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Space Code Of Conduct: An Australian Perspective – Analysis

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By Brett Biddington

Australia has announced that it supports the Space Code of Conduct initiative sponsored by the European Union.1 A question that might well be asked is why should Australia care about such matters? Why do we not leave this to the spacefaring nations of the world to resolve, to those who design, build, launch and operate satellites?

The answer is clear. All nations on earth now have critical and growing dependence on assured and secure access to the three space-based utilities – data from earth observation satellites, access to the timing signals from Global Navigation Satellite Systems (GNSS) and access to communications satellites to serve remote and regional areas as well as ships and aircraft wherever they happen to be in the world. Most nations are not spacefaring and never will be, but their dependence on services provided by others continues to grow as the global economy becomes ever more integrated and tightly coupled.

Australia is in the process of finalising a national space policy, for release later in 2012, which is likely to emphasise the importance to Australia of assured and secure access to space-based applications. Almost certainly, the policy will also re-affirm Australia’s commitment to the international norm that space is a global commons which needs to be protected and managed for the benefit of all of humankind.2

In 2009, the Australian Government published a Defence White Paper, Force 2030: Defending Australia in the Asia Pacific Century, which places considerable, and unprecedented emphasis on the importance of space to Australia’s defence.3 The 2009 White Paper indicated that Australia was preparing to become more actively involved in space security matters, initially by developing a cadre of space experts within Defence and the Australian Defence Force and by developing capability in Space Situational Awareness. Until this document was published, Australia had been largely content to leave questions of space security to the United States in the context of strong and enduring alliance arrangements.

In November 2010, at the annual Australian/United States Ministerial talks (AUSMIN), held in Melbourne Australia, the two countries signed an agreement to cooperate more closely on SSA matters.4 The most recent version of the Defence Capability Plan (June 2012) includes a new project, JP3029, under which a ground-based SSA radar is proposed to be brought from the United States and installed, possibly near North West Cape, in Western Australia perhaps as soon as 2014.5 The project description in the public version of the DCP notes:

The ADF requires the capability to gain and maintain awareness of activities in space and determine whether these activities will affect Australia’s national interest in order to inform the relevant decision makers. The ADF has a limited understanding of space-based threats and no ability to monitor space-based objects, and depends on the United States of America (US) for Space Situational Awareness (SSA) information. The limited coverage in the southern hemisphere by the US Space Surveillance Network (SSN) degrades the monitoring of space launches in our region and the ability to assess satellites and debris passing across the region.6

Importantly, parts of government beyond Defence increasingly understand just how important assured and secure access to space based services is for the broader economy. The energy, utilities, transport, agriculture and finance sectors would all suffer severe negative impacts if they were unable to access data provided by satellites.

A small company based in Canberra, called Electro-Optic Systems (EOS), is leading a bid to gain Australian Government support to form a Cooperative Research Centre (CRC) in Space Environment Management (SEM).7 The CRC program is a long-running competitive program by which researchers from all discipline areas compete for funds for long term applied research. Although the success of the SEM CRC application will not be known for some time, the fact that the application was lodged at all is an indicator of a wider awakening in Australia about the fragility of the space environment and the realisation that, in the Low Earth Orbits (LEO) especially, space is indeed becoming congested and contested.

The broader point is that the various parts of the Australian Government, not only Defence, as well as researchers and industry recognise that the space regulatory regime which was established in the Cold War is no longer capable of providing the levels of assurance that space faring nations need, and on which the rest depend, to continue to invest in the space enterprise. Countries such as Australia, which are sophisticated users of space-based services, have a responsibility, in their own interests and on behalf of others, to encourage the spacefaring nations to develop a sense of common cause and shared purpose sufficient to ensure that space remains open and accessible to the benefit of all.

There have been objections from international commentators that a space Code of Conduct is unenforceable and therefore not worth bothering with. This view is simplistic and overlooks the reality of all international regulation that national states will be bound only to the extent that their vital national interests are not threatened or compromised. The value of the Code of Conduct approach is as much in the conversation as it is in the outcome. The lexicon of space and the mental constructs by which the global community approaches space matters has been and continues to be driven from Washington. The United States has been the pre-eminent space power for a long time and its interests and concerns have framed the international debate. Although the United States remains pre-eminent, China and India are rapidly emerging as space powers in their own right. These two nations are seeking to enter and influence a conversation at a time that the space environment is changing – openness in the LEO domain especially, is giving way to clutter. At the same time, the United States is struggling to define its own future in space. Delay, cost over-runs and bureaucratic confusion characterises numerous national security programs, NASA is struggling to define its continuing relevance, the space workforce is aging and not being replaced and companies with commercial ambitions in space are becoming restive.

Now is precisely the time for a structured international conversation to occur about the future regulation of space. That the conversation is framed around a Code of Conduct is not of great importance. What matters is that the conversation is taking place. With conversation comes trust and confidence-building. Initially these values are likely to be confined to the conference table. This writer, however, is optimistic that such behaviours will gradually extend into practice as all space faring nations come to accept that they have a lot more to lose than gain by abiding by a small number of operating principles as they pursue their future ambitions in space.

(The writer is the chair of the Space Industry Association of Australia and sits on several boards and advisory committees that are concerned with the governance of Australian space and astronomy activities. He also owns a Canberra-based consulting company, Biddington Research Pty Ltd which specialises in space and cyber security matters. He is also an Adjunct Professor in the School of Computer and Security Science at Edith Cowan University in Perth, Western Australia).

Bibliography

AUSMIN 2010 Joint Communiqué, Melbourne, 8 November.

Department of Defence, Force 2030: Defending Australia in the Asia Pacific Century, Canberra, 2009

Department of Defence, Defence Capability Plan: Public version, 2012, Canberra, 2012.

Department of Industry, Innovation Science, Research and Tertiary Education (DIISTRE), Principles for a National Industry Space Policy, Canberra, 2011. Available at www.space.gov.au .

Electro Optic Systems, see: http://www.eos-aus.com/

Rudd, The Hon Kevin, MP, Foreign Minister, Australia joins fight against space junk, media release, 18 Jan 2012, http://www.foreignminister.gov.au/releases/2012/kr_mr_120118.html.
1 Hon Kevin Rudd, MP. Foreign Minister, Australia joins fight against space junk, media release, 18 Jan 2012, http://www.foreignminister.gov.au/releases/2012/kr_mr_120118.html

2 See Department of Industry, Innovation Science, Research and Tertiary Education (DIISTRE), Principles for a National Industry Space Policy, Canberra, 2011. Available at www.space.gov.au

3 Department of Defence, Force 2030: Defending Australia in the Asia Pacific Century, Canberra, 2009

4 AUSMIN 2010 Joint Communiqué, Melbourne, 8 November.

5 Department of Defence, Defence Capability Plan: Public version, 2012, Canberra, 2012, p165-6.

6 ibid. p165.

7 see: http://www.eos-aus.com/ ,for an overview of EOS

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