Op-ed | Expanding space security options through gender perspectives

by and

This op-ed originally appeared in the Dec. 3, 2018 issue of SpaceNews magazine.

U.S. President Donald Trump’s recent announcement of a Space Force to “degrade, deny, disrupt, destroy, and manipulate adversary capabilities” — specifically Russia and China — is one approach to the question of how to protect substantial American interests in space. But sustainability of the space environment is also a key objective of space security, as emphatically stated in a 2017 interview with Air Force Gen. John Hyten, commander of U.S. Strategic Command, currently responsible for U.S. space security. Yet, maintaining the sustainability and stability of the space environment — important for all countries — is perhaps more at risk now than ever before.

Beyond discussion regarding the creation of a U.S. Space Force and Russian warnings of a “tough response” to such a force, discussion of limited war in space, satellite “safe zones” and potentially the overt weaponization of space are indicative of the escalation of risk regarding space security issues. The complexity of the problems of space security requires that alternative approaches be offered and considered by global decision-makers.

As Victoria Samson, Washington director for the Secure World Foundation, explained in 2018, what we need is:

“an understanding of maintaining security, stability, and economy depending on space not just for the U.S. but also for the world. Part of this is a response to the changing space domain, which is the playing field for not only the established spacefaring nations but also the non-state actors and new entrants from around the world. And part of it is admitting that the way the U.S. military space acquisition was built was for a world that no longer exists and therefore has to evolve in order to meet the existing demands and allow for future requirements.”

In fact, there is an acute need for new perspectives and approaches to long-simmering and now escalating issues.

The Women, Peace and Security (WPS) agenda offers such an alternative perspective, and is in accordance with the 2017 Women, Peace and Security Act that President Trump signed into law last year and is also supported by more than 70 countries that have adopted National Action Plans to implement the Women, Peace and Security agenda. That agenda offers both a different perspective on problem-solving and a different approach to achieving durable security that focuses on collaboration, diplomacy and maintaining peace — concepts which are by no means foreign to space security policy and decision-makers.

Disruption and destruction in space

Skeptics and experts alike acknowledge that space security is fraught with suspicion, opaque decision-making, ambiguous threats and classified acts, largely due to the dual-use nature of most space technology. Consequently, the “stalker” co-orbital anti-satellite that China developed and the moribund Chinese weather satellite that the Chinese military shot down in 2007 created significant international tension. So, too, did Operation Burnt Frost in 2008, when the U.S. military shot down the decaying spy satellite US-193, using modified missile defense technology, as well as ongoing classified U.S. spaceplane, the X-37B. Current levels of distrust and opacity can lead to dangerous miscalculations, and the international community is badly in need of expanded policy options.

On Feb. 20, 2008, then-U.S. Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. James E. Cartwright (left) and then-Deputy Defense Secretary Gordon England follow the progress of a Standard Missile-3 as it races toward US-193, a decaying spy satellite the U.S. military shot down some 13 months after the Chinese military shot down one of its own defunct satellites. The U.S. said Operation Burnt Frost was undertaken to mitigate the risk of US-193’s uncontrolled reentry, not as a tit-for-tat response to China’s shoot down of Fengyun-1C. Both events created significant international tension.
On Feb. 20, 2008, then-U.S. Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. James E. Cartwright (left) and then-Deputy Defense Secretary Gordon England follow the progress of a Standard Missile-3 as it races toward US-193, a decaying spy satellite the U.S. military shot down some 13 months after the Chinese military shot down one of its own defunct satellites. The U.S. said Operation Burnt Frost was undertaken to mitigate the risk of US-193’s uncontrolled reentry, not as a tit-for-tat response to China’s shoot down of Fengyun-1C. Both events created significant international tension. Credit: DoD

This is where the Women, Peace and Security agenda and the issues of space security intersect.

Globally, the Women, Peace and Security agenda, first codified in UNSCR 1325 (2000), offers a framework of legal and policy architecture to support policy alternatives in the hard security arena. The 2017 Women, Peace and Security Act builds on these efforts and mandates that U.S. defense, development and diplomacy agencies implement the increase in women’s participation in decision-making and the use of gender analysis. Furthermore, asking questions like, “how do we degrade, disrupt and destroy our adversaries in the realm of space security?” implies being on the defensive, and suggests weakness. However, there is an option to change the question and ask, “How is a cooperative environment maintained where all countries can maintain, use, and benefit from the space environment, in accordance with the 1967 Outer Space Treaty?”

The case for a gender lens in space security: the evidence

There are numerous examples of how a gender perspective improves the operational effectiveness of peace and security operations that are highly relevant to the challenge of space security. In particular, the WPS agenda advocates specifically for the use of dialogue, participatory engagement and decision-making, international cooperation, consultative mechanisms and non-violent approaches to mitigating and resolving conflicts. There is a robust and growing body of evidence that shows the application of a gender perspective and an increase in women’s participation in decision-making results in more durable peace agreements, increased trust and collaboration across political agendas, and more comprehensive and nuanced information gathering to better inform decision-making.

Examples regarding warfare and operational readiness, taken from a recent meta-study conducted by Our Secure Future: Women Make the Difference, evidence the impact of WPS on the effectiveness of international peace and security policymaking. Studies have found, for example, that a 5 percent increase of women in a legislature decreases the state’s overall likelihood to use violence by nearly five times, and that greater state gender equality leads to a lower level of likelihood to use military action to settle international disputes. Furthermore, when at least 35 percent of the legislature was female, it both reduced state likelihood to go to war and reduced the likelihood of a state relapsing into civil war to virtually zero.

Similarly, examples of the application of the WPS agenda to hard security in international instruments are found in the 2013 Arms Trade Treaty and the International Nuclear Test Ban treaty of 2018. The Arms Trade Treaty, the first treaty to regulate the international transfer of conventional arms and ammunition, aims to regulate the flow of weapons around the world by requiring governments to assess all arms transfers against a set of criteria, including the risks of gender-based violence, before the transfer is authorized or denied. The Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, which was negotiated and supported by 130 states, recognizes the importance of “equal, full and effective participation of both women and men” for promoting peace and security, as well as the engagement of women in nuclear disarmament. These two treaties are significant advancements in the application of the WPS agenda to hard security problems and provide a precedent for use with other hard security issues, including space.

Collaboration, trust, transparency in space: an entry point for Women, Peace and Security

In July 2011, a Group of Government Experts (GGE) from 15 countries, including the five members of the U.N. Security Council, were directed by the U.N. General Assembly to study and develop transparency and confidence-building measures (TCBMs) for space activities to avoid misunderstandings and misjudgments. The final report was approved by consensus in 2013. It first gives an overview of global space activities and of the attention paid to the need for TCBMs in space.

Section 3 of the GGE report provides the general characteristics and basic principles of TCBMs, and explains the nature and purpose of TCBMs, stating:

in general terms, transparency and confidence-building measures are a means by which governments can share information with an aim of creating mutual understanding and trust, reducing misperceptions and miscalculations and thereby helping both to prevent military confrontation and to foster regional and global stability.

The GGE report stresses the value of continuing dialogue between agencies, governments, organizations and through various U.N. forums.

A cloud of orbital debris can be seen in this Analytical Graphics visualization depicting the immediate aftermath of a Chinese ground-launched missile destroying the Fengyun 1C weather satellite on Jan. 11, 2007. Credit: AGI
A cloud of orbital debris can be seen in this Analytical Graphics visualization depicting the immediate aftermath of a Chinese ground-launched missile destroying the Fengyun 1C weather satellite on Jan. 11, 2007. Credit: AGI

Currently a second GGE has been charged by the U.N. General Assembly “to make recommendations on substantial elements of an international legally binding instrument on the prevention of an arms race in outer space.“ In July 2018, a first introductory workshop was held in Beijing. Of the 22 participants listed as governmental experts, only two were women, from Japan and France. Yet almost half of the states represented have adopted National Action Plans for WPS and/or Regional Action Plans. Unfortunately, the U.S. failed to even show up at this meeting — a lost opportunity to help set the agenda.

How, or if, the Women, Peace and Security agenda will be included in these meetings remains to be seen. Will they include consultations with those who benefit from a stable space environment (telecommunications, disaster management, economic development, tele-education/health, climate monitoring, etc.)? How will continued dialogs be set up? Clearly, women’s representation in space policy and decision-making (even within countries which ascribe to the Women, Peace and Security agenda) is low, whether intentionally or simply by benign neglect.

Merely having women present at meetings does not inherently signify that a gendered perspective will be offered, much less acted upon. However, when attention to both women’s representation in decision-making and the use of a gender perspective is applied in domestic or international conflict management, the Women, Peace and Security agenda increases the effectiveness of almost every policy and program it is married with. This is not a “women’s issue;” this is a peace and security issue. The evidence mentioned earlier shows that the WPS agenda increases operational effectiveness, is more collaborative rather than competitive, and produces more constructive outcomes for disputing parties.

Toward a more stable outer space

A Space Force without the complementary effort of diplomacy and confidence building would be a recipe for incalculable escalation of unnecessary tension between states. Instead, decision-makers would fare better with more policy tools to choose from. In fact, having multiple and complementary options for action is imperative in a complex world. Chairman of the Joints Chief of Staff, Gen. Joseph Dunford, Jr., has said future conflicts will be transregional, multidomain and multifunctional. The Women, Peace and Security agenda offers options to complex conflict issues shown to yield positive results. The demand – even by, and perhaps especially by, the military – to protect the security and sustainability of the space environment requires that collaboration be employed in conjunction with other approaches.

The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Marine Corps Gen. Joseph F. Dunford, showing speaking Aug. 28 at a press conference at the Pentagon, has said future conflicts will be transregional, multidomain and multifunctional. Credit: DoD photo/Lisa Ferdinando
The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Marine Corps Gen. Joseph F. Dunford, showing speaking Aug. 28 at a press conference at the Pentagon, has said future conflicts will be transregional, multidomain and multifunctional. Credit: DoD photo/Lisa Ferdinando

There are small, yet hugely impactful steps that the space security communities can take. For example, leverage section 3 of the GGE Report, which underscores the importance of confidence building, and use the WPS strategy of participatory engagement and decision-making. The call for transparent consultation is a hallmark of the WPS agenda, and the report’s insistence on continued dialogue amongst and within agencies, governments, and organizations lays the groundwork for this concept to become mainstreamed within space security processes and procedures. Increased dialogue leads to better, more comprehensive information, which will shed light on formerly opaque decision-making processes, inevitably lowering suspicion.

A lack of diverse viewpoints limits the boundaries of just how much peace and security actors are able to achieve. Asking questions about deterrence and how to maintain space security as well as the space environment is a rather empty endeavor if the answers never change. Ultimately, working toward creating a more cooperative environment in space will not exclude military efforts. Indeed, a strong defense is important, including deterrence, resilience, hedging, mission assurance and perhaps even a “space force.” But pursuing confidence building and nonviolent collaborative approaches should be welcomed rather than neglected. Adhering to and capitalizing on international and national commitments already established on Women, Peace and Security will provide another avenue in the global pursuit of a more stable and sustainable space environment.


Joan Johnson-Freese is the Charles F. Bolden, Jr. Chair of Science, Space & Technology at the Naval War College. She has testified before Congress on space security issues on multiple occasions and her book publications include “Heavenly Ambitions: America’s Quest to Dominate Space” (2009), “Space Warfare in the 21st Century” (2016) and “Women, Peace & Security: An Introduction” (forthcoming, 2018). Sahana Dharmapuri is the director of Our Secure Future: Women Make the Difference, at One Earth Future Foundation in Colorado. A former Harvard fellow, Ms. Dharmapuri is widely published on women, peace and security, including with CNN, Christian Science Monitor, Ms. Magazine, the U.S. Naval War College’s Women, Peace and Security Monograph Series, and Parameters.