Strategic and Legal Implications of Emerging Dual-Use ASAT Systems

Published in: NATO Legal Gazette, Issue 42, pages 178–193 (December 2021)

Posted on RAND.org on January 06, 2022

by Linda Slapakova, Theodora Ogden, James Black

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Satellites and other space technologies are of increasing importance for the global economy and for military operations. Their "dual-use" nature means they can often be used for both civil and military purposes, including as part of anti-satellite (ASAT) capabilities. This raises both strategic and legal questions. In principle, the risk of armed attacks on civilian infrastructure would appear to preclude most ASAT attacks under the Law of Armed Conflict. In practice, however, many states are not only deploying overtly military ASAT capabilities (both kinetic and non-kinetic) but also pursuing civil programs to develop and field new technologies with overlapping uses. Examples include new space capabilities for on-orbit repair, refueling or debris management (e.g., through forced de-orbiting), all of which could be repurposed to cause a collision or otherwise interfere with other space-based assets. This "dual-use" conundrum may significantly impact space safety and security, strategic stability, and wider defense and protection of civilians on Earth. It thereby presents several challenges from an international legal perspective, including arms control, non-proliferation and the promotion of responsible space behaviors.

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