The UN tries to ban anti-satellite missile tests

The UN tries to ban anti-satellite missile tests

On Monday September 12, Japan's Permanent Representative to the Disarmament Conference Ichiro Ogasawara opened a UN meeting in Geneva stating that his country will not test anti-satellite weapons: "I am pleased to announce that Japan undertakes not to conduct destructive tests on anti-satellite missiles, "Ogasawara announced. The country has thus officially responded to the appeal launched in April by US Vice President Kamala Harris for a moratorium on tests involving this type of weapon.

Later in the conference, Germany also announced that it would renounce in testing, joining four other countries, including Canada and New Zealand. Just a few days earlier, Harris had stated in the United States that President Joe Biden's administration would swiftly submit a resolution to the UN General Assembly aimed at blocking anti-satellite weapons testing internationally.

International negotiations are never short and particularly simple, and debates at the United Nations are no exception. Russia, China and India, the three nations along with the United States that actually carried out the tests, gave no sign of wanting to join a moratorium. But ten months after Russia tested a missile that shattered a deactivated satellite, scattering clouds of debris into the already clogged low Earth orbit and putting the International Space Station and spacecraft at risk, the development of new rules by the UN seems more urgent than ever.

"One of the difficulties that I think we will have to face is that states have different priorities and visions of what space activities should be like, and different ideas about the most important threats to manage. But I also think there are many points of convergence ", explains Almudena Azcárate Ortega, researcher who deals with space security for the United Nations Research Institute on Disarmament and speaker at the meeting in Geneva. Ortega stresses the importance of preventing space from being used as a weapon and the need to block actions that create debris in orbit, such as anti-satellite missile tests.

Soft approach

Last week's meeting is the second in a four-party cycle in May. It is part of a long-term process that began last year in the UN, which focuses on soft rules - rather than a new international treaty - as a possible way to reduce space threats. It could represent the first major international effort since the historic Outer Space Treaty was signed 55 years ago, stipulating that space should be used for peaceful purposes and banning nuclear weapons. Since then, however, with the proliferation of satellites and spacecraft in orbit (which in turn belong to many different countries and companies) and the increasing risk of damage from space debris, many things have changed.

Per decades, UN space policy debates have highlighted a rift between the United States, Russia and China. The latter two have long argued for the need for binding international agreements, such as a treaty to prevent the placement of weapons and an agreement to prevent an arms race in space (these agreements are often referred to by their English acronyms, Ppwt and Paros). However, attempts in this direction have been rejected by past US administrations, which up until Biden's election also opposed less formal international arrangements.

Russia's invasion of Ukraine, then has also created problems for space diplomacy. At the UN meeting, several diplomats expressed support for the Ukrainian people in their statements. On each of these occasions, the Russian delegate reminded the conference chairman that the comments had to stick exclusively to the issues under discussion: "The Russian invasion of Ukraine is taking a different turn now, and Russia has a different delegate. They may be trying to take a tougher approach and block the dialogue, "says Victoria Samson, speaker at the meeting and director of the Washington office of the Secure World Foundation, a think tank based in Broomfield, Colorado.

Despite the divergences, current attempts to develop soft rules - such as an agreement not to destroy the satellites in orbit - could be the way to progress: "It's a start. Right now we are working on norms, rules and principles, but in the future we may have a legally binding instrument ", emphasizes Azcárate Ortega.

In order to reach a broad consensus, these norms focus on the behavior and not on the capacities of individual countries. Nations that have ballistic missiles and missile defense systems, for example, would be able to develop the technology for a missile capable of destroying a spacecraft. But for the United Nations process what matters is not whether a country has such technology, but whether it actually uses it in a way that creates dangerous debris in orbit.

While anti-satellite missiles represent no doubt a major threat, conference delegates raised concerns about other potential weapons as well. Space systems are also vulnerable to electronic and cyber weapons, as the conflict in Ukraine has shown. The United States, Russia and China are conducting research on a technology that would enable ground firing of lasers capable of dazzling or damaging satellite sensors.

In addition, dual-use technologies, such as a robotic arm for spacecraft maintenance or for the removal of waste in orbit, could in principle also be used as weapons against a rival country's spacecraft. Dual-use satellites that transmit communications or images during the war, such as government and commercial ones used in the conflict in Ukraine, can also become military targets.

In such contexts, and depending on how they are used, these spacecraft can be seen as a danger. "Among these are the satellites used for targeting weapons: gps, for example. If you are fighting an army that uses gps for precision warfare, technically those satellites represent a space threat to you," explains Bleddyn Bowen. , another of the speakers at the UN conference and a researcher dealing with space policy at the University of Leicester.

Greater communication

To avoid misunderstandings that could exacerbate tensions, it is important that nations clearly outline their plans for a particular spacecraft or technology, so that other governments don't think the worst, highlights Jessica West, a researcher at the Project Ploughshares research institute in Waterloo, Ontario, who participated at the first meeting of the United Nations. "The solutions proposed are many, and the first of all is transparency. Many states refer to the need to coordinate and get a green light if you intend to undertake an activity that could have repercussions on another object," adds West.

West, however, also points out that international diplomats are undoubtedly feeling tired after the many meetings dedicated to arms control that took place this year. These included the June meeting in Vienna on the Nuclear Weapons Prohibition Treaty and the August Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty revision conference in New York, which ended in failure when Russia opposed the document. final.

However, the United Nations meeting on space threats has laid the groundwork for an upcoming meeting in January and according to Bowen could give impetus to the development of solutions for other long-open issues, such as the creating clear rules for managing space traffic, establishing banned zones in proximity to critical spacecraft, and ensuring that nations are more transparent and timely in reporting relevant information to the UN register on objects sent in the space . "These discussions are still very much focused on identifying common problems, so the solutions are still far away - underlines Bowen -. These things have been talked about for a long time, however. I want to see some details. I'm sick of hearing that we need regulations. . Let's start creating ".

This article originally appeared on US.

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