The United States claims that ‘conflict in space is not inevitable’

In 1996, Joseph W. Ashy, former U.S. commander-in-chief of the North American Aerospace Defense Command, famously said: “We’re going to fight in space. We’re going to fight from space and we’re going to fight into space.”

In less than three decades since then, we’ve seen the establishment of the U.S. Space Force, anti-satellite weapons testing by major spacefaring nations and the rapid development of weapons that can interfere with, disrupt or destroy space assets.

No wonder there are many concerns about the potential of war in space. But the belief in the inevitability of space becoming the next major battlefield runs the risk of becoming, as space law expert Steven Freeland writes, “a self-fulfilling prophecy if care and restraint is not exercised.”

It is therefore refreshing that, on April 18, U.S. Vice-President Kamala Harris committed the United States to “not conduct destructive direct-ascent anti-satellite missile testing.”

U.S. Vice-President Kamala Harris delivers remarks at a visit to the Vandenberg Space Force Base in Lompoc, Calif., on Apr. 18.

Legal effect

The context surrounding the statement by Harris, who also chairs the National Space Council, suggests it is more than a political commitment. The declaration was expressed in “clear and specific terms.” It was also preceded by the claims that the U.S. “will lead by example” and “be a leader in order to establish, to advance, and demonstrate norms for the responsible and peaceful use of outer space.”

Under international law, “declarations publicly made and manifesting the will to be bound” can create legal obligations. In this case, the U.S. issued a unilateral declaration, which has both tremendous political impact and legal effect.

The U.S. declaration must be read in light of the ongoing multilateral exchanges on reducing space threats through norms, rules, and principles of responsible behavior, and the upcoming Open-Ended Working Group on reducing Space Threats. It will be of interest to see whether other countries will join the U.S. in making such declarations.

Groundbreaking, but not unprecedented

For decades, countries have expressed concern about an arms race in outer space, and underlined that the placement of weapons in outer space that would pose a “grave danger for international peace and security.”

In the early 1980s, the then-General Secretary of the Soviet Union, Yuri Andropov, announced that Moscow would not “be the first to put into outer space any type of anti-satellite weapon.” Andropov issued a “moratorium on such launchings for the entire period during which other countries, including the United States, will refrain from stationing in outer space anti-satellite systems of any type.”

Since 2014, the vast majority of countries have voted in favor of a United Nations General Assembly resolution that upholds their political commitment to not be the first to place weapons in space.

Even so, several anti-satellite missile tests have been conducted over the years, most recently by Russia in late 2021. The wanton creation of debris by these tests has been said to have greatly “increased risk to the sustainability & stability of outer space and human space flight.”