Amid tensions on Earth, US says ‘conflicts in space are not inevitable’

In 1996, Joseph W. Ashy, former US Commander-in-Chief of the North American Aerospace Defense Command, made a famous statement: “We are going to fight in space. We will fight from space and we will fight in space”.

In less than three decades since then, we have witnessed the creation of the United States Space Force , the testing of anti-satellite weapons by major space nations, and the rapid development of weapons that can interfere with, disrupt, or destroy space assets. .

It is therefore not surprising that the risk of war in space raises many concerns . But the belief in the inevitability of space as the next great battlefield risks becoming, as space law expert Steven Freeland writes, “a self-fulfilling prophecy if one is not careful and restraint. »

It is therefore refreshing that, on April 18, US Vice President Kamala Harris committed the United States “not to conduct destructive tests of direct-ascent anti-satellite missiles. »

Legal effect

The context surrounding the statement by Harris, who also chairs the National Space Council , suggests it is more than a political pledge. The statement was expressed in “clear and specific terms” . It was also preceded by assertions that the United States will “lead by example” and “will be a leader in establishing, advancing, and demonstrating standards for the responsible and peaceful use of space “.

Under international law, “statements made publicly and manifesting an intention to be bound” can create legal obligations. In this case, the United States issued a unilateral declaration, which has both considerable political impact and legal effect.

The U.S. statement should be read in light of ongoing multilateral discussions on reducing space threats through norms, rules, and principles of responsible behavior, and the upcoming Open-Ended Working Group on space threat reduction . It will be interesting to see if other countries will join the United States in making such statements.

An innovative initiative, but not without precedent

For decades, countries have worried about an arms race in outer space and have pointed out that placing weapons in outer space would constitute a “serious danger to international peace and security”.

In the early 1980s, then-Soviet Secretary General Yuri Andropov announced that Moscow would not be “the first to put any type of anti-satellite weapon into space. Andropov issued a “ moratorium on such launches for the entire period during which other countries, including the United States, will refrain from stationing anti-satellite systems of any type in space.” »

Since 2014, the vast majority of countries have voted in favor of a UN General Assembly resolution that confirms their political commitment not to be the first to place weapons in space .

Despite this, several anti-satellite missile tests have been carried out over the years, the most recent by Russia in late 2021. The wanton creation of debris by these tests has been said to have significantly “increased the risk to durability and stability . space and manned spaceflight. »

language matters

While the latest US statement is welcome, the commitment is not to test anti-satellite missiles from Earth. There is nothing to suggest that the United States has also made a commitment not to use direct-ascent missiles, and there is nothing about the testing or use of weapons in space or weapons from the space.

There is also an alarming silence about refraining from other methods of decommissioning, disrupting, or destroying space objects, such as by electromagnetic or cybernetic means .

The proposed Treaty on the Prevention of the Placement of Weapons in Outer Space seeks to prohibit the placement of any weapons in outer space and to prohibit the threat or use of force against space objects, but the United States and other countries opposed it .

A graphic showing man-made objects orbiting Earth – red dots represent satellites. Credit: European Space Agency

peace in space

From basic functions such as global communications, positioning and navigation, to monitoring changing weather patterns, and addressing food and water shortages , space applications are an integral part of modern life. The consequences of disrupting or destroying just a portion of the space infrastructure that is so crucial to civilians, industry and the military are unimaginable .

The siting or use of weapons in space would increase the likelihood of conflict. Weaponization of space is not inevitable, rather it is a choice .

International space law imposes constraints on the testing and use of anti-satellite weapons and on the disruption of radio frequency signals. The law also limits other ways to cause unwanted interference with other countries’ space operations.

It is encouraging to note that on the same day as the Vice President’s engagement, the White House announced in its press release that “[c]litus or confrontation in space is not inevitable. »

The benefit of all

Space is a global commons, “available for the use of all” . According to the 1967 Outer Space Treaty , space should be explored and used “for peaceful purposes” and “for the benefit and in the interest of all countries.” »

The McGill Handbook on International Law Applicable to the Military Uses of Outer Space is the world’s first handbook to clarify the international law applicable to the military uses of outer space in peacetime .

By clarifying the limits that international law places on the threat or use of force in outer space, it is hoped that the McGill Handbook will reinforce the belief that conflict in space is not inevitable.

The unilateral declaration by the United States provided an opportunity to work to prevent the spread of conflict in space. It has also prompted other countries to reaffirm their commitment to explore and use space in a safe, responsible and sustainable manner.

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