Outer space: Crowded, congested, and contested

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Over the past two decades, outer space has seen significant changes. To use the most clichéd phrase, space has become even more crowded, congested, and contested. But like many clichés, it is also true.

Published in The Ploughshares Monitor Volume 39 Issue 3 Autumn 2018 by Dr. Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopalan

New players

A domain that was once dominated by the two Cold War superpowers has today more than 80 actors, including commercial ones, making outer space a lot more crowded and congested. Space exploration and growing dependence on outer space for development will increase the number of players many-fold in the coming years. A growing number of countries, especially from the developing world in Africa and Latin America, are starting their space programs to meet their social, economic, and developmental needs. Countries in Asia are looking to outer space for applications to deal with climate change and disaster management, among other tasks. As more states pursue space to satisfy a wide variety of requirements, regional and international cooperation is going to gain further ground.

Space cooperation is also a function of demand and supply. On the supply side, growing prosperity means that states have greater resources for space programs. Also, as countries progress, industrialization and technology spread almost organically. On the demand side, there are competitive pressures working to further proliferation of space technology and collaboration.

In some cases, greater cooperation in outer space utilization has come through regional space agencies. In both Africa and South America, regional institutions have played a role in creating more cooperative ventures. This has not been the case with Asia. In Asia, there are two regional space cooperation mechanisms: APRSAF (Asia-Pacific Regional Space Agency Forum) under Japanese aegis and APSCO (Asia-Pacific Space Cooperation Organization) under China’s lead, with no institutional arrangements for the two to coordinate or collaborate. This is partly a reflection of regional geopolitical competition, with space one more arena in which this competition is playing out.

A second important phenomenon has been the growth of private sector participation in outer space ventures. While primarily a Western phenomenon, such activity could travel to Asia and other regions. There is a growing recognition of a capacity gap on the part of state agencies in meeting large-scale demand across different spectrums, which raises many questions about the complex roles of space actors. Other questions relate to the new satellite mega-constellations, which are mainly put up by commercial players. How might these affect the space environment? How will they impact on the long-term sustainability of outer space? These are real concerns. Thus, commercial actors are adding to the woes of global governance.

Space debris

The challenge of space debris has grown enormously in the last decade. The number of pieces of space debris floating in outer space is enormous. There are more than 21,000 items larger than 10 cm, an estimated 500,000 items between one and 10 cm, and more than 100 million smaller than one cm.

Because space debris is a problem for all actors who use outer space, there is greater common interest in managing the problem. However, the enormity of the problem and the division of responsibilities and costs are still significant barriers to solutions.

Strategic competition

Space is once again becoming the sphere of international political rivalry and potential conflicts, another domain in which the geopolitical competitions of Earth are beginning to play out. Dependence on outer space obviously creates vulnerabilities. The growth in the last decade in counterspace capabilities—kinetic means such as direct ascent antisatellite missiles, co-orbital systems (satellites that sidle up to their targets and detonate to kill both) that create permanent and irreversible destruction, and even electronic or cyber means to create temporary disruptions and/or destruction—is a major emerging problem. While none of these capabilities is new, there is a renewed determination and push to develop them. The temptation to use them could be irresistible. Jamming and use of cyber means to damage and destroy outer space assets could become more popular measures for states to target their adversaries.

Of course, militarization of outer space has already happened. Militaries around the world have been using space assets for such passive military applications as communications, surveillance, reconnaissance, and intelligence gathering. But the task must be to prevent the expansion to weaponization. Early steps toward weaponization have been taken, but the major powers have not made any feasible and realistic efforts to curb them.

What is the way forward?

Given the growing number of threats and challenges, the need for regulation of outer space is real. Efforts must be made to determine the ideal approach and end-state, but also what might be feasible in the near term. Space is truly a global commons and a limited commodity; hence, it is incumbent upon every state to join in preserving it for future generations. One state’s action can affect others. Debris, to mention only one example, does not distinguish among the assets of different states. All will be affected.
Moving forward also means learning some lessons from recent failed efforts so that new efforts do not suffer the same fate. For one, new efforts should not make the mistake that the Hague Code of Conduct against Ballistic Missile Proliferation did. Though generally considered a successful transparency and confidence-building measure (TCBM) with many members, the code does not include critical missile powers China, Pakistan, Iran, and Israel. It must be remembered that the value of TCBMs is a function not just of the number of members, but also the membership of critical actors.

Another lesson is about the need for inclusivity. Including many countries, even if the measure being developed is not ideal, gives those states a sense of ownership that can have a far-reaching impact. A measure developed by Western countries without involvement of the developing world may not go down very well.

There is an additional lesson in the failure of the International Code of Conduct developed almost exclusively by the European Union. It unintentionally created the perception that it would lead to limiting or even denying technologies to some. Many developing countries that were just starting their space programs were wary of signing a code that they believed would restrict their programs’ development. Such a misperception could have been laid to rest by earlier and wider consultation.

Another lesson concerns the feasibility of a legally binding instrument. Treaty-making and consensual decision-making worked well in the past. Today, great power politics has become so contentious that developing consensus on any global security issue is problematic. This crisis in decision-making could deepen in the future. Thus, there is a need to develop more innovative approaches to common problems, beyond insisting on legally binding treaties. Multilateral confidence-building measures might be a useful starting point.

We should also recognize the importance of multilateral negotiations to prevent the emergence of its alternative, the deterrence model, in managing outer space. If there is no success in multilateral negotiations, states will be forced to rely on deterring others from undertaking undesirable activities in outer space by threatening to retaliate with similar activities. Such threats could spiral out of control. Multilateral negotiations present a possible way to prevent such an occurrence.

Space traffic management is vital. We need to make progress toward a global authority on space situational awareness. The creation of such a body would be an important step in understanding the space environment that we are operating in, and essential for safe, secure, and uninterrupted access to outer space. And it could have an impact on further cooperation between states. Global cooperation in outer space is an absolute must, but the way forward may be to agree on a common minimum program, rather than to hold out for the most ideal solution.

Dr. Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopalan is a Distinguished Fellow and Head of the Nuclear and Space Policy Initiative at Observer Research Foundation in New Delhi, India and Technical Advisor to the Group of Governmental Experts on the Prevention of an Arms Race in Outer Space (PAROS). This article is excerpted from the “Global Assessment” in Space Security Index 2018.

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