On July 15, some 615km above the earth, a Russian satellite named Cosmos 2543 activated its special — and hitherto secret — function by firing a projectile out across the atmosphere.
US officials, concerned about its purpose, had been tracking Cosmos 2543 for months after it raised alarm by moving close to a US spy satellite. When Cosmos 2543 fired its unknown payload, it confirmed American suspicions. This was no ordinary satellite.
Russian has denied this was a test of new military technology but the incident has reignited international concerns that space is becoming the new battleground for strategic global supremacy — harking back to the late US president Ronald Reagan’s “Star Wars” plans for space-based military assets. It also underlines the emerging threats to critical satellite infrastructure that provides everything from GPS technology to the ability to launch nuclear weapons.
Russia and China have “already turned space into a warfighting domain”, Christopher Ford, lead state department official on arms control, told reporters recently. Moscow was “the most prominent space mischief-maker” and had twice tested projectile-firing satellite weapons, he added.
Days after Moscow denied a US accusation of a military test, officials from both countries gathered in Vienna for their first space security talks since the end of the cold war. One American familiar with the discussions described them as “long, interesting and productive” but any deal similar to those that regulate terrestrial weapons will take time — if it is even possible.
Russia has unsuccessfully pushed for a treaty to regulate weapons in space for more than a decade while the US is pursuing similar discussions with China. The challenge for diplomats is to agree on what constitutes a space weapon.
The Trump administration wants to dodge defining weapons and instead agree and apply rules of armed conflict to outer space and establish a crisis communications channel akin to the cold war nuclear “hotline” with Russia to deal with potential conflict in space.
American officials have framed their interest as securing “unfettered access” to space, on which the US relies for military, communications and commercial applications far more than any other country. Moscow and Beijing have separately proposed limits on ground-based weapons that could pose a risk to satellites, but US experts counter the pair has already developed these.
“Once they’ve . . . put the gun to our head, now they’re ready to sit down and talk,” said Todd Harrison, space security expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, adding the difficulty with such negotiations was that “every country involved will try to come up with a self-serving definition”.
Significant differences remain. “Russia and the US do not speak the same language when it comes to what is considered a ‘peaceful action’ in outer space. That creates a big challenge,” said Beyza Unal, senior research fellow at the Chatham House think-tank.
Global powers have long eyed space as a potential battleground. Reagan’s plans outlined in 1983 — dubbed Star Wars after the popular films released around that time — proposed a new push into space-based weapons to counter the threat from the Soviet Union, which duly warned that such systems would make nuclear war inevitable.
Today the US treats space as a theatre of war, and portrays battles extending into space in simulations of future large-scale conflicts. Russia also has a defence command structure to oversee the earth’s atmosphere and beyond.
Yet sophisticated weapons are not required to disable or destroy satellites. Given that they are extremely delicate and travelling at thousands of miles an hour, a mere collision will suffice. “We have all this talk of lasers and ‘Star Wars’, but really the capability to destroy another country’s satellite is not that advanced,” said a senior US official briefed on the Vienna talks. “It only takes an impact — a fender bender in space.”
The official continued: “The idea of prohibiting weapons in space is misleading. What we’re looking for is rules of the road . . . how we’re going to treat and manage systems in space.”
Moscow has said the Cosmos 2543 projectile was the test of an “inspector” designed to determine details of Russia’s own satellites. The Kremlin said it was “committed to the task of complete demilitarisation” of space.
And while US officials characterise Russia’s space-based weapons tests as “provocative, dangerous and ill-advised”, experts say the US has established space weapons capabilities of its own but was not pursuing “kinetic” options. In 2008 the US shot down one of its satellites in what some interpreted as a show of force a year after China did something similar.
The US defence department warned in a report this week that it faced being outclassed in space and forced to “resign itself to second-class status”. It cited US Space Command’s conclusion last year that Washington must “commit to having a military force structure that can defend this international space order and defend US space interests”.
Joe Mozer, chief scientist at the US Space Force recently established by President Donald Trump, said this week: “We must overmatch our strategic competitors.”
Yet America’s vaulting ambitions for space — ranging from a return to the Moon in 2024 to Tesla founder Elon Musk’s hopes to colonise Mars and make humanity a multi-planetary species — risk snagging over the security of space and the danger that such missions could be threatened militarily.
Without a global pact to oversee extraterrestrial weapon deployments, Ms Unal warned, nations competing to protect their space assets could push each other to develop evermore powerful capabilities, escalating fears of full-blown conflict in the cosmos.
“Geopolitical powers are already showing their ambition in procuring outer space weapons technology,” she said. “But . . . there will be always a new technology that will thrive and offset previous capabilities.”