretation, it may be further deduced that the treaty in itself does not prohibit military use in outer space, but it does preclude a certain type of activities with the aim of ensuring that outer space is free from the encumbrances existent upon Earth. Namely, placing weapons of mass destruction in orbit in outer space or on the moon constitutes a direct violation of the Outer Space Treaty.

Moreover, any form of national appropriation in outer space is prohibited. In this respect,  states are encouraged to be transparent about their intents in pursuing space activities, in order to maintain friendly relations with other states.

But what is the reality?

The reality is that the majority of large states are preoccupied with establishing themselves as superpowers in space, to the detriment of the provisions of the Treaty and general principles of comity between nations.

The alleged satellite ‘weapon’ launched by Russia constitutes a perfect example of this. The satellite is designed to potentially destroy target satellites in outer space. Aside from the major concerns and qualms caused by having a state obliterating another state’s space objects, which would give rise to international disputes from a liability perspective, the debris caused by such explosions can cause a severe environmental hazard and even further damage both in outer space and here on Earth. It is noteworthy that the development of such weapons is not in and of itself illegal, yet the mere possibility of such acts pose a direct threat to the livelihood and interests of all states and hence are heavily discouraged and frowned upon within the international community.

Therefore, whilst Russia’s acts are technically not in violation of the Outer Space Treaty, in the eyes of the world it inevitably appears as an intention of the possibility to militarise outer space.

The underlying issue

The problem with these disputes lies in a number of arguments. Primarily, whilst several states are a party to a number of treaties encouraging peace and the harmonious development of existing resources, it is near to impossible to preclude such states from pursuing ulterior motives. Although the aim of these treaties is precisely to prohibit hostility and wars, the enforcement mechanism at an international level remains rather weak. Whether this is owed to the United Nations or to the states themselves is a separate matter, yet it must be borne in mind when considering solutions to the problem. The fact of the matter is that as things stand, unless states are vigilant watchdogs of the affairs of other states and unless sufficient deterrence exists, there is little to stand in the way of militarisation or acts of aggression.

Additionally, foreign policy needs to be improved and shaped in such a manner that states are encouraged to pursue avenues of cooperation and mutual assistance. In outer space, this is already being carried out through multilateral and bilateral agreements regarding the sharing of data obtained from satellites, and more concretely, through the International Space Station.

In an ideal world, in being compliant with international law, the respective treaties and general principles of mutual cooperation between states, outer space could be utilised to further mankind. Yet, with these threats of aggression in outer space it remains to be seen whether these advances will constitute major hindrances in the face of humanity’s eagerness to continue to develop our world, or whether they will simply be moments in history of petty inter-state squabbles. It boils down to diplomacy, to serve as the architect of better relations between states and in consequence, the peaceful and ideal use of outer space.