Politics of outer space mirroring those on Earth

Published : 18 May 2024 08:27 PM

Will the moon or space be a victim of a nuclear attack before Earth? This is a question that is being asked following Russia’s veto last month of a UN resolution aimed at preventing a nuclear arms race in outer space. Sponsored by the US and Japan, the resolution called for nations to refrain from developing or deploying nuclear weapons or other weapons of mass destruction in space, which are already prohibited under a 1967 treaty. US Ambassador to the UN Linda Thomas-Greenfield questioned Russia's motives, stating that, if it was abiding by the rules, it should support the resolution.

Last week, the US expressed concern over a Russian satellite named Cosmos 2543, which has been an ongoing worry over the past few years. Russia claims that the satellite is for testing electronics, yet its unusual orbit and elevated radiation levels have raised suspicions. US officials worry that Cosmos 2543 could be part of Russia’s efforts to create a nuclear weapon for space, potentially targeting satellites and disrupting communication, navigation and surveillance systems. As of now, this capability remains undeployed and there is no immediate threat. However, the situation warrants continued monitoring and analysis to fully understand Russia’s intentions and capabilities in terms of space weaponry.

Increasing Western fear is the fact that, in August 2022, only six months after a catastrophic start for Moscow in the Ukraine war, Russia conducted an antisatellite test. This involved launching a missile that successfully destroyed one of its satellites. It was significant because it was Russia’s first official intercept using its current antisatellite system, known as Nudol.

The situation warrants continued monitoring and analysis to fully understand Russia’s intentions and capabilities Unlike previous rocket tests, this mission impacted a real target — a defunct Soviet satellite called Cosmos 1408. The resulting space debris poses a threat to astronauts aboard the International Space Station. The technological implications of this test highlight Russia’s capabilities in space warfare and underscore the need for continued monitoring and analysis of such activities. Here too, we must say that the US, China, India and Israel have conducted similar tests. Yet, the last similar American test was in 2008, after which it outlawed the practice.

Going back to the UN vote, Russian Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia criticized the resolution as “absurd and politicized.” He proposed an amendment to ban all weapons in space, which in turn was rejected by the US. While 13 countries voted in favor of the initial US-Japanese resolution, Russia opposed it and China abstained.

The US highlighted the catastrophic consequences of a nuclear explosion in space, including the destruction of vital satellites. All parties also know that, just like with nuclear weapons on Earth, total destruction could be Russia’s asymmetric response to maintain and protect its interests. 

This, in turn, serves China in its own challenges with the US. Both Russia and China emphasized the need for a comprehensive ban on space weapons. The reality is that trust is no longer in the equation, whether on Earth or in space. The US does not trust Russia or China and the opposite is also true. In that environment, the logic would be to ban the most dangerous weapons and this explains the US proposal. The same happened during the Cold War.

Notably, the Limited Test Ban Treaty of 1963 prohibits nuclear weapons tests “or any other nuclear explosion” in the atmosphere, outer space and underwater. Other agreements followed and, over the decades, the US and Russia signed various arms control agreements to manage their rivalry and limit the risk of nuclear war. This led to the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty of 1987, which allowed for the elimination of intermediate-range nuclear missiles in Europe. Although the Limited Test Ban Treaty did not have much effect, it aimed to end the contamination of the environment with radioactive substances and was a significant step in arms control during the Cold War. 

The US highlighted the catastrophic consequences of a nuclear explosion in space, including the destruction of vital satellites

And so, this raises the question of why many of these agreements are no longer in effect. Moreover, why is this all happening in space now? Why is there tension rising in outer space as much as on Earth? There are several answers. First, during the Cold War, space superiority symbolized the superiority of each side ideologically and technologically. Today, satellites and space are key components of the defense and security of nations.

Secondly, the development of commercial activities in space with dual-use capabilities has changed the dynamic and important interests that space represents in the economy. Imagine the destruction of global navigation satellite system satellites such as GPS — the economic loss would be in the trillions. Moreover, it could disrupt utility sites, leading to catastrophic events.

A last determining factor is the moon and what it represents for the future of the space economy. The renewed interest in lunar exploration and clear plans for settlements have sparked intense competition between countries and organizations. 

China and Russia’s plan for a joint moon base and NASA’s Artemis II and Artemis III missions reflect the global race to establish a foothold on the moon. We must also mention India’s ambitions.

The dual-use nature of space bears the risk of military confrontation. Hence, the Artemis Accords, an international framework for lunar exploration led by the US, play a crucial role in guiding cooperation and sustainable activities on the moon. This framework has been rejected by China and Russia.

The politics of outer space are mirroring geopolitics. And, with concrete applications, space might not be the diffusing event like during the Cold War with the Limited Test Ban Treaty, but the igniting one. Hence, it is important to find ways to reestablish trust and avoid conflicts. And this seems even more difficult than rocket science.

Khaled Abou Zahr is the founder of SpaceQuest Ventures, a space-focused investment platform. He is CEO of EurabiaMedia and editor of Al-Watan Al-Arabi. 

Source: Arab News