Under stress: Space security in 2017

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Project Ploughshares and its partners on the Space Security Index (SSI) project joined with the Government of Canada in hosting a First Committee side event on October 17 to launch the 2017 edition of the annual report. The panel discussion was chaired by Canada’s Ambassador to the United Nations, Rosemary McCarney, whose opening remarks emphasized the importance of diligent research and analysis to inform good policy outcomes. Noting the critical nature of tracking developments on an ongoing basis, she stressed the unique contribution of the SSI.

Published in The Ploughshares Monitor Volume 38 Issue 4 Winter 2017 by Jessica West

Panelists included Jessica West, the managing editor of the SSI at Project Ploughshares, Laura Grego of the Union of Concerned Scientists, and Victoria Samson of the Secure World Foundation. They focused on a number of stressors that require urgent attention if the secure and sustainable use of space for peaceful purposes is to be maintained.

West highlighted the environmental challenges and resource scarcity associated with projections of mammoth growth in the number of satellites in outer space, regulatory and ethical questions raised by the prospect of greater private sector and human activity in outer space, and uncertainties tied to the shifting role of outer space as a potential domain of warfare. The outer space regulatory regime could be fragmented if global rules do not keep pace with rapidly changing capabilities and national regulations.

Samson noted the challenge posed by the rapidly increasing number of new actors in space, which inspired the publication of the Handbook for New Space Actors. She drew attention to prospects for large commercial satellite constellations, evolving counterspace programs, and potential crisis escalation in space, which call for new norms of behaviour and improved space situational awareness.

Grego reminded her audience of the logic and self-interest that established arms control measures in outer space during the Cold War, and of their enduring rationale. Noting renewed interest in space weapons programs and describing a number of ways in which satellites can be harmed, including through the use of anti-missile defence systems and dual-use capabilities of rendezvous and proximity operations, Grego noted that such programs are still subject to the laws of physics and could produce masses of debris, among other problems. While space may be the military high ground, she argued that it not only can, but must be shared.

The panel and the following discussion clearly indicated that all countries need to accept their responsibility in maintaining the security and sustainability of outer space. However, some are reluctant to pursue additional arms control measures, and new norms of behaviour take time to develop. But as the panelists pointed out, events both on the ground and in outer space are moving quickly. Time is running out.

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