The New Space Race Is Characterized By a Classic Security Dilemma

The deficit of trust between the US and Russia makes them regard the other’s purportedly defensive space warfare preparations as a cover for offensive ones, thereby fueling the militarization of space and adding yet another layer of tension to the ongoing New Cold War in spite of the recent progress that they made on advancing their hoped-for “New Detente”.


The US Space Force condemned what it described as Russia’s thinly veiled test of a direct-ascent anti-satellite (DA-ASAT) missile last Wednesday after its counterpart tested a PL-19 Nudol anti-ballistic missile (ABM) interceptor that the Pentagon believes has dual functionality as a DA-ASAT. The official statement also made note of the American government’s previous concerns from February about two Russian satellites that it claims “exhibited characteristics of a space weapon”, which reinforced their narrative that “This test is further proof of Russia’s hypocritical advocacy of outer space arms control proposals designed to restrict the capabilities of the United States while clearly having no intention of halting their counterspace weapons programs.” Russia, for its part, had slammed the US’ plans earlier in the month to allow its nationals “the right to engage in commercial exploration, recovery and use of resources in outer space”, which presidential spokesman Peskov described as “aggressive plans to actually seize territories of other planets”.

The backdrop against which these latest developments are occurring is somewhat confusing since the two Great Powers are currently competing with one another in a New Cold War but are also simultaneously making some progress in recent weeks towards reaching their hoped-for “New Detente” with one another following Russia’s dispatch of counter-COVID aid to America and their joint efforts towards reviving OPEC+. This strongly suggests that the security dilemma between them in outer space is a classic one from which there’s no escaping in that they regard the other’s purportedly defensive space warfare preparations as a cover for offensive ones, thus fueling the militarization of space and adding yet another layer of tension to their already complicated ties. The very creation of the US’ Space Force signaled how serious the country intends to take this new military domain even if it was widely mocked in the Mainstream and Alternative Media at the time. America claimed that it needed to protect its assets (mostly satellites) from rival powers whereas the latter category of states (mostly led by Russia and China) were extremely suspicious and feared hostile motives.

It’s difficult to blame them because it’s well known that the US military doctrine boils down to the country having the capability to freely respond to any challenge with overwhelming force, so it naturally follows that it would apply this same strategy in outer space just like it’s already doing in the more traditional domains of land, sea, air, cyberspace, and others. On the other hand, none of this was surprising for even the most casual objective observer so it’s understandable that Russia, China, and others would secretly prepare their own responses to this seemingly inevitable threat, ergo what’s been reported by some to be their secret space weapons tests. From their standpoint, it’s entirely justified to compete with the US in order to prevent their rival from asserting primacy in this domain and thenceforth blackmailing them into compliance with whatever it is that it might eventually demand, whereas the Americans are reacting to what they portray to be their most likely adversaries’ cost-effective moves to undercut the Pentagon’s capabilities by crippling its satellite network.

Space is so important to the future of warfare that no pertinent party (i.e. those capable of carrying out operations in this domain) can afford to trust the other, and this holds true not only for the US and Russia, but also Russia and China. The latter two are comprehensive strategic partners and accordingly cooperate real closely on many military matters, but they’re far from “allies” and have been showing signs of growing distrust over the past few weeks as the consequences of World War C begin to impact on their bilateral relations, as explained by the author in his recent piece titled “Rare Wrinkle Or Growing Rift?: Russia & China Exchange Criticisms Over World War C“. Neither Russia nor China is strategically subservient to the other, meaning that while an outbreak of rivalry between them like the one that the US has with each of them is unlikely, it’s also equally unlikely that they’ll coordinate their moves against the US or in pursuit of a multilateral space weapons treaty for regulating the militarization of this domain despite their rhetoric from time to time.

In other words, even if some further tangible progress is made on reaching a “New Detente” between the US and Russia, their space rivalry will likely remain untouched by this possible thaw since any relative progress that they might make on that issue would be rendered strategically null by the very fact that China’s rapidly growing capabilities wouldn’t be affected. The probability of all three primary space powers reaching a trust-based agreement with one another full of credible verification and enforcement mechanisms is close to impossible due to the classic security dilemma between them. The US doesn’t trust Russia & China, though those latter two don’t trust the other enough to sacrifice their strategic self-interests in this sphere for the sake of them both reaching a deal with the US. This is the exact same principle at play when it comes to other strategic arms control agreements that Trump has demanded should include China. The People’s Republic, whose military capabilities still generally trail those of the US and Russia, knows that agreeing to these sorts of deals would forever destine it to remain their “junior partner” in this respect, which could be disastrous for its grand strategy in the worse-case scenario that the “New Detente” is aimed against it, which can’t be ruled out.

Once again, in order to not have the author’s words manipulated, Russia and China are still comprehensive strategic partners who cooperate very closely on all matters, including military ones. That said, however, they aren’t “allies” and therefore don’t trust the other to point of putting their long-term strategic security needs in their counterpart’s hands, which is understandable since each nation strives for self-sufficiency and to have the confidence that it can independently defend its interests against any foreseeable challenge if the need arises. There aren’t any indications that the “New Detente”, at this stage at least, will lead to Russia working hand-in-glove with the US to “contain” China even if some of the tangential consequences of a thaw between them might eventually lead to America being able to focus more on militarily countering the People’s Republic if it reaches an understanding with Moscow over NATO’s activities in Central & Eastern Europe for example. Even in that scenario, however, Russia is unlikely to limit what it sincerely regards as its defensive military capabilities for waging space warfare since it can never be entirely sure that the “New Detente” will last, which is why the New Space Race will probably remain a constant in International Relations for the foreseeable future.

By Andrew Korybko
Source: One World

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