Frank Rose, deputy assistant secretary for space and defense policy in the U.S. Department of State, recently wrote an interesting op-ed entitled “Addressing the Challenges of Space Security” [Commentary, April 8, page 35]. He talks about the U.S. National Space Policy “pursuing a comprehensive approach to the challenges in the space environment,” and the progress being made in discussions on the International Code of Conduct for Outer Space Activities. Mr. Rose is a security expert, therefore his focus on space security is understandable; what is not understandable is why the international community, and first of all the United States, wishes to address space traffic management and the preservation of the space environment through a diplomatic initiative that is mainly meant to put to rest a longstanding request from Russia and China to negotiate a treaty forbidding weapons in space.

For almost three decades a debate has been raging between the U.S. on one side and Russia and China on the other regarding the banning of space weapons, the initial concern being an altered nuclear balance of forces among superpowers. The debate is better known as PAROS (Prevention of an Arms Race in Outer Space), from the relevant draft treaty proposed jointly by Russia and China. 

In 1972, the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty between the United States and the Soviet Union outlawed development and testing of any missile defense system that was mobile, sea-based or space-based. The debate was ignited later by U.S. President Ronald Reagan’s decision to launch the Strategic Defense Initiative missile defense program (a.k.a. “Star Wars”) in 1983. It encountered major technological difficulties and was later restarted in a diminutive form (a.k.a. “Son of Star Wars”) by U.S. President George W. Bush after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. In the meantime, the United States became increasingly concerned about the vulnerability of its vast on-orbit military and commercial assets to attack, for example, from small satellites below the detection threshold of U.S. space tracking capabilities. 

The compromise proposed by the European Union’s International Code of Conduct for Outer Space Activities is based on the following principles:

  • Ensuring “freedom of access,” which is in any case a principle already covered by the existing international Outer Space Treaty of 1967.
  • Stating the “inherent right to self-defense,” which is a well-established right under international law, but it is meant to justify continuation of research activities in the field of space asset vulnerability/protection.
  • Establishing the principle of international governance to prevent all kinds of interferences.
  • Establishing that each state will do its best to prevent outer space from becoming an area of conflict (i.e., no deployment of ground-to-space, space-to-space and space-to-ground weapons). 

With reference to space debris, the International Code of Conduct for Outer Space Activities just reiterates each nation’s commitment to observe U.N. guidelines for the mitigation of space debris, which are already failing on their own because of limited enforcement: Operators from 70 countries operate satellites but fewer than 10 of them have space agencies able to monitor their space activities.

A vague commitment to international governance of space (by sharing of yet-to-be-determined operational data, through a yet-to-be-determined organizational setup) is all this code of conduct will provide to the commercial and civil space community — very little! 

The time to organize space is now, and it can be done quickly if the leading spacefaring countries finally gather the political will to do so. There is a valid model of international cooperation: the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), which safeguards national sovereignty while effectively achieving the results that we all witness daily in managing air traffic. The ICAO Convention was drafted and agreed to within a matter of months in Chicago toward the end of World War II, when the military potential of aviation was fully demonstrated and the civil aviation we know today was only a visionary’s dream. The ICAO Convention made aviation into the success story we all know. 

Mr. Rose, let’s address space safety and sustainability concerns separately from security issues. There are different levels of cooperation that can be achieved in these fields, and they are orders of magnitude apart. Let’s establish a global civil space traffic and environment management framework while developing a minimum set of civil and military traffic interoperability rules. It was done for air traffic, and it can be done for space traffic. Let’s give civil/commercial space traffic a chance to get organized quickly. We cannot wait another 30 years to get an ICAO for space.

Tommaso Sgobba is president of the International Association for the Advancement of Space Safety and chairman of the Space Safety Magazine Editorial Board. He is editor-in-chief of the newly released book “Safety Design for Space Operations.”