Moscow, Beijing look to avoid an arms race in space
Taking the stage at the United Nations, Mikhail Ulyanov, director of the Department for Security Affairs and Disarmament at the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said that Moscow and China will submit for U.N. review a draft resolution on transparency and trust in space activities.
He noted that “a lack of legal obligations prohibiting the placement of weapons in space is a factor that is negatively affecting strategic stability and preventing the establishment of new treaties on nuclear weapons.”
“The Russian-Chinese draft treaty calling for filling this gap has been on the agenda of the Geneva Conference on Disarmament for a long time, but, unfortunately, there has been no progress,” said Ulyanov.
The “long time” to which the Russian official referred was five years.
Apparently, the antisatellite missile test that the Chinese conducted on January 11, 2007, spurred the impulse to produce a joint initiative. During the test, China destroyed an old weather satellite of its own at an altitude of 530 miles. Incidentally, this is not the first time the development of new arms systems paradoxically led to their disablement.
Before 2007, only the United States and Russia possessed such weapons. The first tests of antisatellite systems occurred in the late 1950s. In the 1960s, the United States developed missile interceptors that could strike spacecraft.
The Soviet Union conducted the first successful tests of such weapons on January 25, 1967, launching a satellite torpedo into orbit from a mine-launching installation. This event, coupled with the Soviet Union’s successes in space and the “moon race” between the superpowers, led to the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, which the United States and the Soviet Union signed.
The treaty barred signatories from launching into Earth’s orbit any nuclear weapons or any other types of weapons of mass destruction, as well as banned the installation of such weapons on celestial bodies and the use of any other method to put such weapons in space. However, there was no restriction on conventional weapons in space.
Later, the recognition of strategic equality during the years of détente also took a toll. The first Soviet-American treaty on limiting strategic arms — SALT I — included a mutual obligation not to attack spacecraft, guaranteeing control over the fulfillment of this agreement.
Incidentally, détente was short lived.
In 1983, U.S. President Ronald Reagan promoted the “Strategic Defense Initiative,” the idea of which was to place in space strike weapons that could hit Soviet strategic missiles in flight. This clearly showed that, in modern conditions, arms in space were the most important element of antiballistic missiles.
Therefore, after the United States abandoned the agreement to limit antiballistic missiles, it became apparent that the nation was ready to return, at a minimum, to developing potential space strike weapons — lasers, and kinetic and particle beam weapons.
As for destroying early warning satellites (the so-called blind strike) or communications and geolocation satellites, without which military action is now impossible, such weapons have already been ready for a long time. Moreover, China has now joined with Russia and the United States on this issue, and experts posit that China conducted its latest tests of antisatellite weapons this year.
The situation is giving rise to an obvious choice: either a race of space weapons directed at celestial and earthly bodies, or a limitation based on international treaties, which is what Russia and China are proposing.
The novelty of the situation lies in the fact that, together, since China’s claim to possess space weapons, they have a rather substantial stockpile that makes it possible to discuss official equality.
However, the issue has an additional dimension: The reduction of strategic arms that the United States and Russia are carrying out in connection with the 2010 treaty still allows them to preserve a capability that far surpasses China’s capability.
However, the United States is already posing the question of future arms reduction. Obama addressed this specifically in a speech in Berlin last July. At issue is a store of up to 300 warheads, which already equals the Chinese arsenal.
The reason is that the United States has made substantial advances in the construction of precision-guided, non-nuclear weapons systems. Hence the relevance of nuclear potential is decreasing doctrinally.
Moscow insists that it is vital to further reduce nuclear arms in connection with reducing other systems — ABMs, precision-guided and space weapons — and it needs to be done multilaterally, with the involvement of other recognized nuclear powers. At the top of the list is China.
The Russian-Chinese joint draft treaty on restricting space weapons, which Ulyanov invoked at the U.N., shows that this position, in essence, has already been agreed to with China.
Just such a treaty on space weapons may become an element of these kind of multilateral and multivariable discussions, but it will not be the only way for China and Russia to cooperate in possible talks on nuclear weapons.