Australia should join the moratorium on anti-satellite missile tests

Tensions have been rising in outer space in recent years, leading to a covert arms race and what some perceive as the brink of space warfare. Space-based technologies such as communications satellites are an integral part of people’s daily lives and are key strategic assets for military and intelligence operations.

The first Gulf War in the 1990s is often referred to as the first space war because of the asymmetric advantage that space-based navigation, targeting, communications and intelligence gave to the US-led coalition. Modern militaries depend as much on space as they do on cyber technologies. The best way to compromise an adversary’s eyes and ears is to target its space capabilities.

Space has become a contested strategic domain and if an armed conflict were to extend there, it would be catastrophic for millions of civilians because of the extent to which global civil services also depend on space.

The UN open-ended working group on reducing space threats held its second session in Geneva last week. The establishment of the working group followed decades of roadblocks on striving for space arms control. Its shift to articulating norms of responsible behaviour rather than trying to define what capabilities or weapons should be prohibited is a valuable and hopeful one. It may be easier for states to agree on bottom-line behaviours that are irresponsible, such as the deliberate creation of space debris, which poses threats to all space assets.

Last year, Russia destroyed one of its own satellites using a surface-launched anti-satellite missile, or ASAT. This wasn’t the first such incident; over the past several years, China, the US and India have each destroyed their own satellites in space. The Russian test was notable for creating thousands of pieces of debris, putting at risk Russian and other nations’ space-based assets as well as the Russian, American and German crew aboard the International Space Station.

Developing space norms may have obvious beneficial outcomes, yet many nations are still stuck in a ‘prisoner’s dilemma’ pursuing their own interests to the detriment of all, including themselves. The main thrust of the prisoner’s dilemma is that each party is unaware of and incapable of knowing what the other will do, creating an environment of mistrust that prevents cooperation and encourages self-interest, even if it leads to disadvantageous outcomes for all parties.

This has been at the heart of a security dilemma in space. Various governments’ establishment of military space branches, for example, has been justified by the threats posed by perceived malign actors, further raising the risk of more counterspace capabilities threatening the technologies we all depend on.

The prisoner’s dilemma could be countered by shifting the perspective towards a ‘stag hunt’. A hunter can hunt a hare by themselves without help, but hunting a stag is more lucrative. However, a successful stag hunt requires cooperation with another hunter. In our case, achieving agreed space norms represents the stag, requiring cooperation among all nations.

In April, timed to coincide with the UN working group’s first meeting, the US announced a unilateral commitment not to conduct destructive direct-ascent ASAT tests. On its own this was laudable, but more importantly it opened the door for others to follow suit. Canada and New Zealand joined the US with their own unilateral commitments. Last week, Japan and Germany announced similar commitments, highlighting that they don’t have and are not pursuing such capabilities in the hope of developing agreed space norms. And the US has announced that it will bring a draft resolution to the UN General Assembly calling on all states to make this commitment, a vote on which would resemble a real stag hunt.

Australia’s statement at last week’s working group meeting indicated strong support for this initiative, saying that ‘intentional, reckless or negligent generation of long-lived debris fields [is] a significant threat to the space domain’ and noting the importance of the US commitment not to test destructive direct-ascent ASATs. The Australian government’s commitments to addressing climate change, to ensuring regional stability and to increasing sovereign capabilities would all be served by joining this stag hunt to make space more stable, secure and sustainable. It now needs to move to the full commitment not to conduct such tests.

The countries that have made this commitment are key space partners for Australia. The Australian Defence Force’s newly established space command is in a similar position to the military space branches in these partner countries, and it must seek opportunities to shape the development of agreed space norms. Committing to a moratorium on destructive direct-ascent ASAT tests would expand the coalition working towards an agreed set of space norms. It would allow Australia to become a regional leader along with New Zealand and help reduce escalating tensions in space.

The US government has recently made a start on formalising the framework for responsible military norms in its space policy. Aggressive language has been removed from internal Pentagon documents to signal to allies, partners and adversaries that it is willing to cooperate to achieve agreed norms of behaviour in space. Space-faring nations need to remain vigilant about the language used in their space strategies and doctrines to support the stability of space as an operational domain.

To establish an agreed set of space norms, space-faring nations must view space like other complex social environments. Treating it as a prisoner’s dilemma will be detrimental to all. Australia has a big role to play, starting with collaborating with other states in agreeing to a moratorium on destructive direct-ascent ASAT tests. There are precedents for such an agreement, starting with the laws of armed conflict, which were developed incrementally over time.

Declaring a moratorium on destructive direct-ascent ASAT tests is another step along this long journey for the benefit of all, and is something Australia should express without hesitation, in the coming weeks or months, to be among the global leaders in shaping norms.