A Balance of Instability: Effects of a Direct-ascent Anti-satellite Weapons Ban on Nuclear Stability


D360’s International Security at the Nuclear Nexus series examines cross-cutting strategic security challenges at the intersection of nuclear weapons and other domains, including cyber, space, and conventional war.

Night sky and observatory
Photo by: Tech. Sgt. David Salanitri

There are few rules that govern international behavior in space, so few that it is occasionally referred to as the “new Wild West.” For the first 50 years of the space age—which formally began in 1957 when the first artificial satellite, Sputnik I, was launched—the lack of agreed-upon rules, regulations, and norms were of little consequence to developing the space domain. This is because the foundation of the first space age was the infamous “Space Race” and, later, space cooperation between the Soviet Union and United States. Satellites and other space infrastructure were mostly geared toward supporting national security and nuclear deterrence on Earth in particular, or for pushing the boundaries of civil space exploration through human spaceflight.

The rise of a new age for space—characterized by a greater number of national actors and commercial space companies—has also created more opportunities for mayhem. This has led to a growing call from the international space community, governments, and commercial entities to create a sustainable and stable space domain through norms of behavior, best practices, and even international regulation.

Recent tests of direct-ascent anti-satellite (ASAT) weapons from India and Russia, in 2019 and 2020 respectively, give cause to reevaluate the possibility of building an international arms control agreement to limit space weapons or weapons testing. There have long been calls from within the international space community to create a limiting test ban treaty for these weapons due to the inevitability of space debris created by ASATs’ kinetic effects. However, the secondary effects of such a ban, such as its impact on greater strategic stability, must be considered. How would new norms for testing space weapons affect nuclear stability and traditional deterrence? Would a direct-ascent ASAT limit or ban create stability or further destabilize the space and nuclear domains? Aerospace

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