The Soviet Almaz military space station

The Almaz, meaning “Diamond” in Russian, was a highly secret Soviet military space station program, begun in the early 1960s. The habitable outpost was intended almost exclusively for military purposes, starting with reconnaissance. Along with some state-of-the-art spy equipment, such as cameras and radar, Almaz would carry a cannon, a modified version of the Rikhter R-23, in its arsenal. Only after the fall of the U.S.S.R. did Russian sources revealed that the cannon had actually fired in orbit.

The Soviet Almaz military space station was designed for a three-person crew and an operational life of one or two years. Its mass and dimensions were determined by the capabilities of the Proton rocket (an expendable launch system used for both commercial and Russian government space launches; the first Proton rocket was launched in 1965). The original proposals envisioned the Almaz station carrying its own three-seat re-entry capsule, which would allow launching the station with the crew onboard.

The Soviet Almaz military space station took time; it’s fancy payloads and sensors took longer than anticipated, and in the meantime, the idea itself got lukewarm support from the Soviet military, which was increasingly relying on unmanned satellites for all its space needs. Until 1982, the U.S.S.R. orbited a total of seven space stations under name Salyut, but three of these were actually Almaz spy stations. The Western intelligence and independent observers quickly figured out which was which, but the Almaz program officially remained under wraps until the end of the Cold War.

History of the Soviet Almaz military space station

The ascent of man into outer space at the height of the Cold War raised the question of the military role of piloted spacecraft. At the beginning of the 1960s, space designers in the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. considered a whole spectrum of military manned spacecraft, including orbital bombers and interceptors; however, automated systems proved to be cheaper and more reliable means of deploying weapons in outer space. Still, the use of human eyes and brains seemed promising in space-based intelligence. Proponents of manned space espionage argued that the presence of people in Low Earth Orbit (LEO), armed with powerful reconnaissance tools, could provide careful selection of targets and quick reaction to fast-changing developments on the battlefield.

On October 12, 1964, Vladimir Chelomey (June 30, 1914 – December 8, 1984), a Soviet mechanics scientist, aviation and missile engineer, officially announced the beginning of development of the Orbital Piloted Station, OPS, code-named Almaz. In the charged atmosphere of the mid-1960s, over-optimistic statements by the U.S. Air Force about its role in outer space provided plenty of propaganda for Soviets to lobby for a response. In the best traditions of the Cold War, Vladimir Chelomey needed a challenge on the U.S. side in order to justify funding for the Almaz program; such justification was delivered by President Lyndon B. Johnson and the development of a Manned Orbiting Laboratory, MOL, announced on August 25, 1965. On October 27, 1965, the Almaz program was approved.

For most of the 1960s, the Almaz program was put on the backburner, as the Soviet space industry concentrated its main efforts on the Moon race with the United States of America. Technical problems and political intrigue also plagued the project.

Three crewed military reconnaissance (reconnaissance or scouting is the exploration outside an area occupied by friendly forces to gain information about natural features and other activities in the area) stations were launched between 1973 and 1976: Salyut 2 (the first Almaz military space station to fly), Salyut 3 (the second Almaz military space station, and the first such station to be launched successfully; it was included in the Salyut program to disguise its true military nature), and Salyut 5 (the third and last Almaz space station to be launched for the Soviet military).

To cover the military nature of the program the three launched Almaz stations were designated as civilian Salyut space stations. Salyut 2 failed shortly after achieving orbit, but Salyut 3 and Salyut 5 both conducted successful manned testing. Following Salyut 5, it was judged in 1978 that the time consumed by station maintenance outweighed the benefits relative to automatic reconnaissance satellites.

The Soviet Almaz military space station

A 20-ton spacecraft (OPS) was to have operated for a couple of years to provide photographic and radar reconnaissance images. A special supply transport spacecraft, the TKS would arrive at the spacecraft with cargo and cosmonauts.  Its reusable crew capsules were intended to be reusable up to ten times. The plan for launching cosmonauts to the station changed during the conception of Almaz. The original concept indeed included the transport craft (TKS). But Vladimir Chelomey proposed to let cosmonauts go into outer space directly with the station.

The basic space station block was shaped like a cylinder with two different diameters (one of four metres and fifteen centimetres, and the other of almost three metres). Its total length was about eleven meters. Its mass was about fifteen tons. A docking unit was mounted at the rear of the station along the axis of the station. The docking unit was connected to an airlock for extra-vehicular activity. Two solar panels were mounted at the rear of station, having a span of twenty-three meters and an area of fifty-two square metres.

A cannon from an orbiting space station

In the 1960s, the fear of attack on spacecraft was real, with both sides of the Iron Curtain developing anti-satellite weapons. It seemed perfectly logical that military and piloted spacecraft would need self-defence weapons.

Installed on the Soviet Almaz military space station in the 1970s, a modified version of the Rikhter R-23, an aircraft autocannon developed in the late 1950s and designed to be as short as possible to avoid problems found on high-speed aircraft when the guns were pointed into the airstream, was the only cannon to have been fired in outer space. According to veterans of the Almaz project, the space cannon successfully pierced a metal gasoline canister from a mile away during its ground tests.

The physics of space stations limited the weapon, though. Although cosmonauts could fire using an optical sight in their cockpit, they had to turn the entire 20-ton station to point the cannon toward its target.

Only after the fall of the U.S.S.R. did Russian sources revealed that the cannon had actually fired in orbit. It happened on January 24, 1975, onboard the Salyut 3 space station. Worried about how firing a giant cannon would impact the outpost itself, Soviet officials scheduled the test firing just hours before the planned de-orbiting of the station, and long after the departure of the crew on July 19, 1974. The outpost ignited its jet thrusters simultaneously with firing the cannon to counteract the weapon’s powerful recoil. According to various sources, the cannon fired from one to three blasts, reportedly firing around twenty shells in all. They burned up in the atmosphere, too. The results of the tests still remain classified.

Outer Space Military Laws

The space sector has emerged for reasons related to the military sector. Are we today heading towards a militarisation of international spaces (Antarctica, outer space or the high seas)? To be interested in outer space is to understand that this environment is free but framed (some will say limited). Space law is based on liberty and this freedom cannot be shared at best for the greatest number unless it has certain limits. The first limitation, and one of the most important when space activities appeared, was for the two superpowers of the Cold War and the United Nations, to establish the peaceful uses of outer space, the demilitarisation or denuclearization of outer space.

All States without discrimination have an inalienable right to develop the uses of nuclear energy for civilian purposes, provided that they do not divert these peaceful uses to nuclear weapons. However, five countries have the right to possess these weapons, namely the United States of America, France, Russia, China and the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Around this position, a lively debate both legal and ethical has been raised. For its opponents, nuclear energy represents a long-term risk that cannot be controlled by science. Major nuclear accidents, radioactive waste and the diversion of nuclear energy for military purposes are unmanageable and exceptionally serious risks. On the other hand, the defenders of this energy present it as safe, even as a stakeholder in sustainable development. According to them, nuclear power is a reliable way to fight against global warming and also a solution to the energy shortage that the world is facing. By examining and analysing the reliability and credibility of all the arguments against and in favour of this industry, we find that the lawfulness and legitimacy of the use of nuclear energy are ill-founded. What about the use of weapons in outer space? The nuclearization of outer space?

If the Soviet Union was able on October 4, 1957 to orbit Sputnik 1, the first space object, it meant that it would also be able to use intercontinental ballistic missiles (an intercontinental ballistic missile or ICBM, is a guided ballistic missile with a minimum range of five thousand five hundred kilometres primarily designed for nuclear weapons delivery – delivering one or more thermonuclear warheads) against its adversaries, in particular the United States of America. The question of the militarization of outer space is a very delicate issue, the subject being highly strategic, and States not easily agreeing on it, often leaving room for further misunderstandings. Since a resolution of the United Nations General Assembly of December 13, 1958, it was desired to see outer space used exclusively for peaceful purposes. The General Assembly stated that it wished to avoid the extension of present national rivalries into the field of outer space, that the exploration and exploitation of outer space shall be done for the benefit of mankind, considered that such co-operation will promote mutual understanding and the strengthening of friendly relations among people. The Partial Test Ban Treaty, signed on August 5, 1963, also prohibits nuclear weapons testing in the atmosphere, beyond its limits, including outer space, or underwater, including territorial waters or high seas. This text has the merit of enacting prohibitions that extend as much to areas under the jurisdiction of States as to spaces removed from the sovereignty of States. It is also important to mention that resolution 1884 (XVIII), calling upon States to refrain from placing in orbit around the Earth any objects carrying nuclear weapons or any other kinds of weapons of mass destruction or from installing such weapons on celestial bodies, was adopted unanimously by the United Nations General Assembly on October 17, 1963.

Let’s now have a look at the lawfulness of military activities in outer space. Article IV of the 1967 Outer Space Treaty distinguishes the legal regime for the whole of outer space and special limits concerning the Moon and other celestial bodies. It states that “States Parties to the Treaty undertake not to place in orbit around the Earth any objects carrying nuclear weapons or any other kinds of weapons of mass destruction, install such weapons on celestial bodies, or station such weapons in outer space in any other manner. The Moon and other celestial bodies shall be used by all States Parties to the Treaty exclusively for peaceful purposes. The establishment of military bases, installations and fortifications, the testing of any type of weapons and the conduct of military manoeuvres on celestial bodies shall be forbidden. The use of military personnel for scientific research or for any other peaceful purposes shall not be prohibited. The use of any equipment or facility necessary for peaceful exploration of the Moon and other celestial bodies shall also not be prohibited”.

It refers to a total demilitarization of outer space and prohibits weapons of mass destruction, that is to say, atomic, bacteriological, chemical or equivalent effect. We can also think of environmental modification techniques for military or hostile purposes, as envisaged since the Convention of May 18, 1977, which prohibits the use of such weapons. The Environmental Modification Convention (ENMOD), formally the Convention on the Prohibition of Military or Any Other Hostile Use of Environmental Modification Techniques, is an international treaty prohibiting the military or other hostile use of environmental modification techniques having widespread, long-lasting or severe effects. It opened for signature on May 18, 1977 in Geneva and entered into force on October 5, 1978. The Convention bans weather warfare, which is the use of weather modification techniques, such as cloud seeding, for the purposes of inducing damage or destruction. The Convention on Biological Diversity of 2010 would also ban some forms of weather modification or geoengineering.

This ban on certain armaments, particularly those in Low Earth Orbit (LEO), is obviously one of the most important for security on Earth. Recall that the Treaty of Outer Space (1967) was adopted at a time when arms limitation agreements were at the heart of diplomatic concerns, especially those of the two superpowers (the Treaty of Tlatelolco, signed on February 14, 1967, is the conventional name given to the Treaty for the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons in Latin America and the Caribbean; the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, commonly known as the Non-Proliferation Treaty or NPT, signed on July 1, 1968, is an international treaty whose objective is to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons and weapons technology, to promote cooperation in the peaceful uses of nuclear energy, and to further the goal of achieving nuclear disarmament and general and complete disarmament; the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks or SALT were two rounds of bilateral conferences and corresponding international treaties involving the United States of America and the Soviet Union, the Cold War superpowers, on the issue of arms control. The two rounds of talks and agreements were SALT I and SALT II and negotiations commenced in Helsinki, Finland, in November 1969). The total demilitarization of the Moon and celestial bodies is also provided for in the Agreement Governing the Activities of States on the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies (entered into force on July 11, 1984).

Article 3 of the 1979 Moon Agreement states that “States Parties shall not place in orbit around or other trajectory to or around the Moon objects carrying nuclear weapons or any other kinds of weapons of mass destruction or place or use such weapons on or in the Moon. The establishment of military bases, installations and fortifications, the testing of any type of weapons and the conduct of military manoeuvres on the Moon shall be forbidden. The use of military personnel for scientific research or for any other peaceful purposes shall not be prohibited. The use of any equipment or facility necessary for peaceful exploration and use of the Moon shall also not be prohibited”.

There are questions about the interpretation of the term peaceful: either non-military (broad interpretation) or non-aggressive (narrow interpretation). The United States of America prefers the narrow interpretation and constructs its argument by explaining that it is necessary to retain the right of self-defence, as expressed both in customary law and in Article 51 of the Charter of the United Nations. Chapter VII, Article 51 of the Charter of the United Nations concerning “Action with respect to Threats to the Peace, Breaches of the Peace, and Acts of Aggression” states that “Nothing in the present Charter shall impair the inherent right of individual or collective self-defence if an armed attack occurs against a Member of the United Nations, until the Security Council has taken measures necessary to maintain international peace and security. Measures taken by Members in the exercise of this right of self-defence shall be immediately reported to the Security Council and shall not in any way affect the authority and responsibility of the Security Council under the present Charter to take at any time such action as it deems necessary in order to maintain or restore international peace and security”.

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) Act of 1958 also refers to the peaceful purposes of research and outer space, stating that “The Congress hereby declares that it is the policy of the United States that activities in space should be devoted to peaceful purposes for the benefit of all mankind”. The United States of America has always considered the action of reconnaissance satellites (a reconnaissance satellite or intelligence satellite, commonly, although unofficially, referred to as a spy satellite, is an Earth observation satellite or communications satellite deployed for military or intelligence applications) to be both military and peaceful.

The Soviet Union, for its part, quickly defended the idea that certain activities are prohibited, even for the State acting under conditions of self-defence, based for example on the Geneva Protocol of 1925 on the use of biological weapons (the Protocol for the Prohibition of the Use in War of Asphyxiating, Poisonous or other Gases, and of Bacteriological Methods of Warfare, usually called the Geneva Protocol, is a treaty prohibiting the use of chemical and biological weapons in international armed conflicts. It was signed at Geneva on June 17, 1925 and entered into force on February 8, 1928. It was registered in League of Nations Treaty Series on September 7, 1929), the 1972 Convention on the Prohibition of the Manufacture, Stockpiling and Use of Bacteriological and Toxin Weapons (the Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Production and Stockpiling of Bacteriological and Toxin Weapons and on their Destruction, usually referred to as the Biological Weapons Convention, was the first multilateral disarmament treaty banning the production of an entire category of weapons. The Convention was the result of prolonged efforts by the international community to establish a new instrument that would supplement the 1925 Geneva Protocol. The Geneva Protocol prohibits use but not possession or development of chemical and biological weapons) or the Environmental Modification Convention of May 18, 1977 on Environmental Changes for hostile purposes. The Soviet Union has also come to recognize the peacebuilding function of reconnaissance satellites.

To summarize, all areas of outer space are devoid of certain weapons, in this case weapons of mass destruction, whether for storage, experimentation or even more use; on the other hand, certain areas, in this case the Moon and the celestial bodies, generally exclude all military activity: all weapons are prohibited in certain areas and certain weapons are prohibited in all zones. This conclusion makes it possible to develop or envisage certain military activities in outer space without the law being able to give an unambiguous answer to the question of the lawfulness of these activities.