Outer space: New and old challenges

Jessica West Space Security

Ploughshares program officer Jessica West was among the speakers who addressed outer space security at the UN First Committee meetings in October. She focused on trends in outer space governance and how they relate to the key tenets of the Outer Space Treaty.

Published in The Ploughshares Monitor Volume 38 Issue 4 Winter 2017

Responding to new and old challenges

As West noted, various space actors are pursuing different paths and it is the role of the United Nations to bring these efforts together and maintain a coherent governance framework for outer space. World leaders must carefully consider safety, security, and sustainability when exploring the governance of outer space. The current inability to address at the international level the hard questions related to national security and potential warfare in space could cause the entire regulatory structure to crumble.

Access to outer space is flourishing, largely because of the success of the Outer Space Treaty in creating and maintaining a secure environment. But space is being used in ways not even imagined 50 years ago. These changes bring new—and revive some old—challenges.

The risk of warfare in outer space is growing. Partly this is because of various technology developments, which are made more dangerous by rising geopolitical tensions, a growing willingness to approach outer space as a domain of warfare, and ongoing international failure to agree to new restraints on the use of force in outer space.

West argued that more needs to be done to reinforce the key values of the Outer Space Treaty and the security of outer space. A lot is going on in outer space governance at the national level, with the private sector, civil society, and academic institutions increasingly influential. But these efforts could lead to the fragmentation of international space governance. The role of the United Nations should be to see that everyone moves in the same direction at a manageable pace.

But the UN is itself fragmented, only seeing success in certain elements of space security.

What’s happening at the UN?

West took a cautiously optimistic view of progress being made at the Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS), which has been developing voluntary guidelines that bring together best practices on working safely and sustainably in outer space.  Still, activities in outer space have the potential to outpace the developments of guidelines. For example, measures to prevent the creation of debris in outer space increasingly appear inadequate in the face of new proposals for large constellations of satellites.

A number of programs at the UN Office for Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA) contribute to universalizing the benefits of outer space. And maintaining the Registry of Space Objects is a key contribution to transparency, which could provide a model for additional initiatives.

On the negative side, the UN has not been successful in addressing geopolitical tensions related to the potential for an arms race or warfare in outer space. West noted that the Conference on Disarmament has been deadlocked for so many years that “I’ve lost count.” Efforts to develop a treaty banning weapons and the use of force in outer space have been divisive. And attempts to develop a voluntary code of conduct outside the UN machinery have dissolved, at least for the time being.

A way forward?

West highlighted two new initiatives intended to advance this stagnating process.

The first involves discussions at the UN Disarmament Commission on a joint working paper by the United States, Russia, and China to promote practical efforts to implement the recommendations in the 2014 report by the Group of Governmental Experts (GGE) on transparency and confidence-building measures. West urged greater focus on transparency of military programs.

The second proposal, by China and Russia, involves the creation of a Group of Governmental Experts on preventing an arms race in outer space. While a resolution on PAROS is adopted by consensus every year at the UN, efforts to implement it have stumbled. This proposal, West believes, could move the agenda forward, particularly if the GGE has the leeway to examine a wide range of options and challenges.

Ideally, these two initiatives would ultimately reinforce each another. However, early indications suggest that mistrust, geopolitical tensions, and unyielding political preferences will continue to hold sway.

Holding the pieces together

To accomplish anything, West stated, it was necessary to build trust and relationships among global players in outer space. Governance efforts at the UN require more coordination—as is generally recognized. UN bodies must remain engaged with national governance efforts, and build on initiatives to involve the private sector and civil society.

The UN, West believes, has an important role to play in the security of outer space. It must not let itself be left behind.

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