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Testing Ban Strengthened?

Russian ASAT Effort Not Seen Threatening OST's Future

Russia's developing anti-satellite (ASAT) capabilities, even if they violate the Outer Space Treaty (OST), are unlikely to lead other space-faring nations to abandon the agreement, space policy experts tell us. OST has "shown it has good bones" in past instances of countries being bad actors in space, said Victoria Samson, Secure World Foundation chief director. Russia's ASAT effort could help the U.S. gather support for a global voluntary ban on destructive ASAT testing, Michelle Hanlon, executive director-Center for Air and Space Law at the University of Mississippi, wrote in an email. The White House said last week Russia is developing an ASAT capability. It called that work "a national security threat" and "troubling" but provided scant details.

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Whatever Russia is working on likely doesn't violate OST prohibitions against weapons of mass destruction in space, space policy experts tell us. Nuclear-powered space vehicles are permitted under the OST, Jack Beard, director-Space, Cyber, and National Security Law Program, Nebraska College of Law, told us. He said it's unclear in what scenario the Russians would benefit from having a space-based nuclear weapon as opposed to launching one from earth. Russia has long been quick to capitalize on OST violations by others, and would seem reluctant to do something that unequivocally trashes one of the treaty's most important provisions, Beard said.

Counter-space capabilities that are reversible and have temporary effects and plausible deniability, like cyber and jamming, are more likely, said Samson. "A nuclear weapon, that's definitely not reversible," she said.

The threat may be from Russia investing heavily again in a nuclear-powered electronic warfare satellite program that it had backburnered, open source intelligence analyst Oliver Alexander posted on X.

Nuclear-powered satellites are orbiting, and are perfectly legal, said Ram Jakhu, McGill University Institute of Air and Space Law professor. He said there’s widespread international interest in maintaining OST. However, nations are increasingly seeking loopholes that skirt OST, he said.

The U.S.-spearheaded destructive ASAT testing ban (see 2204190057) could see stronger and broader support as a result of these concerns about Russia, Hanlon said. "It highlights the problem," she said. "No one wants their country to experience 'a day without satellites.'" A deployed weapon could pose a major threat to commercial satellites and could increase the cost of insurance considerably, she said. A bigger concern is that Russia has noted it would consider SpaceX's Starlink a legitimate target, she said.

OST "is being tested every day, but it is resilient," Hanlon said. "This is yet another wake-up call to the international community that we need to follow the lead of the original drafters and start to fill in the gaps."