Strengthening Space Security

October 14, 2009

Event report by Jim Wurst

(L-R): John Steinbruner, Nancy Gallagher, Cesar Jaramillo

Technology in outer space is outpacing the global legal regime governing their use. New arrangements are therefore needed to ensure that space is kept safe for peaceful purposes. On October 14, the Global Security Institute and the Government of Canada co-sponsored a panel at the United Nations to discuss the issue. Rhianna Tyson Kreger, the Senior Officer of GSI, chaired the panel.

Ambassador Marius Grinius, Canada’s representative to the Conference on Disarmament (CD), said, “Canada has long recognized that there is a distinct and significant role for civil society to play in advancing efforts to ensure space security not only at present, but for the foreseeable future. This is even more important as we recognize the growing importance of space as critical infrastructure for our national economies and our national security interests.” He pointed out that Ottawa had, in response to a request from the Secretary-General to all member states, submitted proposals for transparency and confidence-building measures:

Ambassador Marius Grinius

(a) a ban on the placement of weapons in outer space;

(b) the prohibition of the testing and use of weapons on satellites so as to damage or destroy them; and,

(c) the prohibition of the use of satellites themselves as weapons.

“It is our hope that these efforts will contribute to awareness building and stimulate debate within and outside ‘officialdom’ on the critical elements needed to preserve the space environment for its secure, safe and sustainable use well into the future,” Grinius said. This Canadian proposal figured prominently in the panel’s discussions.

Cesar Jaramillo of Project Ploughshares in Canada discussed the 2009 edition of the report, Space Security 2009. He called the project “policy-neutral” but was informed by the Outer Space Treaty’s precepts that “space should be preserved as global commons to be used by all for peaceful purposes.” Jaramillo, Managing Editor of the report, monitors changes in outer space security along three key themes: the condition of the operating environment, such as the risks posed by space debris; the number and diversity of actors in space; and the status of space-related technology as it relates to protecting or interfering with space systems, or harming the earth from space.

Cesar Jaramillo and Rhianna Tyson Kreger

He noted that not all the trends highlighted in the report are necessarily detrimental to space security; often the opposite is the case such as the use of space for disaster prevention, communications and scientific research. Nevertheless, he said, there are issues that must be a focus of the international community “lest the status of state as a peaceful global commons be gravely jeopardized.”

The next two speakers were Dr. John D. Steinbruner, the Director of the Center for International and Security Studies at the University of Maryland, and Dr. Nancy Gallagher , the Associate Director for Research at the Center. They are the co-authors of a report published by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences titled “Reconsidering the Rules for Space Security”that argues the US should abandon policies to “outspend and out-innovate all potential rivals in space” and concentrate on negotiations to build on the Outer Space Treaty in order to address the central issues of space security.

Steinbruner said the report is premised on the contention that the use of space is in “a process of gradual and lengthy transformation” in which existing legal financial and institutional arrangements are “incompletely adapted to the expansion” of that process.

The inadequacy of the legal regime is underscored in the context of what he called national “aspirations” of some in the US to dominate space for military advantage and denying any similar effort by any other country. These aspirations are more often noted aboard than in the US itself, therefore he argued that there needs to be a broader national debate within the US on these proposals.

Steinbruner and Gallagher

Steinbruner called for renewed international discussions to specify permitted and prohibited activities in space, such as a prohibition of acts of interference, defined limits on military support functions and equitable sharing of information of common interest, such as tracking debris. Such rules will require discussions that have not happened, he said. There is a need for negotiations for a new legal regime, but that will require a change in US policy – something that has not happened in 30 years. Steinbruner said he did not know if such a change will occur, but ultimately it will have to happen since it “better reflects fundamental US interests.” The alternative – the “impulse for dominance or decisive competitive advantages” – “is not legitimate in the global judgment” and is not possible at a “realistic cost,” he said.

Picking up on this point, Gallagher asserted that the US plan for dominating space is neither technologically nor economically feasible. She noted that Barak Obama campaigned on a more cooperative approach to space security, but his administration has not yet indicated its plans. She argued for a new “reassurance-based approach to space security,” based on two inter-related dimensions: 1. a military dimension in which you protect your satellites from interference and prevent others from using space to threaten you; 2. an environmental side in which you prevent activities that “degrade the common resource” of space for future users.

Gallagher said that current proposals for space security all had weaknesses. For example, she said, the Chinese/Russian plan does not ban tests of debris-generating ASATs, while the EU draft Code of Conduct – while strengthening norms – would be non-binding. Two important insights in the Canadian proposal are that any new rules will have to address both the military and environmental aspects and, given the dual-use nature of space technology, “the best way to protect legitimate uses of space and prevent hostile or reckless ones is to control behavior rather than basic capabilities.” Such a “reassurance-based approach” is needed since factors that shaped earthbound security during the Cold War do not apply to space. Specifically, she noted that there is no Cold War style superpower adversity among the space-faring countries, the relevant technology is widely used by military, civilian and commercial users from many countries, and “the same capabilities can be used in benign, beneficial purposes and in hostile or recklessly irresponsible ones.” Therefore the guiding principle should not be the competition for dominance but a set of arrangements that would provide all space users with two types of reassurance: the ability to use space for peaceful purposes without being threaten and the reassurance the other will not use space to threaten terrestrial security. She said both principles are in the Outer Space Treaty but that space-faring nations should make declarations reiterating their support for the Treaty.

Sergey Rogov

Although he was not a scheduled panelist, Sergey Rogov, the Director of the Russian Academy of Sciences at the Institute for the US and Canadian Studies, was given the floor for a presentation. Rogov, who noted that he was not speaking for the Russian government, said Russia has a different perspective on space security than that of the United States. While the US has proposals for space-based platforms to attack the ground with non-nuclear weapons, Russia has “a great interest” in banning military activities in space. Such an approach, he said, had more direct benefits for security. Rogov said there should be a ban on all attack systems in space. He said that since US and Russia were the most advanced nations in utilizing space, their “reset” process on START and ballistic missile defenses should also be applied to space. The next steps, Rogov said, would be to engage the next three largest players and then move the talks to the CD.

During the discussion phase, panelists and the audience roundly criticized any plans for weaponization of space, in particular space-based ballistic missile defenses. Such proposals were “completely unrealistic” and expensive. A related concern was the need to ban space-based interceptors which could – in theory – be used against terrestrial targets or as satellite killers. Any such attempts would provoke counter-measures from other space-faring countries, further eroding the principles of the Outer Space Treaty.

The US plan for “full spectrum dominance” in space was also criticized. Despite the aggressive rhetoric coming from the Pentagon, most relevant projects are behind schedule, over budget, and not producing transformative capabilities. Since the Obama administration administration’s space policy is “still speculative,” participants argued that it would be easy for Obama to agree to negotiations. For instance, the CD’s program of work has a space element.

Another major concern was the any new legal regime had to be extremely specific with a uniform set of rules for all space actors.

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