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Why the US must lead again

A recent meeting of the UN’s Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space. In this and other international forums, the US has not presented a clear vision of its views on international space security. (credit: United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs)

An open memo to the incoming executive secretary of the National Space Council on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the Outer Space Treaty

Dear Executive Secretary:

As I am sure you are aware, 2017 marks the 50th anniversary of the Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, Including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies, otherwise known as the Outer Space Treaty. The Treaty was initially negotiated within the United Nation Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (UN COPUOS) based in large measure on draft statements of principles submitted by the United States (US) and the then-Soviet Union (USSR), who became two of the first three countries, alongside Britain, to sign the Treaty in January 1967.1 By October 1967, twenty nations had signed on, and the Treaty came into force. Today, more than 100 nations are either party to the Treaty or in the process of ratification, and it has held firm and kept space free of conflict for the last half-century allowing peaceful exploration for all humankind.

Or at least, that’s what we tell ourselves.

I recently had the opportunity to attend a UN Institute for Disarmament Research annual meeting, where they celebrated the success of the Treaty and examined prospects for how we extend its longevity and impact in the face of a space environment that is fundamentally different in almost every conceivable aspect from the time the Treaty was signed 50 years ago. I was, frankly, taken aback on two counts by what I saw and heard at the conference.

First, I saw an active, engaged, and vocal international community led by non-aligned nations, Russia, and China all speaking to a common theme: that the Outer Space Treaty was responsible for 50 years of non-conflict in space; that space had a risk of becoming weaponized due to the actions of “some” actors; and that the international community in general, and the Conference on Disarmament in particular, needed to redouble efforts to pass legally-binding restrictions on the placement of weapons in outer space (the so-called Russian and Chinese proposal for a Treaty on the Prevention of the Placement of Weapons in Outer Space, or PPWT), the Prevention of an Arms Race in Outer Space (PAROS, a non-binding UN General Assembly Resolution which has been passed every year in the UN since 1982), and a pledge for No First Placement of weapons in outer space (NFP) sponsored as a UN General Assembly Resolution by Russia.

Second, and more disturbingly, I saw a US delegation that not only had been administratively muted due to the lack of clear direction from a very new administration, but intellectually and conceptually stifled from years of unclear thinking about what the US should do, and what the US needs to do, in regard to international space security.

Let me be clear, this was neither the result of a change of US administrations nor the fault of the previous administration. Rather, this is the result of too many years, spanning multiple administrations, in which we failed to envision new guiding principles for how we should drive the international debate. In an era where space has moved from being solely the means by which two superpowers warned of, guarded against, and executed nuclear war, to an internationally vibrant and expanding economic nexus, a means for conducting routine national security and military missions, and an interconnected infrastructure that literally empowers the way of life of the earthbound citizenry who depend upon it (whether they know it or not), US absence is inexcusable.

And so, I can think of no better first topic for the National Space Council than to bring our space leaders together to engage in this discussion and to formulate the essential ideas that will not only allow us to oppose the wrongheaded and disingenuous notions proffered by Russia and China, but, to do again what we did 50 years ago: to lay out the concepts and philosophies that should guide us and the world for the next half century, to drive the international debate, and to lead. To that discussion, I offer you the following thoughts.

Fifty years of peace in space?

First, it would do us all well to understand what the Outer Space Treaty accomplished, and what it did not. When it comes to treaties, the Outer Space Treaty is surprisingly short, with only seventeen articles concisely captured in four typewritten pages. Many observers believe that the Treaty restricts uses of outer space to solely peaceful purposes and credits that restriction to keeping space free of conflict for the last 50 years. Unfortunately, that is just not true. While the Treaty specifically limited the Moon and other celestial bodies “exclusively for peaceful purposes,” it intentionally did not apply that restriction to outer space—for the simple reason that both the US and the USSR had already begun to use space for military missions.2

So, if the Treaty was not responsible for an unprecedented half-century of peace in this domain, what was? As I reminded the participants at the conference, that credit goes primarily to deterrence: the fact that both American and Soviet space systems were fundamentally linked to the way both nations intended to warn of and fight nuclear war or other major conflict. And therefore, both nations saw it in their interest to not attack space for fear that their opponent would view that as a prelude to a larger major terrestrial conflict or nuclear war. Of course, that “fear” did not prevent either nation from developing anti-satellite (ASAT) systems —but it did prevent their use.3

A resurgence of ASATs

After the end of the Cold War, the perceived need for ASAT systems temporarily diminished as the threat of superpower conflict seemed to fade. But as the US began to move its space systems from their earlier nuclear focus to direct support to tactical operations, that pendulum swung back, leading to the situation today where several nations are actively testing multiple ASAT systems.4 While that research remained mostly hidden for the first part of this century, the Chinese test against their own satellite in January 2007 reawakened the world to the reality of ASAT development, and concomitantly, the Pavlovian urge to outlaw such weapons. Ironically (some might say hypocritically) the Russians and the Chinese, both of whom have more recent reported ASAT testing than any other nations,5 have led the diplomatic effort to reinvigorate that push.

The US, along with many of our allies, have opposed these measures for many years; but that opposition has always centered on arguments of non-verifiability or lack of equitability,6 which ring as hollow quibbling on the international stage. Which is why the UN General Assembly has nearly unanimously adopted a resolution to support PAROS negotiations in the Conference on Disarmament on multiple occasions, only to have those efforts undermined by what is viewed as US-inspired Western intransigence or even far more suspicious and nefarious motives. To say that the US has lost its position of international leadership in this debate would be an understatement; a point made all the more clear by lackluster US support for the European Union’s (EU’s) initiative to create an International Code of Conduct for Space,7 which was soundly rejected by the international community in 2015.8

US space interests and principles

As in all areas, you can’t lead if you don’t know where you want to go—and therein lies the rub. The US has itself failed to internally determine a vision for what it would desire for a future international space agreement, and consequently, has left that definition to others—others with either far less at stake (such as the majority of nations who still are novitiates in the leveraging and use of outer space), or even worse, to those whose motives are counter to US interests but are themselves already advanced or rapidly advancing practitioners in leveraging space for their own national aims.

Of course, a US vision of where to take international space discussions must start with a clear-eyed and comprehensive understanding of US national space interests, and therefore outside observers might be tempted to conclude that we disagree on those goals—but that would be wrong as well. Over at least the last five administrations (Reagan, Bush 41, Clinton, Bush 43, and Obama),9 and all the intervening Congresses, US space interests and policies have been incredibly consistent, regardless of which party held power, in both their principles and their goals. Typically, those can be summarized by just a few simple principles, such as the ones below summarized from the last version of US National Space Policy from 2010:10

  • It is the shared interest of all nations to act responsibly in space to help prevent mishaps, misperceptions, and mistrust.
  • The United States considers the sustainability, stability, and free access to, and use of, space vital to its national interests.
  • The United States is committed to encouraging and facilitating the growth of a U.S. commercial space sector.
  • All nations have the right to explore and use space for peaceful purposes
  • The United States considers the space systems of all nations to have the rights of passage through, and conduct of operations in, space without interference.

But, finally and importantly:

  • The United States will employ a variety of measures to help assure the use of space for all responsible parties, and, consistent with the inherent right of self-defense, deter others from interference and attack, defend our space systems and contribute to the defense of allied space systems, and, if deterrence fails, defeat efforts to attack them.

From these principles, and the actions taken by both the executive and legislative branches over the last decade, we can find two critical themes that should help to shape an international, US space vision.

First and foremost, while the United States currently enjoys an immense lead in all areas that leverage space—national security, scientific and civil, and space commercialization—it is the last of these that holds perhaps the largest promise for the expansion of future US leadership and continued aggressive growth. The US remains the only nation that has a truly entrepreneurial space sector and a robust, non-government sponsored commercial space footing, and we must assure that no international policies are constructed to diminish that lead. In fact, we need to encourage international measures that enable it. Congress has been notably active in this area with national level rules for resource extraction rights in space and the reduction in regulations that inhibit space commerce, but unless the US begins to shape the international view of these activities, we may find that international norms begin to diminish rather than enhance our advantage.

Second, harkening back to the discussion above on the efforts by some to ban ASATs, especially ones based in space, the US needs to take a far more forward-leaning and sober view than it has in the past. The fact is that ASATs have existed for as long as there have been space programs and the technology to enable them, are currently being developed by many nations, and will continue to exist despite any notions or rules to the contrary. The US cannot simply oppose such measures on the basis of non-verification: that’s a losing strategy. It needs to take a more principled stance—one which might seem counterintuitive—that the international community needs to come to peace with the fact that anti-satellite weapons will exist and that efforts need to focus on how we live in a world that includes them, rather than continue to engage in the fantasy they can be outlawed.

Some may find this last statement to be overly fatalistic or bellicose, but I would contend otherwise. A simple example serves to understand why. It is clear to all nations that the US uses its space systems to detect, track, and pinpoint terrestrial targets, and in many cases, such as for satellite communications to an unmanned aerial vehicle, or a position, navigation and timing (PNT) signal to a bomb, uses space systems to actually conduct an attack on other nations, their troops, and their interests. How could we possibly believe that an adversary with the means to disrupt that kill chain would agree not to do so?

More pointedly, how could US defense leadership ever explain to a President, much less to the citizens of the nation, that they could have prevented an attack on a US ship, base, or city by eliminating an adversary space system, but because we agreed not to do so, thousands of lives were lost? It is not in the interest of the United States, nor in the interest of any other state, to agree to not target the space systems of another nation if those systems are used to enable an attack. In fact, it is our and their sovereign responsibility to have prepared for the day that that such measures must be taken.

That day has already arrived. Today, non-kinetic, ground-based anti-satellite activities in the form of communication and GPS jamming occur routinely, and are in use by any nation with the capability to do so.11 The US declassified the existence of its counter communications and laser blinding programs along these lines at the beginning of this century.12 And the idea was officially included in the 2014 version of DoD’s Quadrennial Defense Review, which stated that, “The Department also will accelerate initiatives to counter adversary space capabilities [used for] ISR [intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance] and space-enabled precision strike.”13 And yet, the US has failed internationally to both promulgate this new understanding, and to then propose policies and measures that make such ideas less dangerous, especially to the space environment.

Similarly, the revolution in commercial and entrepreneurial space use within the US continues to accelerate, but the international rulebook for such activities is woefully lacking. While it is comforting that the Congress has said that US law would entitle individuals “to any asteroid resource or space resource obtained, including to possess, own, transport, use, and sell the asteroid resource or space resource,”14 it also told the executive branch to act to promote such activities internationally—but that has barely started.15 Similar inaction with regards to extraction and use of mineral resources under the oceans has effectively stifled development there,16 and without US leadership, the same will likely hold true for space. And that is just one aspect of the multitude of commercially-aimed actions that should be taken to protect and enhance US space commerce internationally.

page 2: principled principles >>


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