Why are the US and Japan pushing to ban nuclear weapons in space?

The US and Japan on Monday proposed a United Nations Security Council resolution calling on countries not to deploy or develop any kind of nuclear weapons in space.

The draft resolution did not directly name Russia, but the move comes days after a US intelligence assessment said Moscow’s antisatellite weapons posed a threat to US space capabilities. Washington fears space detonations could result in the disruption of US military satellite communications.

Last month, the administration of US President Joe Biden claimed that Moscow was creating an space weapon designed to target US satellites.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu have denied developing such a weapon. “We have always been categorically against and are now against the deployment of nuclear weapons in space,” Putin said last month.

“We are doing in space only what other countries have, including the United States.”

On Wednesday, Russia warned the United States against using commercial satellites for spying after reports that Elon Musk’s company SpaceX had inked a deal with a US intelligence agency to build a network of spy satellites. Such systems, Russian Foreign Ministry Spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said, could “become a legitimate target for retaliatory measures”.

Who said what at the UN Security Council meeting?

“Any placement of nuclear weapons into orbit around the Earth would be unprecedented, dangerous and unacceptable,” US Ambassador to the UN Linda Thomas-Greenfield said on Monday.

Invoking the Oscar-winning film Oppenheimer on Monday, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said “humanity cannot survive a sequel to Oppenheimer”.

“[Countries] should not develop nuclear weapons or any other kinds of weapons of mass destruction designed to be placed in orbit,” the UN chief said during his speech at the United Nations Security Council, expressing his concerns about the nuclearisation of space.

Japan’s Foreign Minister Yoko Kamikawa, who chaired the council meeting, said: “During the Cold War, despite the confrontational environment at that time, the international community established legal frameworks to ensure the peaceful and sustainable use of outer space, which prohibit placing nuclear weapons or any other kinds of weapons of mass destruction in outer space.”

What are space weapons? What are laws/treaties to regulate them?

Antisatellite weapons, commonly referred to as ASATs, are weapons used to interfere with other satellites. Satellites may be destroyed or rendered inoperable through a variety of methods, including physical destruction – crashing a satellite into another satellite or non-kinetic attacks like electromagnetic jamming, lasers or cyberattacks. Space-based weapons designed to target either space or ground targets may include ballistic missile defence interceptors and ground-attack weapons. They typically fall into three categories, Earth-to-space, space-to-space, and space-to-Earth.

The Partial Test Ban Treaty (PTBT), formally known as the 1963 Treaty Banning Nuclear Weapon Tests in the Atmosphere, prohibits nuclear detonations in outer space and underwater environments. This was initially ratified by the US, Russia (formerly USSR) and the UK.

Article IV of the 1967 Outer Space Treaty joined by 114 countries, bans weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in outer space, including testing and deployment.

At the present moment the United States, Russia, India and China have developed some form of antisatellite weaponry. On November 15, 2021, Russia launched an antisatellite (ASAT) test hitting a Russian satellite and creating more than 1,500 pieces of orbital debris.

What does the US intelligence assessment say about Russia’s space weapons?

A US intelligence annual threat assessment [PDF] report released last week said Russian space weapons pose a serious threat to US national security.

“Russia continues to train its military space elements and field new antisatellite weapons to disrupt and degrade US and allied space capabilities. It is expanding its arsenal of jamming systems, directed energy weapons, on-orbit counter-space capabilities, and ground-based ASAT missiles that are designed to target US and allied satellites,” it said.

The annual intelligence assessment also highlighted threats from China, Iran and North Korea.

The US Defense Intelligence Agency wrote in February 2019 report that Russia and China “are developing jamming and cyberspace capabilities, directed energy weapons, on-orbit capabilities, and ground-based anti-satellite missiles that can achieve a range of reversible to non-reversible effects”.

In addition, the Senate Intelligence Committee held a hearing on March 11 where the head of the key US intelligence agencies gave their congressional testimony.

Committee chair Senator Mark Warner raised his concerns in the opening of the hearing regarding space weapons: “We are now even seeing the possibility of foreign adversaries weaponising space in ways that could be massively destructive not only to our national security but to our way of life.”

In 2019, President Donad Trump launched the US space command to counter looming threats to the United States’s space-based infrastructure.

At present, there are no known operational orbital weapons systems, though several nations have implemented orbital surveillance networks to monitor other nations or military forces.

Will the resolution pass at the UN?

Given Russia’s veto power at the Security Council, it is unclear whether the draft resolution would pass.

First Deputy Permanent Representative of Russia to the UN, Dmitry Polyansky, denounced the resolution proposed by the US and Japan as “just another propaganda stunt by Washington” and “divorced from reality”.

“Any interaction will only be possible if the United States and NATO review their anti-Russian course, and when they show that they are ready to participate in comprehensive dialogue, taking into account all of those strategic stability factors and removing all of the concerns that we have about our security,” he said.

Thomas-Greenfield, the US envoy, said Washington was willing to engage in bilateral arms control discussions with Russia and China.

“All they have to do is say yes and come to the table in good faith,” she said.

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