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Russia Wants to Ban Space Weapons, But Could End Up Creating More Problems Than It Solves

Space weapons are like a zombie plague for satellites. This Russian proposal to ban them may end up creating more questions than it answers.
December 14, 2015, 9:30pm

Last week, a Russian-led proposal to ban first deployment of space weapons passed the UN General Assembly. This resolution isn't legally binding, but should, in theory, be really great news, because everybody hates space weaponry, and the only thing they hate more than space weapons is other people's space weapons. But, you guessed it, the United States and Russia don't see eye to eye on space weapons, even if they agree about them in broad terms.

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Space weapons are widely loathed because they present a spectacular threat that is, in its own way, worse than nuclear weapons. Granted, nuclear fallout is very bad. But at least there's one thing that fallout doesn't do: breed. And space weapons can create an enormous, possibly self-propagating, amount of debris that could close off space to humans for a long time.

So, In terms of spreading destruction and mayhem, space weapons rank right up there with an infectious, genetically-engineered virus that turns people into zombies in the ranks of things that are a really bad idea.

Space weapons can be hard to get a bead on. There have been lots of different concepts for various space weapons, and some of those concepts seem to be pretty contrary to the laws of physics. And anything that is clearly and easily distinguishable as a weapon lurks in the deepest and darkest of government archives. But there's one thing they all have in common.

Now you might think that the thing that space weapons might all have in common would have something to do with them a) being in space, or b) being weapons, but as it turns out, this isn't a realm in which common sense alone works.

The first issue is whether "space" means weapons that are based in space, or weapons that are aimed at stuff in space regardless of where they're fired from. There are phrases to describe each one, but no consensus on whether the term "space weapons" includes one or both definitions.

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The other part is that word "weapon." But this too is a bit of a fuzzy word. Normally weapon means something along the lines of a tool used to damage or attack something. So, of course, warheads that blow up satellites would count. But what about a corporate buyout to purchase a communications satellite being used to transmit military communications? If I buy the satellite, I can turn it off: Does that mean that the lawyers are now space weapons? At the other end, if a piece of space junk just happens to run into your satellite, completely destroying it, is that still a weapon if it there has, at no point, ever been any hostile intent?

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This distinction brings us closer to the heart of the problem; stuff in orbit (be it weapons, targets, or debris) is zipping along at speeds best described as mind-bogglingly obscene. So fast, in fact, that a chunk of debris weighing as much as a billiard ball moving at orbital speeds would hit you with as much punch as a round from the main gun of a tank.

Thus, if an anti-satellite (ASAT) weapon blows a one-ton satellite into a million pieces, each of those million pieces effectively becomes a new, unguided ASAT weapon of its own. Which is exactly what happened in 2007, when the Chinese took a practice shot at one of their defunct weather satellites, increasing the amount of junk careening through space by about 30 percent. Before the test, there were 10,000 pieces of orbital debris being tracked. The test created another 3,000 pieces of debris, bringing the total to 13,000. This ASAT test has the dubious distinction of being the largest space debris-generating event in history.

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So even if we don't have a great definition for what counts as a space weapon, exactly, we do have a pretty strong idea that creating great big scads of uncontrolled space junk and leaving them to scream around the planet at incredible speeds is a bad idea.

But the real problem lies with what's called the "Kessler Syndrome," which is kind of a space debris doomsday scenario. It works like this: If there is enough debris flying around in orbit, then each chunk of debris flies until it hits more satellites, creating more debris in a chain reaction until, after a while, all the satellites are destroyed and their orbits are turned into very long-lived space minefields. A huge amount of the global communications, financial, and technological infrastructure depends on satellites, so a Kessler Syndrome scenario could, in theory, cripple high-tech civilization for decades. Nobody really knows exactly how much space junk it would take to set off a chain reaction like that, but the fear is that we're already way, way too close for comfort.

Using a big, fat, messy ASAT to annihilate a target is like unleashing a zombie plague to get at some guy hiding behind a rock. Sure, you'll kill him, but you might take the rest of humankind with him. By comparison, a simple drone strike is positively sanitary.

Needless to say, a full-out orbital shooting war — or really, any conflict which escalated to the point that countries started shooting down one another's satellites — would well and truly screw everyone for good. Therefore, nobody thinks anyone else should get space weapons. I mean, granted, everyone trusts themselves to have ASATs, but not to be irresponsible and use them (unless it was really called for). But it always turns out to be a terrible 'threat to security and stability' when the other guy has an ASAT.

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But what kind of problem depends on who's asking. "The US, Europe, and other more advanced countries say space debris is the main concern," said Victoria Samson, Washington office director of the Secure World Foundation, a think tank focused on space security issues. Meanwhile, "Russia, China, and [other rising powers] are more concerned with space weapons."

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A big concern of one bloc of space powers, including countries like Russia and China, is that advanced space weaponry could give technologically developed space programs a nearly insurmountable edge in the security arena, Samson said. So the Russian proposal that was just passed is based on the idea that all signatories will agree not to be the first party to put weapons into space, and thus the US or Europe can't get a huge technological advantage by being first.

Which brings us to the trickier parts of the whole debate. The US opposed the Russian proposal for "no first placement of weapons" in space because it "overlooks what the US, Europe, and their allies say will actually be the primary threats to stability of the space environment," Samson explained, which is space debris. The UN resolution on no first placement of weapons in space doesn't define "weapon," leaving unanswered the question of whether an errant, out-of-control satellite should be considered a weapon. It also makes enforcement and verification difficult. It opens the door to other questions, too: If debris is really the problem, then are weapons allowed, just so long as they don't create lots of debris?

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This ambiguity becomes a real problem when it comes to the idea of "no first placement" of weapons in space. Whether or not you call it useful strategic ambiguity or a loophole big enough to launch a rocket through, the lack of specificity is enough to keep scores of negotiators quibbling for years on end about arcane semantic details. And since the Russian-backed effort doesn't really talk about verification in any useful way, it's hard to get a handle on what it specifically means in practice.

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But a bigger problem is that the Russian resolution doesn't talk at all about "direct ascent" ASAT weapons. In other words, the arms control measure completely ignores ground-launched weapons, like a rocket or missile,that create space debris. Which gets us back to the problem of figuring out what exactly "space" means in the context of space weapons.

The closest thing to an alternative proposal is one being put forward by Europe. The European proposal is a work in progress, chock full of technical points and confidence-building measures, but it's coming from the civil side, so it attempts to tackle the broader problem of space debris, rather than focusing exclusively on weapons.

The two different approaches are often framed in opposition to one another, which is kind of unfortunate, since they can be treated as essentially complementary measures. In this case, one side wants to restrict space weapons because, amongst other things, they could end up creating vast clouds of debris and be destabilizing. Which is like getting rid of a chicken before it can hatch any disaster-laden eggs.

Meanwhile, the other folks here want to take measures to limit the creation of space debris (which includes things like banning space weapons) because uncontrolled debris growth is very destabilizing in the long term. Or, to extend the analogy a bit, it's like getting rid of eggs, because they eventually hatch and turn into chickens.

There is room for agreement between both schools of thought, but framing the "eggs first" and "chickens first" approaches as antithetical to one another isn't bringing anyone any closer to a consensus that bad things are indeed bad, and should be avoided. But even on the final frontier, the UN is showing us that there is no common goal so widely supported that the world's great powers can't manage to find some way to fight over it.

Follow Ryan Faith on Twitter: @Operation_Ryan

Image via Wikimedia Commons