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Arms Control in Space

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There is the fundamental problem in space of what should count as arms at all. Due to the physical conditions in orbit, where every object moves with enormous kinetic energy, almost all space technology is considered inherently dual-use. This has always complicated arms control discussions, so that in recent years there have been increasing attempts to talk less about weapons and more about certain types of behaviour that are considered threatening (e.g. unannounced approaches), for example in the Code of Conduct for Outer Space Activities put forward by the EU in 2008.

Arms control discussions have been deadlocked for a long time. The Outer Space Treaty of 1967 only clearly prohibited the stationing of weapons of mass destruction in outer space. Beyond that, there is no arms control regime. Discussions in the UN Commission on Disarmament are also barely moving. The Draft Treaty on Prevention of the Placement of Weapons in Outer Space and of the Threat or Use of Force Against Outer Space Objects (PPWT) introduced by China and Russia in 2008 is nowhere near a majority. Beyond the UNCD, space policy discussions take place in the UN Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space, where security issues are explicitly excluded.

Nevertheless, there has been recent movement at the diplomatic level, triggered by the anti-satellite weapons (ASAT) tests by India (2019) and Russia (2021). The problem with these tests is the generation of debris particles that pose a great danger to other objects including the International Space Station. Although the tests took place at low altitudes and the debris is therefore gradually ‚cleaned up‘ by atmospheric drag, it will take years for all of it to disappear. After each of the two tests, there was clear normative positioning from the US, its allies and even countries like China condemning the creation of debris and the attendant risks. In 2022, several countries (especially the USA and now about a dozen allies, including Germany) have officially renounced „direct-ascent kinetic energy antisatellite tests“.

In my view, this is an important step forward that could find even more supporters beyond the Western alliance. If the norm cascade were to continue, this could also create new momentum for arms control of kinetic (i.e. missile-based) ASAT weapons more broadly. However, it is questionable whether such a specific norm changes much about the general problem of the militarisation of space, as it does not cover many other ASAT weapons, e.g. co-orbital weapons as well as electronic weapons and cyber attacks. The latter in particular seem to me more attractive to militaries as they are not only much cheaper but also much less attributable than kinetic weapons. However, there is little reliable public information on cyber ASAT.

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