Does A Possible Russian Space Weapon Prove Space Arms Control Is Unverifiable?

The United States this week has accused Russia of potentially deploying a weapon in space in October 2017, a claim widely reported upon.

The principle of verification, or verificationism, is the thesis that a sentence has meaning only if it’s either empirically verifiable or analytic. It is often presented as the centrepiece of logical positivism and there’s a similar principle of verificationism at work in discussions of arms control, namely arms control is meaningful only to the extent that it can be empirically verifiable. When we put things like so you can see how verificationism in arms control is as false as verificationism in philosophy, for I would say that an arms control treaty, agreement or process can be meaningful, that is contribute to national and international security, even if it be in principle unverifiable.

Verificationism is the underlying position adopted when hawks, usually Republicans in the US context, oppose an arms control treaty not because of the treaty itself but rather adherence to it inhibits the unilateral deployment and/or employment of unilateral military firepower. This is an old game going way back to the Cold War; if you don’t like an arms control process just say it’s unverifiable and, given the implicit doctrine of verificationism, hey presto that process is as nonsensical as metaphysics. If the claim of unverifiability is repeated often enough, with the attendant crucial backing of the media and commentators closely linked to the military-industrial complex, then the claim of unverifiability itself becomes meaningful (for yours, mine and everybody’s security) but it does so on the basis of little more than intersubjective agreement.

Hawks usually also happen to be close to the Christian Right, so really we know their commitment to verificationism to be half hearted at best. Nobody does nonsensical metaphysics like they do.

This is how this week’s story doing the rounds on a Russian satellite reputed in much of the press to be, or quite possibly to be, a space weapon should be framed. The issue here is not the question; is the satellite a space weapon? The real issue is the verifiability of space arms control. The Trump administration wants you to accept the proposition that space arms control is unverifiable so, under verificationism, is meaningless. The claim is being made because, as the effort to develop a new branch of the US military dubbed “Space Force” shows, the US seeks to unilaterally deploy weapons in space free of any additional arms control agreements applicable to space.

Here are the relevant remarks, widely reported on, made by Yleem Poblete, the Undersecretary for Arms Control Verification and Compliance at the Department of State ,which was made at a meeting of the Conference on Disarmament at the United Nations on August 14 2018

In this context, the U.S. delegation would like to bring to your attention recent outer space activities by the Russian Ministry of Defense that appear contrary to the provisions of its own draft PPWT, and the Russian political commitment not to be the first to place weapons in outer space, or the “No First Placement” initiative. These recent activities by the Russian satellites underscore critical fallacies in the logic and language of the proposed PPWT and raise questions about the transparency of Russian space operations and programs. For the United States, this information strengthens our belief that the proposed PPWT has major flaws that make it unviable and demonstrates that any space arms control agreement is unverifiable at this time

You don’t actually have to accept verificationism to see that what is said here is false. This is what Poblete stated specifically with respect to the Russian satellite

Mr. President, in October of last year the Russian Ministry of Defense deployed a space object they claimed was a “space apparatus inspector.” But its behavior on-orbit was inconsistent with anything seen before from on-orbit inspection or space situational awareness capabilities, including other Russian inspection satellite activities. We are concerned with what appears to be very abnormal behavior by a declared “space apparatus inspector.” We don’t know for certain what it is and there is no way to verify it. But Russian intentions with respect to this satellite are unclear and are obviously a very troubling development

But what we know about the satellite in question does not support the conclusion that space arms control is unverifiable. The satellite, or better still satellites, were delivered into space by the Volga upper stage of a Soyuz 2.1v rocket on June 2017. The video of the rocket being transported to the launch apparatus and the launch itself appears below (note no strap on boosters)

The Volga upper stage deployed a parent Kosmos-2519 satellite with the Kosmos-2521 and Kosmosm-2523 subsatellites.

Information regarding the launch and initial satellite manoeuvres can be ascertained from a highly useful Spaceflight101 article. Spaceflight101 Is a fantastic and admirably detailed website. Note that a parent satellite, Kosmos-2519, was placed into a 652 by 671 km orbit inclined to 98.05 deg. Jonathan McDowell in a more updated and impressively detailed run down of the mission at question (up to this week) had Kosmos-2519 deployed to a 654 by 669 km orbit inclined to 98.1 deg.

McDowell states that the satellite at the centre of the US statement at the CD is the Kosmos-2523 deployed from the Kosmos-2519 parent satellite on October 30 2017. That is not consistent with the manoeuvre log presented in the report as it is reported that Kosmos-2523 has not engaged in any manoeuvres since its deployment from Kosmos-2519. However, it is consistent with the US claim at the CD which, as shown above, explicitly refers to the October 30 satellite i.e. Kosmos-2523 on McDowell’s recokning. That is why McDowell has fingered Kosmos-2523 as the satellite in question.

However, Kosmos-2523 has not engaged in “abnormal behaviour” for as McDowell states “on Oct 30 at 0352 UTC a further subsatellite, Kosmos-2523, departed Kosmos-2521 with a relative velocity of 27 m/s into a lower-perigee 554 x 664 km orbit. As of Aug 2018 Kosmos-2523 has made no orbit maneuvers since its initial deployment.” To be aware that McDowell adds the rider that, “The three satellites (2519, 2521 and 2523) were registered with the UN by Russia in orbits of 651 x 683, 656 x 688, and 656 x 687 km respectively, making it hard to be sure which name refers to the lower-perigee object.” But you certainly are left with the impression that the orbital manoeuvres do not involve Kosmos-2523.

Should McDowell’s report be accurate regarding Kosmos-2523 then Poblete has fingered the wrong satellite at the CD.

As can be seen from the log what must be at issue, again assuming the accuracy of McDowell’s report, is proximity operations involving the parent Kosmos-2519 and an earlier sub-satellite deployed from Kosmos-2519 known as Kosmos-2521, the manoeuvres of which were initially reported by Spaceflight101 above. Spaceflight101 takes the story to August 28 2017 i.e. before October 30 2017. You have to be careful here given that the Spaceflight101 article was published early in the mission and what it calls Kosmos-2519 is actually, following McDowell, Kosmos-2521 and Kosmos-2519 is what Spaceflight101 called “Object D.”

It is quite true that proximity operations would be a feature of space weapons, for example back in the early days of the Space Shuttle it was stated by some that the Shuttle’s ability to rendezvous and pluck satellites from space gives it an ASAT capability and some make similar remarks regarding the US X-37B spaceplane currently in orbit on a highly secretive mission. However, the question here is not is Kosmos-2521 engaged in proximity operations as part of a Russian effort to weaponise space but rather is space arms control verifiable?

As can be ascertained from Jonathan McDowell’s manoeuvre log we can see what Kosmos-2521 and its parent Kosmos-2519 are up to. What we know is consistent with the Russian claim that Kosmos-2521 is an imaging-inspector satellite and it is consistent with previous such missions Kosmos-2491 (2013 launch), Kosmos-2499 (2014 launch) and Kosmos-2504 (2015 launch). This information comes courtesy of amateur satellite watchers, let alone state agencies with more powerful space situational awareness (SSA) capabilities, and it demonstrates that the US statements at the CD about verifiability are false.

They are false on two grounds. Firstly, as noted all the manoeuvres involving Kosmos-2519 and Kosmos-2521 are observable and have been observed, which means that if a space arms control treaty were today in force the US (and others) under its verification/dispute resolution mechanisms would be able to demand answers from Moscow as to what be the deal here. This would not be much different to the current situation with the INF Treaty. Secondly, the assumption implicit to the US statements at the CD is that verifiability is something that is limited to Earth bound sensors yet the very idea of an inspection/imaging satellite, the Russians are not the only ones to have deployed such satellites and nor is their use limited to low earth orbits, suggests that space based assets can be used to inspect or verify adherence to space arms control. There’s no Godelian paradox of self-reference that necessarily suggests otherwise.

So even if one accepts verificationism, which one shouldn’t, it is possible to see how the US statement at the CD on space arms control exaggerates the situation involving Kosmos-2521. The US charges do not mean that space arms control is unverifiable.

There is a deeper implicit assumption underpinning the US statements at the CD, which have tended to be uncritically relayed by the media and somewhat neglected by analysts. That is, that the Trump administration’s desire to weaponise space through a Space Force follows on from Russian and Chinese moves to weaponise space through the development and testing of ASATs. This is a charge the US has often made even before Trump became President. This obscures a good deal of history. In the 1990s and beyond Russia and China have presented proposals for space arms control in the CD, and they have consistently been rejected by the US. This well predates Trump. Russian and Chinese work on ASATs, again by no means unique, follows on from this consistent rejection of space arms control at the CD and the understanding that when it comes to the weaponisation of space the US has capabilities far ahead of Moscow and Beijing and that Washington is determined to pursue those capabilities. So the danger is that without development of their own space capabilities Russia and China will allow US space superiority to become locked in.

It seems to me that the weaponisation of space can be partly viewed with respect to the importance that Pentagon planners place on challenging the AntiAcess/AreaDenial capabilities of potential adversaries. Given superior US space capabilities there exists the possibility that Washington can lock in its superiority in space and so deny space to the enemy. Space arms control might check the AntiAccess/AreaDenial strategies for adversaries as applied to space, true, but from the perspective of a US strategic planner far better to use US space superiority to deny space to the enemy whilst retaining one’s own freedom of action to exploit space as a force multiplier.

That is a logic familiar to states from time immemorial.

The problem here is twofold. Firstly, Russia and China will catch up and they have indeed shown a determination to catch up. That too is a logic familiar to states for space cannot be conceded to Washington on a platter. Secondly, space security is connected to strategic nuclear stability. That makes space arms control quite meaningful.