Outer space: The latest security assessment

Ploughshares Space Security

For a small but increasing number of states, space services provide the capability to deploy military personnel globally and apply force more efficiently and effectively. Increasingly, these states view space as a sphere to be dominated and defended. Space is not insulated from conflict on Earth, and it can unpredictably escalate crises on the ground or be the spark that starts one.

Published in The Ploughshares Monitor Volume 38 Issue 3 Autumn 2017 by Laura Grego

China’s arrival

In 2016, the United States and China were tied for the greatest number of space launch attempts (22), and China pulled ahead of Russia in the number of operating satellites. This year saw the successful maiden flights of China’s heavy-lift Long March 5 and Long March 7, which will be the “workhorse” launcher for China. China now fields a complement of communications satellites; intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance satellites; and position, navigation, and timing satellites. It has announced ambitious plans for space exploration and has sought regional and international cooperative relationships for space activities.

While not one of the Outer Space Treaty’s founding states, China did become a signatory a decade later. In international forums and in domestic declaratory policy, it has frequently urged that limits be negotiated on space weapons. China cooperated with Russia to draft and promote the Treaty on the Prevention of the Placement of Weapons in Outer Space (PPWT).

Anti-satellite weapons develop and proliferate

States—and, increasingly, sub-state actors—have been developing technologies that can be used to interfere with satellites. Not all such technologies are equally dangerous, and it may be possible to prioritize appropriate limits. Signals jamming, for example, is relatively low-tech, but is also limited temporally and spatially in its effects; identification of the perpetrator is straightforward, even if remedies for the interference are less so. More concerning are technologies with a strategic-sized capability, or which are stealthy and hard to attribute, or which make intent difficult to discern; these technologies can take new and unpredictable paths to crisis escalation. The inventories of such weapons are growing and relevant technology is proliferating.

Midcourse missile defence systems are of particular concern. Long-range ballistic missiles and satellites travel at similar speeds on similar trajectories, so the heart of these systems—the “kill” mechanism—can be used against either missiles or satellites. In fact, they’re likely to be much more effective against satellites, which travel on repeated, predictable orbits.

The United States has an enormous advantage in missile defence capacity and sophistication. It has two missile defence systems that use hit-to-kill interceptors that could target satellites. The current fleet of Aegis interceptors can reach only satellites at the very lowest altitudes, at which satellites are very nearly de-orbiting. But the next generation of interceptors, the SM-3 IIA, should be able to reach any satellite in low Earth orbit (Grego 2011).

China has reportedly tested hit-to-kill interceptors a number of times, both against a satellite in 2007 and subsequently against ballistic missiles. China has also demonstrated a high-altitude rocket that could potentially bring those interceptors in reach of satellites in geosynchronous orbits. Little is known publicly about the state of its development program and the numbers and types of interceptors China plans to field.

While Russia has long had a modest missile defence system for Moscow, it has begun work on another ground-based system, “Nudol,” which reportedly has an anti-satellite mission. Russia upped the tempo on this system, reportedly flight testing it three times in 2016. (It is not clear whether it was tested against a target.)

Other countries continue research and development of these systems. As ballistic missiles proliferate, more states may seek defences.

More complex, but just as concerning, are technologies that can be used both for peaceful and aggressive purposes. A prime example is satellites that are nimble on orbit and can closely approach another satellite without that satellite’s cooperation. These “proximity operations” can be peaceful—inspecting or repairing a satellite, or salvaging or bringing a failed satellite safely out of orbit. But they can also facilitate interference with a satellite, since damaging a satellite is easier at close ranges and low relative speeds.

Small satellites

The miniaturization of relevant technologies has led to the possibility of using smaller, lighter, and cheaper satellites to provide useful capability. Increasingly, small satellites are taking up significant parts of the payload of large launches; in February 2017, India launched 103 small satellites along with a larger payload. Launchers dedicated to launching multiple small satellites are being developed. Small satellites are likely to play an increasing role in any number of space endeavours.

Commercial space innovations

A number of constellations of huge numbers of satellites are being planned, primarily to provide broadband internet globally, some to collect Earth observation data. In 2016, commercial companies filed for U.S. Federal Communications Commission licences for 8,731 non-geostationary communications satellites, including 4,425 for SpaceX, nearly 3,000 for Boeing, and 720 for OneWeb. (The total number of operating satellites today is about 1,500.)

Other transformative satellite-based capabilities now provided by private companies include the publicly available, constant imaging of Earth; timely weather forecasting; and better maritime tracking. A number of new companies are developing commercial synthetic aperture radar (SAR) capabilities, which can provide high-resolution Earth imagery at night or during cloud cover.

Global governance under stress

Governance is becoming less global and is fracturing into smaller domains as actors respond to their perceived needs. For example, some states, such as the United States, Luxembourg, and the United Arab Emirates, seek to create a favourable legal and regulatory environment for private companies to pursue resource extraction on celestial bodies.

Should trends continue, the traditional balance of civilian-governmental-military uses of space will be shifted heavily toward commercial space, with militaries a significant part of the customer base. But companies are unlikely to wait for slow-moving bureaucratic processes to catch up and will exert pressure to shape the legal regime to their preferences.

The venue where space security and arms control initiatives are to be discussed, the UN Conference on Disarmament, has been moribund for two decades, and little serious effort has been made to bridge the divides between groups of states parties. Efforts to negotiate and sign an International Code of Conduct for Space have derailed, despite the successful assembling of relevant parties in New York in 2015 for the negotiation of the Code’s language. While a UN Group of Governmental Experts completed their work in 2015 on a draft set of transparency and confidence-building measures for space, little has been done to implement them.

Without a renewed commitment by state actors, global governance will not be up to the task of shaping trends to ensure that space remains sustainable and secure, with its benefits equitably enjoyed. Judging from the slow progress of recent years, the going will be tough. However, there are bright spots, as well as reasons to think that robust engagement from the civil sector will play an important role.

Positive signs

The UN Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS) has been steadily making progress on a number of issues. In 2016, COPUOS concluded negotiations on a set of 12 draft Long Term Sustainability Guidelines, and was poised to agree on more. COPUOS shepherded 84 states to agreement on seven themes for a formal marking of UNISPACE+50 in 2018. COPUOS identified clearly how important a secure and sustainable space environment is by connecting it to the UN 2030 Sustainable Development Goals, creating an important shared vision that resonates deeply with the original principle of the Outer Space Treaty, that space activities should be “to the benefit and in the interests of all countries, irrespective of their degree of economic or scientific development.”

The importance of initiating high-level bilateral and multilateral dialogues on civil and security aspects of space should be noted, as should the accession of India to the Missile Technology Control Regime and The Hague ballistic missile code of conduct.

Last year saw the inception of an effort to clarify what existing law says about military uses of outer space. The McGill Centre for Research in Air and Space Law and The University of Adelaide Research Unit on Military Law and Ethics have spearheaded a project to draft the Manual on the International Law Applicable to the Military Use of Outer Space (McGill University 2017), in the vein of the Tallinn Manual on Cyber Operations (NATO CCDCOE).

Looking forward

The global governance regime is being stressed by rapid technological innovation and geopolitical realities. If disparate interests carve out their own fragmented areas of influence, the most advanced and richest could reserve the benefits of space for themselves and leave the rest behind. But a different future is possible.

The golden anniversary of the Outer Space Treaty is a prime opportunity for the three depository states (United States, United Kingdom, Russia) to provide leadership and to convene a meeting, such as a review conference to provide clarifying discussions about how different states view the balancing of freedom to use space for peaceful purposes, due regard to other actors, and the use of space to benefit all humankind. Or perhaps a new generation of space states or civil society will take the lead. The sense that space is fundamentally for peaceful purposes and that its use must be for the benefit of all humankind needs to be reaffirmed by practice and rhetoric, and the Treaty’s basic principles must be elaborated to govern new challenges.

Dr. Laura Grego is Senior Scientist, Global Security Program, with the Union of Concerned Scientists. This article is taken from Dr. Grego’s Global Assessment, “50 years after the Outer Space Treaty: How secure is space?” found in Space Security Index 2017.



Grego, Laura. 2011. The AntiSatellite Capability of the Phased Adaptive Approach Missile Defense System, Federation of American Scientists
Public Interest Report, Winter.
McGill University. 2017. What is the MILAMOS Project?
North Atlantic Treaty Organization Cooperative Cyber Defence Centre of Excellence. 2017. Tallinn Manual 2.0 on the International Law Applicable
to Cyber Operations to be launched. February 2.

Spread the Word