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Taming The Heavens: The New Space Diplomacy – Analysis


The US and EU recently released documents regarding space security. Should they come to an accord or should the US take the lead?

By Peter A Buxbaum for ISN Insights

In February, the government of the United States issued its first-ever National Security Space Strategy (NSSS), a document jointly produced by the Department of Defense and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. The timing of the release was interesting, coming three months after the Council of the European Union released a draft Code of Conduct for Outer Space Activities.

Skeptics in Washington suspected that the NSSS was a negotiating document released in response to the EU effort, and designed to lead to an accord between the US and the EU on space security. But Republicans in Congress have expressed concerns about some aspects of the EU Code, and appear to have derailed any incipient efforts to reach an agreement. As recently as 4 April, Frank Rose, a Deputy Assistant Secretary of State, told a United Nations conference in Geneva that the US government “hopes to make a decision in the near term as to whether the United States can sign on to this Code, including what, if any, modifications would be necessary.” As a practical matter, little appears to have been achieved in this area.

Freedom versus congestion

The unclassified NSSS summary released to the public and the draft Code both seek to preserve the freedom of navigation in outer space for peaceful purposes, but are short on details. Speaking to the National Space Symposium in Colorado Springs, Colorado in April, Gregory Shulte, the US Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Space Policy remarked that the NSSS was developed because “space is increasingly congested, competitive, and contested.”

Congestion in space – there are 1,100 active systems in orbit and 21,000 pieces of debris – threatens US national security, according to Shulte, because of the possibility of collisions between space objects or interference with their transmissions. Shulte also noted that competition among nations in the realm of space technology means that “the US competitive advantage in space has decreased”: eleven countries now operate 22 launch sites and 60 nations currently operate satellites. Furthermore, US adversaries such as China and Iran have developed capabilities to “disrupt and disable satellites.”

Perhaps most important from the US perspective, space is no longer its own private preserve: The US share of the worldwide space market dropped from two-thirds in 1997 to one-third in 2008, according to Shulte.

The NSSS seeks to address congestion “by establishing norms, enhancing space situational awareness, and fostering greater transparency and information sharing”; competition, “by enhancing our own capabilities”; and the contested environment by “establishing international norms and transparency and confidence-building measures in space…”

The draft Code of Conduct for Outer Space Activities articulates seemingly non-controversial general principles such as “freedom of access to space for peaceful purposes” and “preservation of the security and integrity of space objects in orbit.” The document calls on subscribing states to reaffirm their commitment to the existing legal framework relating to outer space activities–some eleven international accords and declarations of principles–and to refrain from actions which would damage or destroy outer space objects and generate excessive space debris. The Code also establishes a consultation mechanism to resolve disputes among nations over space activities.

Balancing security with stability

Nonetheless, US consideration of the European document has drawn expressions of concern from Republicans in Washington. In February, a group of 37 Republican senators wrote a letter to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton detailing their unease about how norms articulated in the EU code might impact US space activities. High on their list of concerns was what impact signing the Code may have on a US decision to deploy missile defense interceptors in space.

These concerns were apparently triggered by Section 4.5 of the Code, which calls for “the prevention of an arms race in outer space.”

Laura Grego, a scientist in the Union of Concerned Scientists’ Global Security Program told ISN Insights that the “Code does not mention space weapons of any kind, nor would it meaningfully limit their development.” The senators’ attempt at “inhibiting these initial efforts to establish norms is shortsighted and counterproductive,” she said.

“Norms are a modest step in the right direction,” Grego added, “but leave many of the serious problems of space security unaddressed. Without robust constraints on anti-satellite weapons, threats to satellites will continue to proliferate and mature, requiring the United States to expend more effort securing satellites and leading to less predictability and stability in crises.”

US diplomacy and engagement

The NSSS does not go far enough, in Grego’s opinion. She criticized the document for failing to emphasize arms control agreements “as part of a larger scheme for keeping space secure” and for failing to recommend that the United States take the lead on space diplomacy. Well-crafted arms control proposals could lower the risk of arms races or conflicts in space or on the ground, Grego said, and protect the space environment from the harmful debris caused when countries deliberately destroy satellites.

“A more robust diplomatic initiative that includes the major space-faring countries would have the potential to increase cooperation with countries that are not traditional US military allies,” she added, “and spur other countries to develop realistic proposals that could ensure a safe and sustainable future in space. Diplomatic engagement could help relieve suspicions among countries, reduce incentives for building anti-satellite systems and other space weapons by establishing negotiated limits, and avert space disputes.”

The UCS released a report last year which called for the US government to “declare that the United States will not intentionally damage or disable satellites” and “press other space powers to make the same pledge.” The report recommended that the US make satellites “more resistant to interference and develop ways to quickly replace them or compensate with other measures if they are disabled.” The report also called for the US to assemble an expert negotiating team and to “engage in international discussions on space.”

“The United States should play an active and leading role in engaging the international community to further develop space laws and norms and to keep space free of weapons,” said Grego. “A Code of Conduct provides a useful but preliminary standard for responsible space conduct. It should be a first step, but not the last.”

Peter A Buxbaum, a Washington, DC-based independent journalist, has been writing about defense, security, business and technology for 15 years. His work has appeared in publications such as Fortune, Forbes, Chief Executive, Information Week, Defense Technology International, Homeland Security and Computerworld. He holds a Juris doctorate from Temple University and a Bachelor’s in political science and economics from Columbia University. His website is Published by International Relations and Security Network (ISN)

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