A Defining Year for Space Security

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The following is from a speech at the 15th annual Federal Aviation Administration Commercial Space Transportation Conference in Washington.

Today, the benefits derived from space assets permeate almost every aspect of our lives worldwide. Space systems enable personal communications devices; facilitate the operations of global markets; enhance weather forecasting and environmental monitoring; enable global navigation and transportation; expand our scientific frontier; provide national decision makers with global communications, command and control; and scores of other activities worldwide. Space is no longer an environment accessed nearly exclusively by two superpowers or a few countries. Barriers to entry are lower than ever, and many countries are enjoying access to, and the benefits of, space in unprecedented numbers. Today, space is the domain of a growing number of satellite operators; approximately 60 nations and government consortia operate satellites, as well as numerous commercial and academic satellite operators.

Paradoxically, while it is becoming increasingly easier to access as well as to benefit from space, space is also becoming increasingly congested and contested. This situation means we need to think carefully through how we can all operate there safely and responsibly. Our goal is to ensure that the generations that follow us can also benefit from the advantages that space offers.

However, decades of space activity have littered low Earth orbit with debris, and as the world’s spacefaring nations continue to increase activities in space, the chance for collision increases correspondingly. The U.S. Department of Defense tracks roughly 22,000 objects in orbit, of which only 1,100 are active satellites. These objects include such things as “dead” satellites and spent booster upper stages still orbiting, as well as debris from accidents, mishaps or intentionally destructive events. Experts warn that the quantity and density of man-made debris significantly increase the odds of future damaging collisions. Threats to the space environment will also increase as more nations and non-state actors develop and deploy counter-space systems. Today space systems and their supporting infrastructure face a range of man-made threats that may deny, degrade, deceive, disrupt or destroy assets.

Irresponsible acts against space systems have implications beyond the space environment, disrupting services upon which civil, commercial and national security sectors around the world depend, with potentially damaging consequences for all of us and to future generations. Ensuring the long-term sustainability, stability, safety and security of the space environment — through measures such as providing prior notifications of launches of space launch vehicles, establishing “best practices” guidelines and warning of risks of collisions between space objects — is vital to the interests of the United States and the entire world community.

Given the increasing threat, we must work with the community of spacefaring nations to preserve the space environment for all nations and future generations. I believe that 2012 will be a defining year for advancing this goal, with:

  • Negotiations on an International Code of Conduct for Outer Space Activities.
  • Initial meetings of a U.N.-established Group of Government Experts on Outer Space Transparency and Confidence Building Measures.
  • The continuing work of the Scientific and Technical Subcommittee of the U.N. Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS) on the long-term sustainability of outer space activities.

One of the ways the United States is moving forward towards this goal this year is through our pursuit of near-term, voluntary and pragmatic transparency and confidence building measures, or TCBMs. TCBMs are means by which governments can address challenges and share information with the aim of creating mutual understanding and reducing tensions. Through TCBMs we can address important areas such as orbital debris, space situational awareness and collision avoidance, as well as undertake activities that will help to increase familiarity and trust and encourage openness among space actors. The United States, as guided by President Barack Obama’s National Space Policy, will work with other space actors to pursue pragmatic, near-term TCBMs to encourage responsible actions in, and the peaceful use of, space.

Perhaps one of the most beneficial multilateral TCBMs for ensuring sustainability and security in space could be the adoption of “best practice” guidelines or a “code of conduct.” On Jan. 17, the United States announced that it had decided to join with the European Union and other spacefaring nations to develop an International Code of Conduct for Outer Space Activities.

The United States views the European Union’s proposed code of conduct as a good foundation for developing a non-legally binding international code focused on the use of voluntary and pragmatic TCBMs to help prevent mishaps, misperceptions and mistrust in space. As more countries field space capabilities, it is in all of our interests that they act responsibly and that the safety and sustainability of space is protected. An international code of conduct, if adopted, would establish guidelines to reduce the risks and dangers of debris-generating events and increase the transparency of operations in space to avoid the danger of collisions.

The Obama administration is committed to ensuring that an international code enhances national security and maintains the United States’ inherent right of individual and collective self-defense, a fundamental part of international law. The United States would only subscribe to such a code of conduct if:

  • It protects and enhances the national and economic security of the United States, our allies and our friends.
  • It does not hamper, limit or prevent the United States from using space for peaceful purposes, including national security related activities.

We believe that an international code of conduct — especially one that reduces the risk of long-lived, debris-generating events like China’s 2007 anti-satellite test — is in the interest of the commercial space industry. Reducing the likelihood of such events in the future will reduce the need to maneuver active satellites to prevent collisions (and expend precious fuel), thus ensuring industry gets the maximum return from its investments in satellite systems.

Through the Federal Aviation Administration’s Commercial Space Transportation Advisory Committee (COMSTAC), industry has provided us a number of useful recommendations with regard to the code. We look forward to continuing to receive industry’s inputs through the COMSTAC and other forums. Furthermore, we want to make sure we continue to keep these lines of communications to industry open as we engage with the European Union and others on the development of an international code.

The United States is also anticipating beginning work this year in the Group of Government Experts (or GGE) on Outer Space TCBMs established by U.N. General Assembly Resolution 65/68. We support the full consideration of all helpful proposals for bilateral and multilateral TCBMs. Such proposals could include measures aimed at enhancing the transparency of national security space policies, strategies, activities and experiments or notifications regarding environmental or unintentional hazards to spaceflight safety. International consultations to prevent incidents in outer space and to prevent or minimize the risks of potentially harmful interference could also be a helpful TCBM to consider. We look forward to working with our international colleagues in a GGE that serves as a constructive mechanism to examine voluntary and pragmatic TCBMs that enhance stability and safety, and promote responsible operations in space.

Finally, in addition to “top-down” initiatives, the United States believes that efforts to adopt space TCBMs should also be built upon “bottom-up” initiatives developed by government and private-sector satellite operators. Therefore, the United States is taking an active role in the COPUOS Working Group on the Long-Term Sustainability of Outer Space Activities. The working group will be a key forum for the international development of “best practices” guidelines for space activities. We believe that many of the guidelines addressed by this working group are foundational to our efforts to pursue TCBMs that enhance stability and security.

Today, the world is increasingly interconnected through, and increasingly dependent on, space systems. The risks associated with irresponsible actions in space mean that ensuring the long-term sustainability, stability, safety and security of the space environment is in the vital interest of the entire world community. I believe that 2012 will be a defining year for space security, and the work we all will do in responding to the challenges in, and the threats to, the space environment can help us preserve space for all nations and future generations.

 

Frank A. Rose is deputy assistant secretary of state for space and defense policy in the U.S. Bureau of Arms Control, Verification and Compliance.