A fracturing of priorities

Theresa Hitchens Space Security

Theresa Hitchens

Published in The Ploughshares Monitor Volume 36 Issue 3 Autumn 2015

As more nations participate in outer space endeavours, efforts toward multilateral governance are under threat

Humanity’s endeavours in outer space are largely driven by two oppositional motives: competition among states for prestige, economic/societal gain, and military advantage; and the need for cooperation among space actors to ensure a safe and peaceful operating environment in which spacecraft can operate.

The number of space actors has grown to more than 70 states and independent organizations. The growing diversity of space actors—from major powers to developing countries to globalized commercial ventures to “space entrepreneurs” to universities—has resulted in a fracturing of priorities.

International cooperation on mutual threats in space, such as the growth of the debris population and the lack of sufficient space situational awareness (SSA) capabilities, is improving, slowly. States generally recognize and agree that transparency and confidence among space actors must be improved, and that norm setting, at least through voluntary measures, is needed to govern behaviour in space. At the same time, competition among states—especially in the military space sphere—is simmering.

Unfortunately, growing national security tensions among the major space actors threaten to negate the painstaking efforts toward multilateral governance. As the geopolitical currents have become more turbulent (particularly, but not solely, due to the souring of relations between the Russian Federation and the West and the increasingly prickly relationship between the United States and China), the likelihood of more rapid development of a workable international governance model has diminished.

More space actors, satellites = more problems

In January 2015 there were more than 1,265 operational satellites in orbit. The competition for prime orbital real estate is getting more intense.

The biggest population explosion in space is of commercially operated CubeSats, miniaturized satellites, usually with a volume of exactly one litre (10-centimetre cube). CubeSats were originally designed for research and educational purposes, but commercial ventures now have begun investment in operational systems. In 2014, 132 CubeSats were launched.

While CubeSats are making low-cost access to space-based services more widely available, the Low-Earth Orbit (LEO) in which they operate is getting crowded. Overcrowding in space can lead to radio frequency interference. However, the greatest concern is increased debris—small and large objects generated by human activity in space.

The U.S. Space Surveillance Network currently tracks about 23,000 pieces of space debris 10 centimetres or larger, most of it in LEO. There are thousands and maybe millions of smaller pieces of untrackable debris. Debris can damage or destroy an active satellite in a collision. Many CubeSats have no propulsion systems onboard and so no ability for active de-orbiting; at the end of their lives they become debris.

National security concerns

In January 2014 U.S. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper said, “Threats to U.S. space services will increase during 2014 and beyond as potential adversaries pursue disruptive and destructive counterspace capabilities…. Chinese and Russian military leaders understand the unique information advantages afforded by space systems and are developing capabilities to disrupt U.S. use of space in conflict” (SpaceNews 2014).

The U.S. lead in military space capabilities is starting to shrink. Over the past several decades, the United States has far outpaced all other nations in the use of satellites to achieve military advantage on the ground. That near-monopoly has begun to erode, however, as other nations—particularly China, which has a robust satellite development program—seek to gain similar military advantage. Russia, the European Union, India, and Israel also have significant military space capabilities and are pursuing further development. As space assets are becoming increasingly critical to successful military operations on the ground, sea, and air, they are increasingly seen by wary national militaries as potential targets in warfare.

Cooperation falters

With tensions among the big three players on military space at perhaps an all-time high, it is no wonder that multilateral efforts to build confidence and spur cooperation are beginning to sputter.

Between 2008 and mid-2013, three major multilateral initiatives aimed at building transparency and confidence and developing “rules of the road” for space were begun.

In 2008 the European Union released a draft code of conduct for outer space activities. The code, designed as a voluntary but politically binding instrument, is primarily a norm-setting exercise that looks to distinguish between responsible and irresponsible behaviour in space. The latest revised draft was released in May 2015.
In 2010 the United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (UN COPUOS) established the Working Group on the Long-term Sustainability of Outer Space to develop a set of voluntary “best practices” for space activities. The draft guidelines that are now being negotiated would have an effect on the conduct of national security space activities.

In 2011 the UN General Assembly’s First Committee—the body responsible for international security affairs—called on the Secretary-General to establish a Group of Governmental Experts on transparency and confidence-building measures in space. The 15-member GGE issued a report in July 2013, which was adopted by the General Assembly.

The success of the GGE was seen as a milestone, since it is the first UN agreement in many years to focus directly on improving space security. It also raised hopes that the other two negotiation processes would also be successful; taken together, the initiatives could create a new governance framework for outer space. However, by August 2015, the multilateral climate had substantially soured.

The May version of the EU draft code was the basis of a meeting held in New York from 27-31 July 2015. There were substantially divergent views on both the scope of the code and the negotiation process. Essentially, the meeting brought to a head the division between a coalition of Russia, China, Brazil, India, South Africa, and some Non-Aligned Movement states and the EU countries supported by the United States, Australia, and Japan. It is now abundantly clear that the code proposal is either indefinitely stalled or will devolve into an agreement by a coalition of willing Western states.

The COPUOS discussion has also bogged down. This past February Russia submitted a complicated set of amendments and working papers. Particularly controversial is its proposal to incorporate an official interpretation of “self-defence” in space, a task that has eluded lawyers for almost 50 years. The last meeting of the Working Group was in June; participants generally left with feelings of frustration.

Not much has yet come of the GGE exercise. So far, no government has moved to take up substantial work to implement the recommendations. There is some hope for the first-ever joint meeting of the UN First Committee and the Fourth Committee (which deals with scientific issues and COPUOS) on challenges to space security and sustainability, to be held this October.

Opportunities and obstacles

Some progress is being made. The United States continues to expand its data-sharing program, primarily aimed at providing collision warning. In 2014 the United States signed agreements with France, Japan, the European Organisation for the Exploitation of Meteorological Satellites (EUMETSAT), South Korea, and the European Space Agency. The United States has an SSA-sharing agreement with Italy and, as of 28 January 2015, with Germany, plus agreements with 46 commercial entities in 16 countries. In September 2014 the United States signed a Memorandum of Understanding for Combined Space Operations initiative with Australia, Canada, and the United Kingdom. In December 2014 the United States and China simplified the path to transmit collision-warning data from the United States to Chinese satellite operators.

Still, there is more that the United States could do to improve SSA data and data sharing, particularly with private sector actors. In addition, Russia, China, India, the EU, and other countries with SSA capabilities could work together to share their data more openly, including with the United States. Currently, the data flow is mostly a one-way street.

Russia submitted a proposal at the most recent meeting of the COPUOS Long-term Sustainability Working Group that a UN-managed space object database be seriously studied. Russia foresees the database being managed by the UN Office for Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA), which would initially gather data from states. At a later stage UNOOSA might provide conjunction analysis.

While the proposal faces opposition, from the United States in particular, there is widespread agreement that better access for all space operators to SSA data is a much-needed transparency and safety measure. The United States is considering a counter-proposal to create an informal international group to discuss the challenges to space object data-sharing. The creation of such a body would help to increase buy-in by a wide range of space actors, including commercial operators.

More cooperative activity could happen in the area of active debris removal and on-orbiting servicing. A key problem is that there is no legal definition of space debris. Further, under the Outer Space Treaty, it is illegal for a nation or commercial entity to remove a piece of debris without obtaining permission from the “owner” of that object, but identifying who owns what pieces of debris remains a problem.

Multilateral efforts to restrain negative competition in space remain critical. It should be clear that if we fail to “hang together” in protecting the space environment, we will “all hang separately,” as our ability to benefit from space resources diminishes over time. There are opportunities for states—at the unilateral, regional, and multilateral levels—and for the nongovernmental and private sectors to take actions that will continue to move the world toward a safer, more sustainable, and more secure environment in space.

SpaceNews. 2014. Intelligence director cites threats to U.S. satellite. February 10.

Theresa Hitchens is a Senior Research Scholar at the Center for International and Security Studies at Maryland, University of Maryland. This article is taken from a longer assessment of space security found in Space Security Index 2015, to be published in October.

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