March 31, 2021 | Foreign Policy

Russia and China Seek to Tie America’s Hands in Space

Biden should avoid the treaty trap set by Moscow and Beijing.
March 31, 2021 | Foreign Policy

Russia and China Seek to Tie America’s Hands in Space

Biden should avoid the treaty trap set by Moscow and Beijing.

Saying one thing and doing the opposite is, unfortunately, common in international diplomacy. Beijing and Moscow, however, seem to have a unique proclivity for the practice.

Consider the actions of the United States’ two great-power adversaries when it comes to anti-satellite weapons. China and Russia have sprinted to develop and deploy both ground-based and space-based weapons targeting satellites while simultaneously pushing the United States to sign a treaty banning such weapons.

To protect its vital space-based military capabilities—including communications, intelligence, and missile defense satellites—and effectively deter authoritarian aggression, Washington should avoid being drawn into suspect international treaties on space that China and Russia have no intention of honoring.

The Treaty on the Prevention of the Placement of Weapons in Outer Space and of the Threat or Use of Force Against Outer Space Objects (PPWT), which Beijing and Moscow have submitted at the United Nations, is a perfect example. PPWT signatories commit “not to place any weapons in outer space.” It also says parties to the treaty may not “resort to the threat or use of force against outer space objects” or engage in activities “inconsistent” with the purpose of the treaty.

On the surface, that sounds innocuous. Who, after all, wants an arms race in space?

The reality, however, is that China and Russia are already racing to field anti-satellite weapons and have been for quite some time. “The space domain is competitive, congested, and contested,” Gen. James Dickinson, the head of U.S. Space Command, said in January. “Our competitors, most notably China and Russia, have militarized this domain.”

Beijing already has an operational ground-based anti-satellite missile capability. People’s Liberation Army units are training with the missiles, and the U.S. Defense Department believes Beijing “probably intends to pursue additional [anti-satellite] weapons capable of destroying satellites up to geosynchronous Earth orbit.” That is where America’s most sensitive nuclear communication and missile defense satellites orbit and keep watch.

Similarly, Moscow tested a ground-based anti-satellite weapon in December that could destroy U.S. or allied satellites in orbit. That attack capability augments a ground-based laser weapon that Russian President Vladimir Putin heralded in 2018. In a moment of candor, Russia’s defense ministry admitted the system was designed to “fight satellites.”

To make matters worse, both countries are also working to deploy space-based—or so-called “on-orbit”—capabilities to attack satellites.

Meanwhile, at the United Nations and other international forums, China and Russia are pushing the PPWT and advocating for a “no first placement” resolution—saying all governments should commit not to be the first to put weapons in space.

Yet more than two years ago, the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency noted that both China and Russia were already putting in space capabilities that could be used as weapons. The PPWT would thus protect their weapons while tying Washington’s hands.

In a thinly veiled attempt to mask their intentions, the two countries claim that their on-orbit capabilities are simply for peaceful purposes—for assessing the condition of broken satellites and conducting repairs as needed. This “dual-use” disguise permits Beijing and Moscow to put into orbit ostensibly peaceful or commercial capabilities that those countries can actually use to disable or destroy U.S. military and intelligence satellites.

China, for example, has tested several so-called scavenger satellites, which use grappling arms to capture other satellites. China has also demonstrated the capability to maneuver a satellite around the geosynchronous belt, allowing its satellites to sidle up to other satellites in space.

Not to be outdone, Russia deployed a pair of “nesting doll” satellites that shadowed a U.S. satellite in space. One Russian satellite birthed another, with Russia’s defense ministry claiming its purpose was to assess the “technical condition of domestic satellites.”

But later, the second satellite conducted a weapons test, firing what appeared to be a space torpedo. The Kremlin never explained how a fast-moving one-time projectile provided superior inspection benefits compared with the other Russian satellite flying persistently nearby.

A well-crafted treaty that clearly defines acceptable and unacceptable actions in space and includes tough and realistic inspection and verification mechanisms could promote security and stability. But the PPWT is decidedly not that kind of treaty.

Instead of falling prey to China and Russia’s treaty trap, Washington must urgently work with allies to improve spaced-based military and intelligence capabilities.

For starters, the proposed treaty does not explicitly prohibit the ground-based anti-satellite weapons that China and Russia have already fielded. Nor does the proposed treaty prevent the deployment of space-based weapons under the cloak of civilian or commercial capabilities. The PPWT also does not prohibit the development, testing, or stockpiling of weapons on Earth that could be quickly put into orbit.

Even if these deficiencies were addressed, the PPWT lacks any verification plan to ensure compliance. Instead, the treaty calls for “transparency and confidence-building measures” implemented on a “voluntary basis.” In other words, Beijing and Moscow want the United States to trust but never verify.

But then again, Americans should not be surprised by the PPWT. Moscow habitually seeks to use international arms control treaties to constrain the United States while viewing treaty strictures as optional when they become inconvenient or when the Kremlin sees an opportunity to seize a military advantage.

For more than a decade before its demise in 2019, Moscow used the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty to constrain the United States while the Kremlin produced, flight-tested, and fielded a ground-launched intermediate-range cruise missile in direct contravention of the treaty. Beijing, for its part, often exhibits an allergy to serious international arms control treaties. The willingness of the Chinese Communist Party to support the PPWT is, therefore, cause for some additional reflection in Washington.

So instead of falling prey to China and Russia’s PPWT trap, the United States must urgently work with allies to improve the resilience and redundancy of spaced-based military and intelligence capabilities.

Washington should also advance nascent efforts to establish rules of the road in space. “There are really no norms of behavior in space,” Gen. John Raymond, the chief of space operations at U.S. Space Force, said this month. “It’s the wild, wild West.”

In a notable and positive step, the U.N. General Assembly passed a British-introduced resolution in December that seeks to establish “norms, rules and principles of responsible behaviours” in space, which could reduce the chances for dangerous miscalculation.

The vote was 164 in favor, including the United States—and a mere 12 opposed.

Any guesses regarding who voted no? You guessed it: China and Russia. They were joined by their friends Iran, North Korea, Syria, Venezuela, and Cuba.

So much for a Chinese and Russian desire to pursue constructive and peaceful policies in space. Their duplicity continues.

Bradley Bowman is the senior director of the Center on Military and Political Power at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a former advisor to members of the Senate Armed Services and Foreign Relations committees. Twitter: @Brad_L_Bowman. Jared Thompson is a U.S. Air Force major and visiting military analyst at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. The views he expresses in this article are his own and do not necessarily represent the views of the U.S. Defense Department or the U.S. Air Force. FDD is a nonpartisan think tank focused on foreign policy and national security issues.

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China Military and Political Power Russia U.S. Defense Policy and Strategy