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Chinese ASAT debris illustration
While intended to prevent events like China’s 2007 ASAT test that generated considerable debris, some think that a new set of “best practices” guidelines could hinder the US ability to use space. (credit: AGI)

Sustainability: just another excuse for a UN power grab?

At the regular meeting of the UN’s Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS) in Vienna last February, France’s Ambassador François-Xavier Deniau suggested that the UN consider a proposal to establish, as a regular agenda item, a “multi-year workplan” intended to look at “…ideas on possible recommendations and mechanisms that could contribute to keeping outer space safe and secure for the long term.”

There is every reason for American leaders to believe that the goals of this process are not in the national interests of the US or of its allies.

Officially, according to the briefing provided to the Committee by France’s Gerard Brachet, the goal is to deal with the increasing number of objects and debris in outer space by means of “International cooperation, monitoring and communications [that] will help adopt ‘best practices guidelines’”. His claim in his presentation last year to the “Conference on Security in Space: The Next Generation” held in Geneva under the auspices of the United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research, that this informal working group is “non-political” is simply a bad joke—une mauvaise plaisanterie.

However the French government obviously feels that it is in their interest to begin a process that starts with an series of informal meetings on the topic of long-term sustainability of space activities. The first of these meetings was held in Paris last February and another in Glasgow in October 2008 and more are planned. Where this process will end is an open question, one that should be treated with the utmost suspicion and skepticism.

The group is working on an “Outline Document” that will be presented to COPUOS in June of this year. This will deal with space debris, safety of space operations, “managing the electromagnetic spectrum”, space weather, and “international mechanisms to improve the safety and sustainability of space activities”. This last item, looks suspiciously like the beginning of an effort to create an international space traffic control system. The goal here appears to be to give France and the “international community” some level of control over the operations of America’s space assets.

There is every reason for American leaders to believe that the goals of this process are not in the national interests of the US or of its allies. France has a long history of trying to weaken US power every chance they get. The desire of the group to involve the UN’s Prevention of an Arms Race in Space grouping at the Conference on Disarmament gives away the game. In the end they want to stop the US from developing any sort of active space weapons, while they, as well as the Russians and the Chinese, all work to level the playing field in a future space war, or perhaps gain a decisive advantage over the American military.

What confuses the issue and serves as a fundamental distraction is the problem of debris. The results of the January 2007 Chinese ASAT test will be with us for years and even decades to come. In contrast, all the fragments from the February 2008 US intercept of a wayward spy satellite have harmlessly reentered the atmosphere.

For those who are trying to cripple US military space power the issue is not the risk of accidents, but the desire to use that risk to force Washington to submit to a regime of “holistic governance”. Debris is a fact of life in space, just as debris on the seabed is a fact of life that the US Navy must deal with in its mine warfare and anti-submarine operations. Just as bottom-dwelling mines try to disguise themselves as normal bits of junk, any future space mines, by their very nature, would likely be disguised as orbital debris or as non-operational satellites.

The 2007 Debris Mitigation Guidelines agreed to by the US and by other spacefaring nations are about as far as the US can go without seriously harming its ability to carry out meaningful military operations in space. The principles as they exist now are limited and practical, and they do not constrain in any real way the development of US or anyone else’s space capabilities, either offensive or defensive. Using this agreement as leverage to impose a new, unverifiable, and unbalanced “Rules of the Road” deal on America is one goal of the French government and its allies.

The 2007 Debris Mitigation Guidelines agreed to by the US and by other spacefaring nations are about as far as the US can go without seriously harming its ability to carry out meaningful military operations in space.

While it is probably a good idea for the US government to take part in these informal talks, it should be under no illusions about what they are all about. The intention is to destroy the principal of the freedom of space and replace it by giving sovereignty over space to the international community in the form of the UN. In some ways this can be seen as a back door way to get the US to agree to the 1979 Moon Treaty, which it has so far refused to accept.

By allowing the UN to grab control of space activities and to impose limits on who can and cannot operate in space, the French government is simply continuing its policy of trying to degrade America’s space advantage. This policy backfired badly during the attempt to overlay Galileo’s operating frequencies onto those of GPS. This effort may do even more harm to French-American relations and eventually to the UN itself.

Within the next decade it will probably be possible for Americans and other to set up privately-owned facilities in orbit and perhaps elsewhere in the Earth-Moon system. These could include space habitats as well as space solar power satellites. If the UN tries to impose heavy-handed regulations on these enterprises they will simply find ways to avoid UN control and taxation. Alternatively, it may be that these businesses will never come into existence due to the legal risks involved.

The Law of the Sea Treaty has effectively killed most seabed mining projects. A “Space Sustainability Agreement” could do the same for most off-Earth economic activities. The result will be a poorer, hungrier, more violent world. Those who want to constrain American power in the name of peace should think about this.


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