The collision of two satellites Feb. 10 raises the question of how to protect space systems from random or intentional harm. According to the United Nations space resolution of 1967, space should be used for peaceful uses, but the resolution does not explicitly prohibit states from attacking and harming satellites. With the constant rise in the number of countries that own satellites and with civil, commercial and military activities on Earth increasingly dependent on satellite systems, the issue of space security is of great importance.
In recent years,
submitted several proposals to the United Nations aiming to prevent arms races in outer space that may lead to the weaponization of space. The
opposed these initiatives. The space policy of former U.S. President George W. Bush’s administration was set to ensure U.S. freedom of access to – and use of – space as one of its top priorities, since it viewed space systems as crucial strategic assets that enable the United States to exercise its strength as a superpower. It stressed that the
will accept no restriction on its freedom of operation in space and will not negotiate initiatives to prevent or limit arms races in space, as there are no such races. In parallel, however, support by parts of the
defense establishment for the idea of developing weapons systems and other means of protecting satellites against deliberate harm intensified.
The separatist and one-sided
approach was opposed mainly by
. Their support of initiatives to prevent arms races and weaponization of space was derived from their desire to adopt a moral and peaceful image, knowing the
would always oppose such initiatives. European governments tended to support these initiatives, but until recently did not intervene, and avoided any direct or in-depth discussion of these issues. In the past year, however, Europeans have begun to carefully monitor these issues and have begun to formulate their own code of conduct in space.
The dependence of nations supporting a global economy and an open society on space systems makes satellites vulnerable for attack by those who object to and reject the values and power these nations represent. Furthermore, current
policy may provide legitimacy to deliberately damage space assets. This puts the
at greater risk because it relies heavily on space systems for its military operations and force projection. This over-sensitivity requires that the most advanced countries – with the
in the lead – be the ones to promote a code of conduct that would prevent space weaponization and delegitimize the damaging of satellites.
Most of the agreements and resolutions upon which space activity is regulated today were ratified during the Cold War and do not reflect the tremendous technological development and growing activities in space that have occurred since. The Feb. 10 satellite collision, the Chinese anti-satellite test conducted in January 2007, and the February 2008 shootdown by the United States of one of its decommissioned satellites indicate that the international community must begin to address the following questions: Are we in the midst of a process that will lead to the weaponization of space and the deployment of anti-satellite systems; and can this process be stopped? A change of the existing status quo in space would lead to an increase in the level of uncertainty regarding the source of any satellite’s malfunction. That, in turn, would raise the odds that an incident, such as the one that occurred in February, would be perceived as a deliberate violent action that requires a similar reaction.
Here lies, therefore, an opportunity for U.S. President Barack Obama to prove that in space policy too his approach is indeed different from that of his predecessor. The president should lead an international diplomatic process to review and re-evaluate existing
and international space policies in order to formulate clear rules of behavior in space.
Paikowsky is a research fellow at the Harold Hartog School of Government and Policy,
and a doctorate student of space policy.