How Secure Was Space in 2009?

Cesar Jaramillo Space Security

Author
Cesar Jaramillo

The Ploughshares Monitor Autumn 2010 Volume 31 Issue 3

The complete Space Security 2010 report can be found here. This article will focus on a few of the major findings for 2009.

The newly published Space Security 2010 is the seventh annual report on trends and developments related to security in outer space. It is part of the broader Space Security Index (SSI) project, which aims to improve transparency with respect to space activities and provide a common, comprehensive knowledge base to support the development of national and international policies that contribute to space security.

Collision in space

Perhaps the most remarkable event in 2009, which highlighted current challenges to space security, was the February 11 collision between the US Iridium-33 and the Russian Cosmos-2251 satellites. It demonstrated the need for greater coordination among space actors to prevent harmful interference of space objects and the indiscriminate risks posed by orbital debris.

The collision was neither predicted nor expected, and no avoidance maneuvres were attempted before impact. This event illustrated the inadequacies in even the advanced space situational awareness (SSA) capabilities of the US and underscored the necessity to further improve both the accuracy of the information collected and the way in which it is managed.

The traditional users and providers of SSA data – militaries and intelligence agencies – are still reluctant to provide the services and information that commercial and civil space users need to operate safely, not only because of the sensitive nature of the information on space assets, but also due to cultural and bureaucratic history. The collision also produced significant amounts of space debris, contributing to the 15.6 per cent increase in trackable space debris in 2009. This increase affects space security, because even small pieces of debris can cause serious damage to satellites. Several spacefaring states, including China, Japan, Russia, and the US, and the European Union (EU) have developed debris mitigation standards, and the UN has adopted voluntary guidelines, but these guidelines are yet to be universally and regularly followed.

Toward a global space security regime

Efforts continued at different multilateral forums to advance a process to construct a robust normative framework aimed at regulating the behaviour of spacefaring nations. In 2009, for instance, the European Union submitted a draft Code of Conduct for Outer Space Activities to the Conference on Disarmament (CD) in Geneva, and launched a consultation process to refine the Code before the final version is released in the latter half of 2010. Also at the CD, Canada called for security guarantees, such as a declaration of legal principles or a pledge to ban weapons in space, prohibit attacks on satellites, and prohibit the use of satellites themselves as weapons.

In 2009 the US launched a full review of its national space policy. The Obama administration has shown a degree of willingness to enhance security in outer space through cooperation and consensus. While the language contained in the new National Space Policy suggests a departure from the Bush-era reluctance to embrace any policy that might constrain the ability of the US to operate freely in space, it remains to be seen what position the US leadership will take on specific treaty proposals and Transparency and Confidence-Building Measures.

Russia and China continued to assert that adoption of the Treaty on the Prevention of the Placement of Weapons in Outer Space, the Threat or Use of Force against Outer Space Objects (PPWT) would be the best way to enhance space security. However, the PPWT is still regarded by some as incomplete due to its lack of a verification principle, as well as its inability to shield against ground-based interceptors.

Civil and commercial uses of space

The pool of stakeholders with a direct interest in preserving space as a peaceful domain is steadily growing, as more actors gain access to space and enabling technologies for space exploration become more widely available. While the economic recession had an impact on some aspects of commercial space use, other aspects – such as growth driven by consumer television services – proved immune.
Cooperative efforts and coalitions led to cost-effectiveness in commercial space operations and will likely lead to greater access to space by more actors. A new tendency is emerging whereby satellite operators reduce their reliance on governmental information on space assets by establishing independent surveillance and data-sharing mechanisms, such as the nascent Space Data Association, formed by a group of major satellite operators.

While these developments reinforce the need for a secure and peaceful space environment, friction could result among commercial users if demand for scarce space resources such as orbital slots and radiofrequencies exceeds supply, as is already starting to be the case.

At the same time, military dependence on the commercial sector continues to expand and public-private partnerships are on the rise. The result is a blurring of commercial, civil, and military/security uses of space.

More state actors participate in space ventures

In 2009, more states proceeded to develop military and multiuse space capabilities. While North Korea failed in its attempt to launch a satellite, the Islamic Republic of Iran successfully launched its first, which was built domestically. The Indian Space Research Organisation began to develop space-based support for its military capabilities. Canada continued to develop multi-use space capabilities. Europe moved forward with the Galileo navigation system and deepened military cooperation on space projects. China continued to upgrade space-related technologies. Japan announced details of its Basic Space Plan and Australia released a defence white paper that addressed, inter alia, space situational awareness and access to space-based imagery. Russia established a new national security strategy that will extend until 2020 and continued to move forward with its Global Navigation Satellite System (GLONASS).

The fact that expenditures for space activities did not drop in response to the economic crisis constitutes a positive development that indicates the high priority given by states to their space activities.

It should also be noted that international cooperation, such as the development and launching of UAE and Swiss satellites, is increasing. The most prominent example of international cooperation continues to be the International Space Station (ISS). A multinational effort with a focus on scientific research and an estimated cost of over $100-billion to date, the ISS epitomizes the benefits to be gained from peaceful cooperation on space activities. In 2009 the ISS completed nine years of uninterrupted inhabitancy.

As more states develop the technologies and partnerships required to access space, accessibility of the space environment increases. Further, increased collaboration between developed and developing states allows countries that do not have the requisite technology or resources a chance to experience the benefits of access to space. While increased access is generally considered to be a positive development, the impact of the development of space-based military capabilities by more states can be negative, as the environment becomes congested and the number of potential targets increases.

Preserving space as a weapons-free zone

Space remained weapons-free in 2009.To maintain this state, the prevention of an arms race in outer space (PAROS) remains a priority for policymakers.

There is, however, a growing realization among a number of spacefaring states that outer space is a key military domain. Almost half of all global spending on space is for defense-related programs that provide early warning, communications, weather forecasting, reconnaissance, surveillance, and intelligence, as well as navigation and weapons guidance applications. By the end of 2009 there were over 175 dedicated military satellites worldwide; the US operated roughly half and Russia approximately one quarter.

Moreover, a number of developing technologies are dual-use and have the potential to be used as space-based weapons. Most advanced, space-based strike- enabling technologies are dual-use and are developed through civil, commercial, or military space programs. Large deployable optics, precision attitude control, and advanced navigations systems are all considered to be requisite enabling technologies for an eventual space-based laser.

Recent successful tests conducted by the US Air Force demonstrated the efficacy of air-based laser weapons that could potentially lead to the development of space-based weapons of a similar nature. China, India, and Israel are developing precision attitude control and large deployable optics for civil space telescope missions. Five states, in addition to the European Union, are developing independent, high-precision satellite navigation capabilities. China, India, and the EU are developing Earth-reentry capabilities that may provide a basis for the more advanced technologies required for the delivery of mass-to-target weapons from space to Earth.

The US and Russia in space

Even as several states are making strides in space applications, the US remains, not only the biggest spender on military space programs, but also the most dependent on space systems.While the operational status of many of Russia’s space systems is uncertain, it is known that Russia continued to replace its Soviet-era military space assets in 2009. While the US experienced setbacks in replacing legacy satellite systems, Russia maintained an aggressive satellite launch schedule.

In an effort to protect satellite communication links, the US moved forward in developing US Cyber Command (USCYBERCOM) and the Rapid Attack Identification Dection and Reporting system (RAIDRS). The creation of USCYBERCOM can help the US achieve not only advanced capabilities to combat cyber threats, but also higher levels of security in its space missions. As a result, the US military will be able, in the near future, to detect and identify attacks against its ground and space assets; this ability would have a positive impact on the security of space communications.

As well, the US reiterated its policy of not actively developing “space weapons.” Funding cuts reflected a move away from the development of a missile defence space-based interceptor and the Space Based Surveillance System project remained stalled.

A policymaking tool

Space Security 2010 does not provide absolute positive or negative assessments of 2009 outer space activities. Instead, it indicates the range of implications that developments could have on the security of space across the various indicators and highlights the difficult challenges faced by policymakers. It is the hope of the Space Security Index project partners that this publication will continue to serve as both a reference source and a policymaking tool, with the ultimate goal of enhancing the sustainability of outer space for all users.
From banking to satellite television, from search-and-rescue operations to weather forecasting, the world has become increasingly reliant on the benefits derived from space-based technologies. The key challenge is to maintain an environment for the sustainable development of such peaceful applications while keeping outer space from becoming a battlefield.

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