Today, space systems are vital to enhancing, for example, our national security, foreign policy, and global economic interests, as well as expanding scientific knowledge. Yet space is becoming increasingly contested — meaning, space systems and their supporting infrastructure confront a range of natural and man-made threats that could potentially deny, degrade, deceive, disrupt, or destroy them. As more nations and non-state actors develop counterspace capabilities over the next decade, threats to U.S. and other nations’ space systems will increase. The interconnected nature of space capabilities and the world’s growing dependence on them mean that irresponsible acts in space have damaging consequences not only for the United States but also for all nations. Measures that enhance stability — include providing prior notifications of launches of space launch vehicles, establishing “best practices guidelines,” and warning of risks of collisions between space objects enhance stability and thus our mutual security interests.
Each of us has a different interpretation of what “space security” means based principally upon our respective countries’ national interests. Based on the U.S. National Space Policy and other presidential guidance, as well as our obligations under the 1967 Outer Space Treaty and other international law, we associate “security” as it relates to space with the pursuit of those activities that ensure the sustainability, stability, and free access to, and use of, outer space in support of a nation’s vital interests. This is reinforced by several other related principles in the new U.S. National Space policy: It is in the shared interest of all nations to help prevent mishaps, misperceptions, and mistrust.
All nations have the right to explore and use space for peaceful purposes, and for the benefit of all humanity, in accordance with international law. Consistent with this principle, “peaceful purposes” allows for space to be used for national and homeland security activities.
The United States considers the space systems of all nations to have the rights of passage through, and conduct of operations in, space without interference. Purposeful interference with space systems, including supporting infrastructure, will be considered, in the U.S. view, an infringement of a nation’s rights.
Through Stability: Security in Space
I will limit my remarks to U.S. policy — and the “tools” — we are considering, if not already employing, to enhance our individual national and collective security by preventing mishaps, misperceptions, and mistrust. In our efforts to implement our principles to enhance space stability and security, we are pursuing near-term, pragmatic, constructive steps — in other words, transparency and confidence-building measures (TCBMs) — that we can take, both unilaterally and multilaterally, to encourage responsible actions in, and the peaceful use of, space and to conduct our activities in an open and transparent manner. Specifically, the United States is:
- Acquiring the capabilities for improved information collection and sharing for space object collision avoidance;
- Improving the protection of critical space systems and supporting infrastructures; and
- Seeking to strengthen measures to mitigate orbital debris.
While the Department of Defense, NASA, and the other U.S. government agencies that conduct space operations provide the capabilities and technical expertise to advance these above-mentioned efforts, the Department of State — as chartered in the President’s 2010 National Space Policy — plays the leading role in coordinating aspects of international cooperation.
Our efforts include conducting regular Space Security Dialogues with both established, as well as emerging, space-faring nations. This is important not only for our broader national security and foreign policy concerns, but also in carrying out our diplomacy and public diplomacy responsibilities under the president’s National Space Policy. A key stimulus to establishing these dialogues was the collision of a commercial Iridium communications satellite and an inoperable Russian Cosmos military satellite in February 2009. This collision — and China’s 2007 anti-satellite test — created significant amounts of dangerous debris in low Earth orbit and further increased the future risks to human spaceflight and satellite services. Consistent with legal and policy requirements, the United States Strategic Command, known as USSTRATCOM, has begun to provide notifications of potential orbital collision hazards to all government and private sector satellite operators. For example, over the past year, USSTRATCOM’s Joint Space Operations Center, or JSpOC, has provided Russia with 252 notifications and China with 147 notifications regarding close approaches between satellites. Furthermore, notifications have been provided to government and commercial owners/operators approximately 677 times since May 2010 due to Chinese anti-satellite test debris alone. After receiving those and other notifications, satellite owners and operators maneuvered their satellites over a hundred times in low Earth orbit since the beginning of 2010. Such notifications are themselves an important confidence building measure, and they also provide the basis for pursuit of other bilateral TCBMs in diplomatic, military-to-military, and scientific channels. Another example of a TCBM is conducting familiarization visits of satellite control centers such as the JSpOC. The United States actively conducts these reciprocal visits and looks forward to hosting Russia later this year at the JSpOC at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.
The “Code of Conduct,” GGE, and COPUOS
Currently, the United States is considering the European Union’s proposal for a nonbinding, international “Code of Conduct for Outer Space Activities.” The European Union’s space strategy released on May 31 noted that such a code could help to “strengthen the security, safety, and sustainability of activities in outer space,” and thus is highly consistent with the U.S. pursuit of TCBMs that encourage responsible actions in, and the peaceful use of, space. A nonbinding international “Code of Conduct” signed by established, and emerging, space powers can help enumerate best practices and reduce the chance of collisions or other harmful interference with other nation’s activities in the peaceful use of outer space.
The United States hopes and expects to make a decision in the near-term with regard to initiating formal consultations and negotiations on the code with the European Union and other spacefaring nations interested in subscribing to it. Before we reach that point, we will also need to determine what, if any, modifications are necessary in order for the United States to subscribe to the code. Nevertheless, I would emphasize that the United States is already following many of the practices laid out in the current draft of the code, such as notifications of orbital collision and high-risk re-entry hazards as well as the publication of our national security space policies and strategies.
Next year, the United States looks forward to working with our colleagues in the international community in the Group of Government Experts on Outer Space TCBMs, which was established by Resolution 65/68 during the 65th session of the United Nations General Assembly. It is our hope that this Group of Government Experts will serve as a constructive mechanism to examine voluntary and pragmatic TCBMs in space that remedy concrete problems.
While efforts to adopt space TCBMs are often described as “top down,” they must be built upon “bottom up” initiatives developed by government and private sector satellite operators to ensure the long-term sustainability of space activities. In particular, the United States is committed to taking a leadership role in the U.N. Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space’s working group on long-term sustainability. This working group will be a key forum for international development of “best practices guidelines” for orbital debris mitigation and the long-term sustainability of space activities, and collaborating with others to share space situational awareness information.
As demonstrated by both the president’s National Space Policy and U.S. actions, the United States is committed to addressing these challenges. But this cannot be the responsibility of the United States alone. All nations have the right to use and explore space, but with this right also comes responsibility. The United States, therefore, calls on all nations to work together to adopt approaches for responsible activity in space to preserve this right for the benefit of future generations so that all nations and peoples — space-faring and space-benefiting — will find their horizons broadened, their knowledge enhanced, and their lives greatly improved.
Frank A. Rose is the deputy assistant secretary for space and defense policy in the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Arms Control, Verification and Compliance. This commentary was adapted from remarks by Mr. Rose at a recent space policy conference in Prague.