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9 May 2014, Gateway House

Securing outer space assets

The UN’s Transparency and Confidence Building Measures for Outer Space Activities to address terrestrial anti-satellite weapons have spawned schismatic instruments such as the EU’s International Code of Conduct and a Sino-Russian treaty. India must weigh its national interests before agreeing to these drafts

Fellow, Space and Ocean Studies Programme

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A move to tackle the proliferation of terrestrial anti-satellite weapons and prevent the potential consequences of such an expansion is underway. [1] It is collectively called Transparency and Confidence Building Measures in Outer Space Activities (TCBM). An initiative of the UN Office for Disarmament Affairs, the TCBM was endorsed by the UN General Assembly through two resolutions in 2006 and 2007.

On 31 December 2013 the UN Office for Disarmament Affairs published a comprehensive report on the TCBM. The report shows that the legal mechanisms proposed by the eastern and western blocs are mutually hostile, and raises the question: can these mechanisms be effective in preventing militarisation in space?

During warfare, a country’s space assets can either be a target or a platform. For example, in the past, the Soviet Union placed a 23 mm rapid-fire cannon on its covert Almaz-2 space station. It remains the only known weapon sent to space. [2] In the current multi-polar world, with greater detection capabilities, no nation will openly flaunt its space weapons.

But a space asset as a target of attack is an increasingly plausible scenario, with many nations now demonstrating terrestrial anti-satellite technology (ASAT).  The use of terrestrial weapons targeting assets in Earth-orbit does not violate current international laws and treaties. The TCBM has formulated to fill this legal void.

The measures are a legal instrument of the ongoing 1967 Outer Space Treaty. In Resolution 1884 (XVIII), the treaty disallowed its 102 signatories from using nuclear or other weapons of mass destruction in outer space. Now, it intends to also focus on terrestrial anti-satellite weapons.

However, instead of becoming a disarmament initiative, the TCBM has unintentionally realigned Cold War blocs, as is evident from the timeline: a month after the TCBM was proposed in December 2006 Beijing demonstrated its ASAT from a land-platform. [3, 4] In February 2008, the U.S. followed with a ship-based ASAT demonstration. In 2009, Moscow announced the development of air-launched ASAT weapons and a directed energy ASAT programme in response to the U.S.’s National Missile Defense. [5]

The TCBM also spawned two schismatic instruments: Moscow’s allies Cuba and Kazakhstan supported a legally binding Sino-Russian joint-draft treaty in February 2008, the Prevention of the Placement of Weapons in Outer Space and the Threat or Use of Force against Outer Space Objects (PPWT). The U.S. turned it down. [6]

Thereafter, in December 2008, the European Union formulated a voluntary and legally non-binding instrument, the International Code of Conduct (ICoC) for Outer Space Activities. [7] Japan has supported the EU’s proposal. [8] The continually revised EU draft is now in its 16th version.

All these – Russia’s geostrategy, the EU’s riposte proposal, and Japan’s support – indicate escalating anxieties among the U.S. nuclear umbrella states. Both Japan and the EU, with the exception of France, are non-nuclear economies that maintain large space-based assets. They need legal mechanisms, even if lax ones, which can assure them of the security of their space assets independent of the U.S.

Instead, we have a scenario where the assertion for peace via legalities is resulting in greater hostilities. In the past, countries have cooperated in space only after belligerents pledge and maintain large shared assets, such as the International Space Station. Such projects involve huge development, sustenance and logistics liabilities for the participating countries, which secure the station from military action. An absence of cooperative mechanisms can easily instigate competitiveness and hostilities.

In an increasingly multi-polar world, many of the UN’s initiatives will run counter to national interests. For the TCBM to be truly effective, the UN will have to convince the larger space actors to reveal their total military investments in outer space. This is impractical, considering their rights to self-defence.

It is also evident that the UN Office for Disarmament Affairs has minimal interaction with the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs in dealing with space militarisation. Many of the issues addressed by the Office for Disarmament Affairs can be potentially solved through inter-agency cooperation with the Office for Outer Space Affairs.

If ASAT technology is used, one catastrophic scenario can be a colliding cascade of space debris, which will render space exploration and the use of satellites impractical for years, with a disastrous impact on the global economy.

Instead, a more effective approach will be for the UN to push for an international megaproject with interested member states investing to develop critical technologies for removing external debris, on the lines of International Space Station and the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor.

Earth orbits are crucial celestial estates, which are getting congested and vulnerable to debris pollution. The larger space actors, the U.S., China, Russia, Europe, Japan and India, will be interested in reutilising the occupied orbital locations for future applications. But such technologies are expensive and can only be achieved with international cooperation.

The UN Office for Outer Space Affairs must be proactive in mediating such megaproject initiatives, because cooperation in space is under its purview. Such a megaproject is a more realistic approach to curtailing a colliding cascade scenario than legal disarmament initiatives.

Meanwhile, India should be aware of the liabilities for its huge space assets if the EU-proposed ICoC is translated into a binding mechanism. The EU’s seemingly benign proposal includes a long list of compliances and commitments to existing treaties. The 1996 Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT), inimical to India’s interests, is on this list. Signing the ICoC in its current form can trap New Delhi into complying with the CTBT.

Fortunately for India, the Agreement Governing the Activities of States on the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies of 1979 is not included in the list. India made the disastrous decision of signing the Moon Treaty, but if it ratifies the treaty under international pressure emanating from the ICoC, India could be prevented from resource utilisation on the surface of Earth’s moon, the planets, asteroids and other solar system objects.

While the ICoC’s long list of compliances to other treaties could eventually transform the treaty into a disastrous strategic failure, the Sino-Russian PPWT only prevents the placement and use of weapons in outer space. But Beijing has not guaranteed that  ASAT will be discontinued, and Moscow has intensified its interests in missile and directed energy weapons.

India must continue its status quo stance for the Sino-Russian draft treaty as well as the EU code of conduct. Both mechanisms are not in India’s strategic interests, especially considering its volatile neighbourhood. New Delhi must resist signing these codes in their current forms, even if tempted by a UN Security Council permanent seat or memberships in nuclear and technology control regimes. Like other nations India too has to maintain defence and surveillance infrastructure on terrestrial and space platforms for its right of self-defence.

Chaitanya Giri is a Doctoral Researcher at the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research and a contributor to Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations.

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1. United Nations Office for Disarmament Affairs, (2013).Transparency and confidence-building measures in outer space activities (eISBN: 978-92-1-056504-2). Retrieved from United Nations Publication website:

2. Evans, B. (2010). Foothold in the heavens: The seventies. Praxis.

3. Covault, C. (2007, January 21). China’s ASAT test will intensify US-Chinese face-off in space. Aviation Week and Space Technology.

4. Kan, S. Congressional Research Service, (2007). China’s anti-satellite weapon test (Order Code RS22652). Retrieved from Federation of American Scientists website:

5. Honkova, J. (2013) The Russian Federation’s approach to military space and its military space capabilities. Retrieved from George C. Marshall Institute website:

6. Rocca, C. United Nations Office at Geneva, Conference on Disarmament. (2008). Letter dated 19 August 2008 from the Permanent Representative of the United States of America addressed to the Secretary-General of the conference transmitting comments on the draft “Treaty on prevention of the placement of weapons in outer space and of the threat of use of force against outer space objects (PPWT)” as contained in document CD/1839 of 29 February 2008 (CD/1847). Retrieved from website:

7. European Union, European External Action Service. (2013). Draft: International code of conduct for outer space activities. Retrieved from website: disarmament/pdf/space_code_conduct_draft_vers_16_sept_2013_en.pdf

8. Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan, (2012). Multilateral meeting of the international code of conduct for outer space activities. Retrieved from website:

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