Governing Space: Rule Makers, Rule Takers and Spoilers

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The debate on the governance of space has begun to receive scattered attention in New Delhi. Unfortunately, however, some of that attention has been technically ill-informed and politically destructive. A recent and widely circulated paper by the New Delhi-based Observer Research Foundation sums up the Indian strategic community’s response to the international code of space conduct proposed by the European Union (EU): “Not Invented Here!”

Many in Delhi’s strategic community have made no attempt to disaggregate the problems posed by space debris from the more contentious issue of anti-satellite weapons. Many analysts doggedly insist that an institutionalized legal investigative and enforcement authority must precede and undergird any cooperative regime. The assumption here is that norms and reputation have no relevance in the 21st-century society of states. Indian analysts maintain on the one hand that Asia’s growing geopolitical clout leaves India generally invulnerable to Western pressure, but then they rush to claim that India’s participation in the proposed schemes to regulate the space commons will compromise its national interests. How precisely and what interests might become compromised is never explained. In a further twist, these pundits purport to speak on behalf of “Asian spacefaring nations,” when it is questionable if anybody outside Delhi has delegated India that responsibility.

Some of the Indian security community’s rationales for rejecting participation in the management of the space global commons are astonishing. Consider, for example, the following observation in the Observer Research Foundation report on the EU’s proposed international space code of conduct: “India and some other countries may have reservations to sign on to an otherwise acceptable document” because the EU did not consult them when drawing it up. The code, after all, is the EU’s proposed code of conduct for all. Its nomenclature signifies its political ownership. If India and other states object to its specific features, they have the option of drawing on “best practices” to come up with an alternative code or initiate a dialogue with the EU. Rejecting it outright on grounds that India was not consulted is the equivalent of saying that other states should have rejected Jawaharlal Nehru and Rajiv Gandhi’s efforts for global nuclear disarmament simply because they emanated from Delhi.

Today, there are 22,000 trackable (about 10 centimeters) pieces of debris in low Earth orbit (LEO) left behind by dead satellites and rocket launchers, including the 1,000 or so active satellites. Most experts agree that these pose a more likely threat to operational satellites than any hostile adversary targeting them. In 2007, China added to the problem by conducting an anti-satellite weapon test. The test compounded the debris problem by increasing the number of objects greater than 1 centimeter in LEO by 15 to 20 percent. Calculations show that prior to the Chinese test, a satellite at 800 kilometers altitude would likely be hit by debris greater than 1 centimeter once in approximately five to six years. After the test that time period was approximately cut in half. This situation worsened in February 2009 when a defunct Russian satellite collided with a functioning American Iridium satellite, producing approximately 1,500 trackable objects. The problem is thus likely to grow exponentially absent a collective solution to regulate the uses of space.

U.S. Strategic Command’s Joint Space Operations Center monitors space debris with a worldwide network of 29 ground-based radars and optical sensors. The center also provides notifications to commercial space operators of potential risks to their satellites from space debris. In 2010 alone these warnings resulted in 126 satellite maneuvers to avoid collisions with other satellites or debris. But no country alone has the resources, the technical expertise or the geographical reach to resolve the problem of situational space awareness. Also, satellite maneuvers can decrease the lifetime of a satellite or interrupt its operational mission. The EU’s proposed code of conduct specifically asks countries not to carry out activities that result in space debris, thus aggravating the situation.

Indian analysts cite China’s resistance to making space debris regulation part of any global space commons management scheme as the reason India should as well. They infer from Chinese footdragging evidence of its plans to conduct further anti-satellite tests. This may or may not be true. However, there are other methods of testing anti-satellite weapons without causing much debris. The U.S. demonstrated this in 2008 with its Standard Missile-3 interceptor where the debris was short-lived. A cable leaked by WikiLeaks also suggests that China conducted a suborbital anti-satellite test of its SC-19 system in 2010 that was a non-debris-generating event.

The other assumption behind Indian analysts’ opposition is that kinetic kill weapons that physically destroy satellites are the only anti-satellite game in town. There is, however, considerable research on soft kill methods that use radiofrequency jamming, electronic warfare or directed energy weapons to disable, interrupt and disrupt satellite sensors. Hence the argument that interrelates space debris with anti-satellite weapons is weak and overreaching.

Admittedly, the stipulation in the EU proposed code that countries disclose national plans for space security and defense is problematic. With both the U.S. and China developing hard and soft satellite kill and disruption technologies, New Delhi cannot be expected to practice transparency until the advent of a global regulatory regime. But as the world’s fourth-largest space power, with ambitious plans for launching almost 10 satellites every year beginning in 2010-2011, it surely behooves Delhi to take an active role in addressing the problems of governance in space.

One plausible approach would be the one adopted by the United States: Broad policy objectives and goals are stated but they stop short of delving into classified issues. As the famous medical truism goes: “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”

Hence rejecting the EU’s space code in its entirety on grounds that it doesn’t address India’s national security dilemmas amounts to throwing the space debris baby out with the national security bathwater.

The Indian security analysts’ insistence that a global regulatory, investigative and enforcement authority be the foundation for any cooperative order in space misses the fundamental point that the proverbial best is often the enemy of what may be adequate. By insisting on a formalized regime over a normative regulatory order, they also underplay the significance of norms. This is an error because all formal regimes rest on normative orders. And it is normative orders that shape and regulate the acceptable from unacceptable behaviors at the levels of state and society. Further, collective regulatory orders can begin at the top with all states joining simultaneously. In other instances, coalitions of the willing form and institute best practices until social and political tipping points create a universal order. For example, the international regimes to protect human rights and refugees have emerged organically, from the bottom up. This does not make them any less effective.

The central point here is that there is no single or ideal pathway to building global cooperative best practices. The “god of small things,” to use Arundhati Roy’s memorable phrase, can be as benign as any other.

In the international system there are states that are rule makers and others that are rule takers. A third category play the role of spoilers. India, which once was one of the foremost advocates of best normative practices in the society of states, has always aspired to play the role of a rule maker. During the past 50 years New Delhi unfortunately lacked the material clout to make that happen. Today, however, India has the means to shape the behavior and practices of other states. Unfortunately, Indian security pundits prefer that India play the role of a spoiler. Worse, they seek power for India without the responsibility that comes with wielding it.

Bharath Gopalaswamy is an associate director in the Program in Arms Control, Disarmament & International Security at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. Gaurav Kampani is a doctoral candidate at Cornell University’s Department of Government.