by Daniel Porras
2020 will be a year long remembered by anyone who lived through it, though maybe not for the best reasons. Between political strife, a pandemic and natural disasters, a person could be forgiven for thinking it was the end of days. But modern civilisation has not collapsed (yet) and humans managed to carry on with their daily lives, meeting with friends and family online, ordering more take-out meals and adding to the list of indicators of an arms race in outer space.
As we concluded earlier this year in Space Dossier 5 of the UN Institute for Disarmament Research, there are numerous indicators that there is presently an arms race taking place, and outer space is a big part of it. First, rivalries between geopolitical powers (mainly between the US, Russia and China) became worse during 2020. Second, modern militaries increasingly use satellites to enhance their forces and seek counterspace capabilities to negate space-based benefits to rivals. And third, there are ample proxy indicators of an acceleration of the development of space and counterspace capabilities.
This review article will draw attention to three trends in 2020 that indicate that, in addition to all the other problems the world is facing, an arms race involving space is picking up speed. And while this article does not seek to cast judgement on anyone’s actions from a geopolitical or strategic perspective, it does hold as a premise that full-blown conflict in space with the technology that is available today would be detrimental to all countries around the world. As such, this author is hoping that in addition to vaccines, climate-change measures and fair trade agreements, 2021 will also bring breakthroughs on the Prevention of an Arms Race in Outer Space (PAROS).
#1 Russian ASAT testing
2020 saw a number of tests involving anti-satellite (ASAT) technology, but Russia carried out two of the most notable. First, in July 2020,
“Russia conducted a non-destructive test of a space-based anti-satellite weapon. On July 15, Russia injected a new object into orbit from Cosmos 2543, currently Satellite Catalog Number 45915 in Space-Track.org.”
In essence, a Russian satellite shot a projectile into space. The trajectory was such that one expert described it to this author as a “space torpedo”, but it is as yet unclear what the test was exactly. Second, in December 2020, Russia tested a ground-based direct-ascent missile capable of hitting satellites in low-Earth orbit. Both of these test were non-destructive, meaning that they did not strike anything in space that could generate debris (as was the case with the 2007 Chinese ASAT test). Both of these tests are indicators that Russia is continuing to develop the diversity and quality of its counterspace capabilities. While Russia is a co-author to the draft Treaty for the Prevention of the Placement of Weapons in Outer Space, it is simultaneously hedging its bets by ensuring that if it becomes necessary to strike a space object, they will be in a position to do so. They are not the only actors following a similar policy.
#2 Japan carries out a close-proximity operation
Over the last few years, several countries carried out close proximity operations that raised security concerns, namely the US, Russia and China. However, ExoAnalytics just tracked a Japanese satellite coming within 11km of a Russian geostationary communications satellite for a period of three days. Much like in the case of Russian and American close proximity operations, it is not presently possible to determine exactly what the approaching satellite was doing. It could have been conducting an inspection of the target, or potentially eaves-dropping. It could have been doing neither of these things. However, the key development worth noting is that new actors are engaging in close proximity operations with potentially sensitive satellites and there are few norms or guidelines to dictate how it should be done. Moreover, there is little transparency among military operators, with much of the information on such operations coming from commercial sources, not from the governments involved. In this time of low trust among space powers, opaque activities such as these are prime candidates for misunderstandings and miscalculations.
#3 US Missile Defence test
On 16 November, the US successfully “intercepted and destroyed a threat-representative Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) target with a Standard Missile-3 (SM-3) Block IIA missile during a flight test demonstration”. While such an intercept is not directly related to space security, there are two aspects that should be noted. First, the SM-3 Block IIA can reach any altitude in Low-Earth Orbit, a fact not lost on any of the US’ rivals who operate key satellites in LEO. This test will likely be used in multilateral circles as further evidence that it is the US (and not Russia or China) that is weaponising outer space. Secondly, this test shows that the US is continuing to develop a missile defence shield to counter Russian and Chinese nuclear threats. This has the effect of upsetting whatever strategic stability presently exists both on Earth and in space. Consequently, Russia and China will have to seek the means to counter US missile defences in order to ensure the efficacy of their own nuclear deterrent. And while new technologies such as hypersonic missiles are largely “hype”, counterspace capabilities could go a long way towards ensuring that the US does not gain the upper hand in the strategic race. Direct ascent missiles and co-orbital vehicles could both be increasingly deployed as key components of nuclear deterrence. Such a development would only raise tensions among strategic rivals even further. Moreover, it could create challenges for actors wishing to use certain relevant technologies for beneficial activities, such as active debris removal or on-orbit servicing.
Wishes for 2021
While the events recounted above paint a bleak picture, there is room for hope this Holiday Season. During the 75th session of the General Assembly, the UK put forth a Resolution entitled “Reducing space threats through norms, rules and principles of responsible behaviours”. This Resolution calls on States to submit input to the Secretary-General about challenges to space security and possible measures to reduce those. While not calling for action in and of itself, this Resolution could kick-start a conversation about space security that could finally break the deadlock that has existed since this author was born. However, it will require some deft diplomatic manoeuvring.
- First, it will be critical to bring emerging space powers (like Brazil, Egypt and Viet Nam) into the conversation, or else face a fate like the EU draft International Code of Conduct for Space Activities. One way of doing this is to frame this effort as being a first step towards a stronger framework for space activities. This means not necessarily ruling out the possibility of one day engaging in substantive discussions on a legally binding instrument. When and what form such a treaty would take is speculative, but the option should be left on the table no matter what the next steps are with this effort.
- Secondly, States that do not see themselves as space-actors need to join the conversation. To ensure this, efforts should be made to showcase just how much even the poorest nations depend on space-based data and activities.
- Thirdly, States will need to submit substantive responses, with greater depth than, say, annual PAROS statements at the UN. Unfortunately, not all States have the resources to devote to space-security issues, particularly during times like 2020. To ensure that everyone has access to the most current data and analyses, States should tap into the collective knowledge of academia and industry to develop submissions that promote their unique interests in space.
Nothing in 2020 has changed the conclusion that there is an arms race currently taking place, and space is a part of it. Rivalries are more bitter, there are more space and counterspace capabilities and their development seems to be accelerating. At this rate, it is only a matter of time before a crisis flares in the space domain. That being said, there is a great deal at stake in space, and many stakeholders are working actively to mitigate the possible negative impacts of conflict in space. The UK Resolution offers an opportunity to look at specific, actionable measures to maintain stability in space and thereby promote space sustainability. Success, however, will depend not on outer space but the space between rivals.
 Benjamin Silverstein, Daniel Porras, John Borrie, “Alternative Approaches and Indicators for the Prevention of an Arms Race in Outer Space”, UNIDIR Space Dossier 5, May 2020, available at: https://unidir.org/sites/default/files/2020-05/Space%20Dossier%205%20-%20Final%5B3%5D.pdf
 PAROS is a UN agenda item as well as one of the main topics of discussion for the Conference on Disarmament.
 “Russia conducts space-based anti-satellite weapons test”, U.S. Space Command Public Affairs Office, 23 July 2020, available at: https://www.spacecom.mil/MEDIA/NEWS-ARTICLES/Article/2285098/russia-conducts-space-based-anti-satellite-weapons-test/.
 “Russia tests direct-ascent anti-satellite missile”, U.S. Space Command Public Affairs Office, 16 December 2020, available at: https://www.spacecom.mil/News/Article-Display/Article/2448334/russia-tests-direct-ascent-anti-satellite-missile/
 For a full list of countries pursuing counterspace capabilities, see “Global Counterspace Capabilities: An open-source assessment”, Secure World Foundation, April 2020, available at: https://swfound.org/counterspace/
 See ExoAnalytics tweet on 4 December 2020, noting “ExoAnalytic has observed an 11km close approach at 2020-12-04T17:14 UTC between YAMAL-401 and a new object in geosynchronous orbit.” Available at: https://twitter.com/exoanalytic/status/1335004374389542912?s=20. See also ExoAnalytics tweet on 8 December 2020, noting “FINAL UPDATE: space-track released a JDRS-1 orbit that is consistent with the new object we have been tracking in an eastward drift orbit headed away from YAMAL-401.” Available at: https://twitter.com/exoanalytic/status/1336375249768607745?s=20.
 “U.S. Successfully Conducts SM-3 Block IIA Intercept Test Against an Intercontinental Ballistic Missile Target”, US Department of Defense, 17 November 2020, available at: https://www.defense.gov/Newsroom/Releases/Release/Article/2417334/us-successfully-conducts-sm-3-block-iia-intercept-test-against-an-intercontinen/.
 Dmitry Sefanovich, “Why all the Hyperhype? Hypersonic weapons and arms control”, Russian International Affairs Council, 6 April 2020, available at: https://russiancouncil.ru/en/analytics-and-comments/analytics/hypersonic-weapons-and-arms-control/.
 “Reducing space threats through norms, rules and principles of responsible behaviours” UN General Assembly Resolution A/RES/75/36, 16 December 2020, available at: https://undocs.org/en/A/RES/75/36
 The work of experts such as Krystal Azelton (née Wilson), Director of Space Applications Programs for Secure World Foundation, offers numerous examples of how this can be done: https://swfound.org/about-us/staff-publications/publications-by-krystal-azelton/.
Daniel Porras is Director of Strategic Partnerships and Communications at Secure World Foundation, as well as the Non-Resident Fellow on Space Security at the UN Institute for Disarmament Research. He is also a Board Member of the Space Court Foundation. All views expressed here are his own and not necessarily the views of any organisations with whom he is associated.