Commentary | Addressing the Challenges of Space Security

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In June 2010, President Barack Obama signed the latest U.S. National Space Policy. The 2010 policy acknowledged the changes in the outer space environment since the 2006 National Space Policy was released. The interconnected nature of space capabilities and the world’s growing dependence on space-derived information and systems are key aspects of this change. Additionally, the policy signaled greater emphasis on expanding international cooperation on mutually beneficial space activities to broaden and extend the benefits of space, and further the peaceful use of space. It also directed the U.S. government to strengthen stability in space through domestic and international measures to promote the safe and responsible use of the space environment, improve information collection and sharing for space collision avoidance, and strengthen measures to mitigate orbital debris.

So what has the U.S. government done to address space security challenges since the release of the National Space Policy in June 2010?

Over the past three years, we have begun numerous space security discussions with foreign governments. These include discussions with traditional allies like France, Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia and Japan, as well as with new partners such as South Africa, Brazil and India. We have also had a robust discussion with the Russian Federation on space security. Engaging China on space security is extremely important, and we continue efforts to do so. 

We have also been working with the European Union (EU) and like-minded nations to develop an International Code of Conduct for Outer Space Activities. The United States believes that a code of conduct would provide concrete benefits for the long-term sustainability, security, safety and stability of the space environment. For example, a nonlegally binding code would provide pragmatic, near-term solutions by establishing guidelines for responsible behavior in space, in order to reduce the hazards of accidental and intentional debris-generating events and to increase transparency of space operations for collision avoidance. As noted by former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton in announcing the U.S. decision in January 2012 to join with the EU and other nations to develop a code: “The long-term sustainability of our space environment is at serious risk from space debris and irresponsible actors. … Unless the international community addresses these challenges, the environment around our planet will become increasingly hazardous to human spaceflight and satellite systems, which would create damaging consequences for all of us.”

We are also actively engaged in the Group of Governmental Experts on Outer Space Transparency and Confidence Building Measures (TCBMs) established by U.N. General Assembly Resolution 65/68. The group’s purpose is to examine options for establishing bilateral and multilateral TCBMs that support the long-term sustainability and security of the space environment. Representatives from 15 nations, including the United States, serve on this panel, whose objective is to develop a consensus report that outlines a set of pragmatic space TCBMs to which nations can voluntarily subscribe.

As president of the Group of Eight (G-8) in 2012, the United States introduced the topic of space sustainability and security into the G-8 agenda. We believe that this body can play a useful role in highlighting the importance of space, and its commitment will draw further attention to the importance of ensuring space sustainability and security for future generations. In its 2012 Foreign Ministers Statement, the G-8 leaders committed to ensuring the long-term sustainability, stability, safety and security of space. In its statement on nonproliferation, the G-8 discussed space sustainability and security in detail, noting that outer space activities play a significant role in the social, economic, scientific and technological development of states, as well as in maintaining international peace and security. The G-8 expressed concern about the growth of orbital debris, which presents an increasing threat to space activities, including human spaceflight and satellite systems. Finally, it welcomed current efforts aimed at establishing a strong international consensus on an International Code of Conduct for Outer Space Activities. Under the presidency of the United Kingdom in 2013, we expect to see continued strong commitments to space sustainability and security in the G-8.

At the multilateral level, we have expanded our engagement within the United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space. Our focus is on the development and adoption of international standards to minimize debris. In the committee’s scientific and technical subcommittee, the United States is taking an active role in the Working Group on the Long-Term Sustainability of Space Activities. This will be a key forum for the international development of “best practices” guidelines for space activities. The United States is currently serving as the co-chair of the Expert Group on Space Debris, Space Operations, and Space Situational Awareness, demonstrating our commitment to making progress in enhancing spaceflight safety and preserving the use of space for the long term.

Finally, the United States has greatly expanded cooperation on space situational awareness. Given the threat from space debris, we are working with international partners, both bilaterally and multilaterally, to ensure that we have robust situational awareness of the space environment. Space situational awareness enables us to characterize the space environment and to predict the physical location of natural and manmade objects orbiting the Earth to assist in avoiding future collisions in space. The State Department, in close collaboration with the Department of Defense, is engaged in technical exchanges with experts from around the world to find ways to cooperate on sharing space situational awareness information. To date, U.S. Strategic Command has concluded 35 space situational awareness sharing agreements with commercial satellite owner/operators, and will soon sign the first agreement with another government. This cooperation is essential to enable satellite owners and operators to have the information necessary to prevent collisions in the future.

To conclude, as directed by the president’s 2010 National Space Policy, the United States is pursuing a comprehensive approach in responding to the challenges in the space environment. This response includes “top-down” political elements like efforts to develop a nonlegally binding international code of conduct, and “bottom-up” technical elements like the work on long-term sustainability being conducted by the U.N. Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space. However, the ultimate objective of all these various efforts is the same — to reverse the troubling trends that are damaging our space environment and to preserve the limitless benefits and promise of space for all nations and future generations.

 

Frank A. Rose is U.S. deputy assistant secretary of state.