Russia and China -- enemies for most of the Cold War -- have joined together to propose a new treaty to ban space weapons. The proposal comes a little more than one year after China demonstrated that it possessed an Anti-Satellite (ASAT) capability.
Russia (at the time the Soviet Union) and the United States had earlier demonstrated the ability to destroy satellites in orbit. In January 2007, the Chinese employed an SC-19 ballistic missile to fire directly at and destroy an outdated Feng-Yun-1C weather satellite at an altitude of 527 miles above the earth. Two previous ASAT attempts by China may have been intentional "misses" for test purposes. Reportedly, at the time of those earlier missile launches the U.S. intelligence community believed that China was close to proving the ability to hit an orbiting satellite, but some officials were taken by surprise when the ASAT capability was demonstrated, creating a massive field of space debris.
Now China has joined Russia in proposing a ban on all weapons in space. The proposal was voiced by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on 12 February at an international disarmament conference in Geneva. "Without preventing an arms race in space, international security will be wanting," he told the conference. "The task of preventing an arms race in space is on the conference's agenda. It's time ... to start serious practical work in this field," he said.
The existing Outer Space Treaty of 1967 -- formally known as the Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, Including the Moon and other Celestial Bodies -- bans the build-up or stockpile of weapons, including nuclear arms and weapons of mass destruction in orbit, and their installation on the moon. But the treaty does not address the shooting down of satellites. (To date 98 countries are states-parties to the treaty, while another 28 have signed the treaty but have not yet completed ratification.)
In calling for a ban of all types of weapons in space including ASAT systems, Lavrov explained, "Weapons deployment in space by one state will inevitably result in a chain reaction. And this, in turn, is fraught with a new spiral in the arms race both in space and on the earth."
He also criticized the U.S. government's plan to expand the ballistic missile defense system into Europe: "We cannot but feel concerned over the situation where ... there are increasing efforts by the United States to deploy its global ABM [Anti-Ballistic Missile] system," Lavrov said. "The desire to acquire an anti-missile 'shield' while dismantling the 'sheath', where the nuclear 'sword' is kept is extremely dangerous," he added.
The U.S. government has ongoing talks at this time with the leaders in Warsaw and Prague that are address a proposal to install ten ABM interceptor missiles in Poland and associated ABM radars in the Czech Republic. The Eastern European-based ABM components are being put forward by the United States to deter rogue states -- presumably Iran -- from attacking Europe with ballistic missiles.
While many individuals and groups in the United States as well as Europe question the need for and effectiveness of an ABM system, the anti-satellite issue is of general interest to all virtually all parties. The massive and all-encompassing use of satellites for intelligence collection, missile launch warning, navigation (especially GPS), communications, and weather forecasting make them invaluable to civil and military activities on a continuous basis.