Why the U.S. Needs to Reach Out in Space

by

As U.S. reliance on space systems for economic, military and civilian uses deepens, vulnerabilities in the space realm are becoming increasingly apparent. Since it seems likely that this dependence will only continue to grow, it behooves the United States to expand its scope in finding ways to protect its space assets.

Current U.S. thinking already recognizes the impact of international actors on U.S. activities, particularly when it comes to matters of national security. The interwoven nature of the global economy means that a downturn in one country can have — and does have — ripple effects elsewhere. In space, actions can have similar externalities: A collision on orbit can result in a debris cloud that can damage the space systems of many other space actors. The United States should worry about the space systems of others as much as it worries about its own.

Given the amount of services that space supports within the United States, achieving the sustainability of space is also a matter of economic security. Considering how much blurring there is between national satellite systems, a damaged satellite network, even of a foreign country, could have negative economic consequences for U.S. citizens who depend on its particular service. Also from an economic standpoint, instability and the resulting increase in risks to operating in space hit the U.S. financial bottom line.

As a result of these vulnerabilities and the interconnectedness of the space environment, the discussion on how to ensure the sustainability of space, crucial to protecting U.S. interests, should logically be widened to bring in other spacefaring nations.

As nations increase their investment in space, each player has more to lose in an unstable and unpredictable environment. While this may appear to result in a fragile international system, it can turn out to be to the benefit of all, and especially the United States. Security in space will likely be enhanced because of the increased numbers of actors having a direct stake in preserving the space environment. U.S. strategy must include both established space powers and nations that are new to the space game, since even the most inconsequential space actor might harm U.S. space activities, whether or not it deliberately intended to do so. In the space environment, ineptitude can often be as damaging as hostile intent.

Some in the United States look at space security as a zero-sum game: If one country increases its space activities, particularly if the activities are military in nature and that country is not an obvious U.S. ally, then that shift is seen to be to the detriment of international stability in general and a threat to the United States specifically. Some believe that as more nations become space powers, the resulting dilution of U.S. space dominance will weaken its security in space. This is the wrong attitude to take. Instead, this should be viewed as a chance to interest these space states in becoming accountable for their actions.

The next question is, how do we deal with space powers that are not necessarily our friends and that may be doing things we regard with suspicion? One punitive step often taken by the international community — applying economic sanctions — tends to alienate recalcitrant states. However, the effectiveness of sanctions is highly questionable, and whether they accomplish a change in unacceptable behavior is unclear. Ostracism also may be risky: Snubbing space powers may not do much more than shut out a country from discussions on proper space behavior, a move that may come back to haunt the entire international community.

It would seem prudent instead for the United States to actively support nations that wish to use space resources and become space powers, with due regard for other national security concerns. This process should not be viewed with suspicion but instead should be seen as a critical tool in a pragmatic strategy to protect U.S. space interests and assets.

U.S. policy must reflect the fact that outer space is an arena with distinct international challenges. Those nations that carry out activities in space, even if they operate only one small satellite, can have a significant and potentially terminal impact on those of even the biggest space player. If the United States wants to ensure that its activities in such a theater can continue unimpeded, it must include other countries in order to succeed.

 

Ben Baseley-Walker is legal and policy adviser and Victoria Samson is
Washington
office director with the Secure World Foundation.