The Trump Administration needs to exercise leadership in space security diplomacy

The United States has not offered substantive space security proposals at the UN’s Conference on Disarmament, allowing China and Russia to control the debate. (credit: US Mission Geneva)

The main theme of the Trump Administration’s space policy has been to restore American leadership in space. During the campaign, candidate Trump asserted that the United States had lost its leadership role in space, and since coming into office, every Space Policy Directive and announcement has emphasized restoring that leadership. Many of those decisions have continued efforts started during the Obama Administration, and the United States has consistently been a world leader in nearly all areas of space capabilities and activities. However, there is one area of space activity where the US leadership has waned and is not being addressed by the Trump Administration: multilateral diplomacy, particularly on space security issues.

The existing international space law regime was the result of successful US engagement (see “Why the US must lead again”, The Space Review, August 14, 2017). During much of the early Space Age, the United States played a leadership role in initiating and shaping multilateral discussions on space. The Eisenhower Administration recognized the need to develop international legal principles that would allow for unimpeded satellite reconnaissance, a key national security priority at the time, while also restricting the nuclear arms race in space. America’s diplomatic efforts from Eisenhower through the Kennedy and Johnson Administrations eventually led to the principle of “peaceful uses of outer space,” later enshrined in the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, and paving the way for America’s dominance in space-based intelligence and other military uses of space.

Recent administrations have been increasingly reluctant to engage in multilateral space discussions that touch on security issues to the same degree. The George W. Bush Administration was the first to be openly hostile to any arms control discussions. The Obama Administration returned to the historical norm of being open to discussions but chose to “lead from behind” and let the European Union handle the negotiations on the non-binding International Code of Conduct for Space (ICOC). The lack of strong US engagement on the ICOC allowed Russia, with help from China, to take advantage of the underwhelming European leadership, seize the diplomatic narrative, and ultimately derail the negotiations. The United States has continued to participate in the United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (UNCOPUOS) and played a constructive role in the recent historic agreement by 87 countries on voluntary guidelines to improve the long-term sustainability of space.

On security issues, which are mainly discussed in the Conference on Disarmament (CD), the United States has long refused to offer any substantive proposals, leaving Russia and China to set the agenda with their proposals for banning space weapons and no first placement of weapons in space. Both of those proposals are designed to provide advantages to Russia and China over the United States (see “The 2014 PPWT: a new draft but with the same and different problems”, The Space Review, August 11, 2014.) Furthermore, over the past two years, the United States has opted against even speaking at the annual UN space security conference that it previously had been a co-sponsor of, once again allowing Russian and Chinese allegations and assertions to go largely unanswered.

This reluctance comes despite increased concern from both the Obama and Trump Administrations about the growing threats to US space capabilities. In 2006, the Bush Administration asserted there was no arms race in space, and thus no need to discuss space arms control. Administration officials believed US space dominance was assured, and any arms control would only reduce US freedom of action in space. Ironically, it was during that same time period that both Russia and China began multiple anti-satellite development programs, which today are beginning to bear fruit. Towards the end of the Obama Administration, intelligence and military officials first sounded the public alarm on growing Russian and Chinese anti-satellite capabilities. In February 2018, the Trump Administration’s Director of National Intelligence, Dan Coats, testified that Russian and Chinese destructive anti-satellite weapons probably will reach initial operational capability in the next few years.

In every other domain of military activities, the United States recognizes the value of arms control and other legal agreements to restrict military activities for the benefits they provide. There are global agreements that ban chemical and biological weapons because of their indiscriminate nature, and strict controls on the proliferation of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles. Testing of nuclear weapons in the atmosphere, outer space, and underwater is forbidden due to the widespread environmental damage that results. There are agreements restricting the use of incendiary weapons, landmines, non-detectable fragments, and blinding laser weapons because they can cause unnecessary suffering. The United States also used bilateral arms control agreements with the Soviet Union to exploit US advantages and Soviet weaknesses, thereby bolstering US security. Yet, in space, the United States continues to insist that military activities should have maximum freedom of action, even as it expresses concern about adversaries exploiting that same freedom of action.

Recently, the United Nations General Assembly agreed to a request that the UN Secretary General create a new Group of Governmental Experts (GGE) to provide recommendations for legally binding agreements on preventing an arms race in outer space. GGEs are a UN mechanism that work by consensus and include representatives from multiple countries. This latest GGE is an opportunity for the United States to propose restrictions on the ability of Russia and China to continue developing and testing anti-satellite weapons before they are completed, and also limit the environmental harm from such testing through the creation of large amounts of space debris. The United States could also propose restrictions on the ability of satellites to engage in close approach (see “Dancing in the dark: The orbital rendezvous of SJ-12 and SJ-06F”, The Space Review, August 30, 2010) and proximity operations (see “Dancing in the dark redux: Recent Russian rendezvous and proximity operations in space”, The Space Review, October 5, 2015), thereby clarifying threatening behaviors and enabling the use of self-defense measures to protect satellites from attack. Or it could propose limits on widespread attacks against satellite navigation services, which have become critical infrastructure for the world.

Unfortunately, the new GGE is unlikely to include any of these topics because the United States has not been actively engaged in the process. In early July 2018, the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs hosted a preparatory meeting in Beijing to discuss the scope and topics for the formal GGE meetings that began in August 2018. The United States chose not to attend the preparatory meeting. Instead, the discussions were dominated by the Chinese and Russian delegations, who continued to push their proposals for bans on space weapons and no first placement of weapons in space. The only potential good news for the United States is that many other delegations at the preparatory meeting seemed lukewarm to the Russian and Chinese proposals, signaling that they might be open to alternatives. The US is sending an expert to participate in the actual GGE, but it’s unclear if they will be allowed to make any proposals.

Engaging in the GGE substantively, and aligning it with US interests, will be difficult but is still worth doing. Leadership includes working with others and convincing them to do something they might not have otherwise wanted or been able to do. The alternative in this case is letting US adversaries continue to dominate the discussions, ensuring an outcome that does not benefit the United States.

During his keynote address at the Galloway Space Law Symposium in December 2017, Dr. Scott Pace, the Executive Secretary for the National Space Council, said that, “as with past frontiers, it is those who show up, not those who stay home, who create the rules and establish the norms in new areas of human activity.” By not making substantive proposals in this GGE and rallying allies and partners to our call, the Trump Administration will miss an opportunity to show up. Re-establishing US leadership in space diplomacy by proposing agreements that truly enhance space security will also benefit US national security and global stability.


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