A crisis in outer space

Jessica West Space Security

Operators in outer space have managed a variety of mostly natural threats throughout the space age. Today they also face a growing arsenal of manmade threats (e.g., cyberattacks, jamming, etc.), from both state and non-state actors. The continued testing and development of anti-satellite weapons (ASATs) and the shrinking opportunity to separate activities in space from geopolitical flashpoints on Earth represent more active concerns than in the past.

How ready is the global space community to manage a near-term crisis in space that leads to an actual disruption of services?

Published in The Ploughshares Monitor Volume 37 Issue 3 Autumn 2016 by Jana Robinson

Vulnerabilities of space systems

Harmful interference in space activities is a rapidly growing problem. Global space utilities and the services offered by commercial space actors can be profoundly affected, especially when these actors operate in politically sensitive regions (for example, Eutelsat in Iran), or when they provide security and defence-related services for the military. Intentional, including state-sponsored, signal jamming is often used to accomplish military, political, and societal objectives.

Some companies that provide services to the U.S. military, such as Boeing or Intelsat, are investing in additional protection measures. Planned upgrades for the U.S. Joint Space Operations Center Mission System include new capabilities for real-time alerts of jamming or other hostile acts against U.S. space-based sensors. Last year the United States also announced plans to develop a common architecture for satellite ground stations. Laser communications are seen as a means to avoid interference, jamming, and hacking. The European Data Relay System, which uses a new generation Laser Communication Terminal technology, for example, should be operational by 2017. Technical responses are, however, only half of the solution; in many instances top-level political intervention offers the only relief to protracted jamming.

Cyberattacks against satellites and ground stations are another fast-moving threat. Indeed, cyberspace is believed by some experts to be the single largest vulnerability of space systems (Majundar 2014).

Institutional responses to space security

The European Union’s (EU) Global Strategy, released in June 2016, confirms that the EU will seek to strengthen the security of its space-based services and concentrate on establishing principles for responsible space behaviour, which can be adopted as a multilateral voluntary code of conduct.

The EU is now drafting a European Defence Action Plan that will emphasize the need to cultivate synergies between security and defence, including for space. The European Commission will soon release a new Space Strategy for Europe and the European Space Agency is preparing its Space Security Policy (Pelegrino & Stang 2016, p. 11). All these plans and policies illustrate a recognition of the pressing nature of the threats to the space environment and the need to bolster substantially protective measures, including via public diplomacy.

China has emerged as an ambitious space power that appears threatening to some countries, including the United States. Although its civilian space activities are widely advertised, Beijing is also engaged in a robust counterspace program that remains largely covert. The People’s Liberation Army operates many of China’s satellites and all terrestrial launch and support facilities. Civilian space applications are integrated into the country’s higher priority military milestones and strategies (U.S. Government Printing Office 2008, p. 160).

Russia’s increasing estrangement from the West also has ominous implications for the global space security community. Geopolitical tensions between Russia and Europe colour the relationship between Moscow and Washington. It is no secret that Russia is developing capabilities to deny the United States and its allies access to certain space-related services in a potential conflict scenario.

Maritime geopolitics as key concern

Of all the terrestrial disputes that could spill into space, maritime tensions in the South and East China Seas should probably top the list. In the case of the darkening clouds over the Black Sea—specifically, Moscow’s efforts to consolidate control over Crimea’s huge offshore oil and gas reserves—the space community likely has a year or two to ready itself, should this prediction prove correct.1 In the South and East China Seas, however, there is a more imminent risk of a flare-up that could implicate space activities, centred on the informal U.S. “red line” around Scarborough Shoal off the Philippine coast and China’s potential militarization of certain drill rigs2 and efforts to enforce its declared Air Defence Identification Zone in the vicinity of Japan’s Senkaku islands in the East China Sea.

While this assessment is not suggesting that China and Russia are seeking maritime conflict or wish to stimulate space-related cascade effects, there is an urgent need for accelerated contingency planning and pre-emptive communications to these space powers (including spelling out the potentially harsh consequences of continued military probes and provocations). The United States and its allies also need to ensure that they are correctly evaluating Chinese and Russian thinking concerning space stability, strategy, and doctrine in an effort to bolster domain security.

The question, however, remains: Is the global space community truly ready to manage a more serious counterspace incident designed, for example, to disrupt intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance activities and/or communications in a theatre of conflict? The answer is almost certainly no, beyond a coordinated U.S. response with select allies. The kind of broader multilateral cooperation being sought on space security, including contingency planning and agreed space crisis management modalities, are not sufficiently mature at this time to take on an actual space security emergency unfolding in real time. Progress is being made, but it is seemingly being outstripped by the velocity of the threat.

Implications for the governance of space activities

As Theresa Hitchens (2015, p. 119) observed in her comprehensive Global Assessment for Space Security Index 2015, “multilateral cooperative space governance efforts [are] on a slow boat.” This continues to hold true. The UN General Assembly did hold its initial First and Fourth Committees meeting in October 2015 in an effort to address possible challenges to space security and sustainability. There is, however, a long and complicated road ahead in establishing a workable consensus on space security bottom lines.

Important progress, however, was made on long-term sustainability of outer space activities in the UN Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS) in 2016. The Working Group on the Long-term Sustainability of Outer Space Activities held eight meetings between February 16 and 26, 2016, as well as subsequent informal consultations.

After another meeting in Vienna during the main COPUOS session on June 6-7, 2016, the Working Group was able to reach consensus on the first set of 12 guidelines. Together, they provide guidance concerning “the development of policies, regulations and practices that support space sustainability; safety of space operations; international cooperation measures; and scientific and technical matters (e.g. space objects and space weather-related information exchange).” The next planned steps are to develop a second set of guidelines to be agreed upon during the 55th session of the Scientific and Technical Subcommittee of COPUOS. This document, together with text of the preamble (still to be approved by consensus) and the first set of guidelines, are to form a final list to be adopted by the COPUOS and referred to the UN General Assembly in 2018 (UNGA 2016).

After inadequate progress in negotiating, much less signing, a draft International Code of Conduct for Outer Space Activities, there was some forward movement. The EU member states decided to continue to work toward a voluntary accord on the basis of five principles.

In the meantime, countries will rely on bilateral and regional commitments. The United States and China, for example, held the inaugural Civil Space Dialogue in Beijing in June 2015 (with a commitment to hold a second dialogue before October 2016), and the first Space Security Exchange in May 2016 in Washington, DC, established under the auspices of the U.S.–China Security Dialogue. Specialized meetings include, for example, the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)–China Meteorological Administration Joint Working Group.


An effort has been made to make some observations on what is arguably the most troubling aspect of the space security portfolio today: purposeful counterspace actions connected to a maritime or land-based military incident or conflict. Although elements of it may appear to some as gloomy, or even somewhat alarmist, it is useful to advance the notion of a more immediate shock to established space security mechanisms, both diplomatic and operational, including space crisis management tools and procedures. Unfortunately, the scenarios offered do not require much of a leap of imagination, given escalating global tensions.

Assuming that the world avoids the unwelcome precedent of a near-term “live” counterspace situation, the substantive space security initiatives presently under way are encouraging and hold real promise. Accelerating assemblage of this policy and technical architecture, however, would be advisable, as some space actors have amply communicated their selective disregard for common behavioural norms and international law, even when the adoption of these norms/laws would be in the longer-term interests of these same actors.


1. Although oil and gas reserves were viewed as a factor in Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, only in late July of this year were the Russians seen positioning drill rigs and associated equipment in Ukraine’s Exclusive Economic Zone in the northern Black Sea. Moscow also towed a jack-up rig (seized from Ukraine during the annexation) from the port of Chornomorske to the Holitsyno gas field under armed guard. These first movements by the Kremlin to exploit Ukraine’s prized energy reserves may well prove a central cause of the escalating tensions in Crimea and eastern Ukraine at the time of writing. (See Ukraine Today 2016).

2. On August 7, 2016 the Japanese government discovered a military radar installation on a Chinese drill rig in the East China Sea that was clearly not needed to support energy field development efforts. In 2015 Beijing moved a large drill rig into Vietnam’s Exclusive Economic Zone, accompanied by several naval vessels and military aircraft. (See The Guardian 2016).

Jana Robinson is Space Security Program Director at the Prague Security Studies Institute (PSSI). She previously served as a Space Policy Officer at the European External Action Service (EEAS) in Brussels as well as a Space Security Advisor to the Foreign Ministry of the Czech Republic.  Robinson holds a PhD from the Charles University’s Faculty of Social Sciences, Institute of Political Studies, in the field of space security.


ESA. 2016. Europe’s spacedatahighway relays first Sentinel-1 Images via laser. June 1.
Guardian, The. 2016. Japan protests over Chinese radar in disputed East China Sea drilling rig, August 7.
Hitchens, Theresa. 2015. Space security: One step forward, two steps back? Space Security Index 2015, ed. Anna Jaikaran.
Majumdar, Dave. 2014. Space cyber attacks: A wake-up call. American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, January14.
Pelegrino, Massimo & Gerald Stang. 2016. Space Security for Europe, EU Institute for Security Studies, Report no. 29, July.
Ukraine Today. 2016. Russia sets up offshore drilling rigs in Ukraine Black Sea waters (video), July 25.
U.S. Government Printing Office. 2008. 2008 Report to Congress of the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, Washington, DC.
UNGA. 20126. Report of the Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space, Fifty-ninth session (8-17 June 2016), A/71/20.

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