ASAT collision
A simulation of the Russian ASAT demonstration in November 2021. Credit: COMSPOC

WASHINGTON — International talks aimed at preventing an arms race in space are expected to continue this year, a senior U.S. State Department official said March 17. However, bilateral U.S.-Russia space talks that had begun before the invasion of Ukraine are off the table for now.

Eric Desautels, acting deputy assistant secretary of state for emerging security challenges and defense policy, said an “open ended working group” established by the U.N. General Assembly in December to address space security issues will hold its first session May 9-13 at the United Nations Office in Geneva, Switzerland.

The goal is to make “recommendations on possible norms, rules and principles of responsible behaviors relating to threats by states to space systems,” he said on a webcast hosted by the National Security Space Association.

“The United States looks forward to supporting the process,” said Desautels, whose office is under the Arms Control, Verification and Compliance Bureau at the U.S. Department of State. 

The working group, created in a resolution put forth by the United Kingdom with U.S. backing, is supported by 163 nations, and 12 countries voted against it, including Russia, China, Iran, Syria, North Korea, Cuba and Venezuela. It is expected to meet twice in 2022 and two more times in 2023.

Much of the discussion about rules of behavior in space will be aimed at preventing destructive events like China’s and Russia’s anti-satellite missile tests in 2007 and 2021, respectively, that generated thousands of pieces of debris that could endanger satellites and human spaceflight for years or decades. 

Desautels said he could not predict if the Russians will somehow try to disrupt the working group meeting. 

“If the Russians can get to Europe, they may block the progress on the open ended working group, but we’ll just have to see where we are in the May timeframe,” he said. “We will have preparatory meetings in advance of that where we will make our arguments for why they should go forward and we will have to just see what the Russians bring forward as their concerns about the discussions.”

In light of the “incredibly irresponsible test by the Russians,” there is a lot of work to be done to prevent another debris generating event like that. Coming up with language around not doing those tests will be a task for the group. 

One of the U.S. concerns is that ground-based missiles that could be used to blow up a satellite also are used by the United States and allies to intercept enemy ballistic missiles. “Whatever we do around a norm, we have to be careful to protect our essential missile defense capabilities, because we don’t want to be constrained in how we defend ourselves against the incredibly growing North Korean and Iranian missile threats,” said Desautels. 

Bilateral talks with Russia are off

Desautels was a member of the U.S. diplomatic delegation that had been in talks with Russia on arms control and space norms in late 2021 and early 2022.

But following the “illegal and unprovoked invasion of Ukraine, there are certainly not any sort of direct bilateral engagements with the Russians,” he said. 

“Space was a major topic for some of those discussions,” said Desautels, “especially after the 2019 placement of a Russian satellite in close proximity to a U.S. government satellite, we felt that we needed to start having direct conversations with the Russians about our concerns about some of these behaviors.”

Before the attack on Ukraine, “we had hoped to begin those conversations with the Russians,” he added. “We have paused those activities, we see no need for those discussions while they’re in active conflict with the Ukrainians. We have paused almost all bilateral conversations except those essential to national security. If there were a space matter to come up central the national security, we could undoubtedly engage with them. But for the time being, most of our engagements will be in multilateral venues.”

Desautels noted that economic sanctions and the squeeze on Russia’s space program are likely to weaken the country’s military space capabilities.

Russia is losing significant revenue as its Soyuz rocket has been sidelined from the global launch market.  

“The more we can deny Russia these streams of revenue the better that will be because it will cost them more to be able to develop and design their own counterspace systems,” said Desautels. 

“And we should continue to keep those sanctions up so that they are not allowed to use the money, the technology or whatever to help build their military counterspace capabilities,” he said. “And the same of course applies to China. We need to continue the steps that we’ve taken to prevent them from accessing Western technologies that they want to get at.”

Realistically, “we’re probably not going to be able to get the Russians or the Chinese to ever abandon their counterspace capabilities,” he noted. “But to the extent we can use export controls and sanctions … I think that is going to have a tremendous impact in giving us time to prepare our own defenses against those capabilities, but also hopefully throwing a wrench in their capabilities as well.”

Sandra Erwin writes about military space programs, policy, technology and the industry that supports this sector. She has covered the military, the Pentagon, Congress and the defense industry for nearly two decades as editor of NDIA’s National Defense...