The Russian government’s demonstration of a space warfare capability by blowing one of its long-dead satellites to smithereens brought me back 40 years, and memories of my doctoral dissertation. The question I raised, (and attempted to answer) was why, during the 1960s, the two Cold War superpowers did not follow the usual offense-defense cycle in the high frontier of outer space? As a student in international relations with a physics and technology background, I was interested in tracing the process that led Washington and Moscow to forgo an arms race in space.
Today’s questions go in the reverse direction – why are Russia, China and to a somewhat lesser degree, the US (and even India) – testing the anti-satellite capabilities that were rejected six decades earlier? Why did Russia conduct a test a few days ago, scattering thousands of pieces of debris, and endangering the International Space Station, including two Russian astronauts?
To understand the differences and implications, it is important to recall the history. In the early 1960s, the development of photo-reconnaissance satellites to orbit and spy on other countries was a strategic game-changer. When aircraft were sent to do this job, they were shot down, as happened to American U-2 spy planes over Russia, resulting in the capture and show trial of a CIA pilot. These incidents had the potential of sparking major confrontations during the early nuclear era.
With this background, and when the first spy satellites were launched, the US and USSR began to develop anti-satellite weapons. The requirements for a working system were straightforward, and by the mid- to late-1960s, the prototypes were ready to be tested.
But then, everything stopped. Washington and Moscow pulled the plugs before they reached the point of no return. In the course of my research, in which I interviewed the key American decision-makers, read the publicly available documents, and managed to get some information from the Soviet side, I was able to put the pieces together.
The de-escalation in space began shortly after the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, and the edge of a devastating nuclear war. The post-crisis atmosphere emphasized caution and rationality, in which zero-sum competition and mutual assured destruction (M.A.D.) were replaced, or at least partially deflected by negotiated cooperation aimed at mutual survival.
Quietly, the key actors in the countries worked out unwritten “rules of the road” for military aspects of space, highlighting the principle of non-interference. At times, the officials would meet and discuss the details, as well as the obstacles. They also sent informal and tacit signals, such as visibly canceling a planned anti-satellite demonstration program. They recognized that no side would gain an advantage by destroying the other’s spacecraft, and both would lose. And they gradually understood that allowing unhindered access, including for spy satellites, would enhance stability and prevent miscalculations based on worst case analysis.
Anchoring this strategic decision in the language of international law, they cleverly decided that national sovereignty ended at the outer edge of the atmosphere. Vehicles in orbit were therefore outside of sovereign bounds. In the terminology of game theory, “zero-sum” was replaced by “win-win.” This largely unprecedented outcome was not the result of a sudden bout of idealism, but was anchored in realism and national interests based on cooperation on specific issues.
Some 60 years later, we are far from this rare example of international and strategic sanity. Space is far more militarized, with satellites providing every conceivable capability for armed forces preparing to do battle with distant enemies, or engaged in active warfare. In war games and strategy papers, military commanders fear the consequences of an enemy first strike to take out their space assets, perhaps determining the outcome of the war. In other words, anti-satellites are back on the table, and fingers are back on the triggers.
In addition, space is far more crowded. China has also demonstrated an anti-satellite capability, as has India. If the Israeli military decided that they needed this option, it would not be difficult to produce it, and others (including Iran) will eventually follow. With so many actors, an unwritten regime based on quiet and informal negotiations, as took place during the 1960s, would be far more complex.
In addition, an anti-satellite race would be more dangerous and costly for everyone, in comparison to the Cold War 50 years ago. The world economy is deeply dependent on satellite technology for communications, coordination of trade and in almost every other realm. As Russia’s action demonstrated, the debris from even a single attack would endanger many other satellites, including their own, in orbits that intersect with the expanding cloud.
Some analysts have claimed that the objective of this test was to send a warning to the US, against blocking Russian moves in the Ukraine, regarding Belarus or elsewhere. This would be a form of brinkmanship – hovering at the edge of the abyss, and hoping that the other side will choose to avoid the confrontation.
Regardless of motives, it is clear that the dangers of weaponizing space and preparing for first-strike attacks against satellite capabilities is even more dangerous than before. To avoid escalation and back away from mutually destructive policies and processes, the lessons of the 1960s should be considered carefully.