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Chinese ASAT debris illustration
Events like the Chinese ASAT test and the debris it created, illustrated above, demonstrate the importance for a “code of conduct” or other set of rules for sustainable space operations. (credit: AGI)

Securing space security

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As governments and businesses become more dependent on space-based communications, navigation, and other services, the growing number of satellites that provide them are facing an increasingly dangerous environment. The anti-satellite (ASAT) weapons test by China nearly four years ago created a large amount of debris and raised the spectre of a space arms race. Even without the test, the growing amount of orbital debris was becoming an issue for satellite operations. In addition, the 2009 collision of an Iridium satellite with a defunct Russian satellite made it clear that the “big sky” approach to space traffic management—that space was so big the odds of a collision between two satellites was too low to worry about—was no longer viable.

The national space policy released by the Obama Administration in late June took steps to at least acknowledge the problem, calling on all nations to “adopt approaches for responsible activity in space”, although without explicitly identifying what “responsible activity” includes or excludes. Such statements, experts say, need to be backed up by specific actions by the administration if they are to be anything more that lofty rhetoric. And it appears the administration may be willing to take the first steps on that path.

Towards a Code of Conduct for space

The ultimate solution to some of these space security problems would be a binding international treaty, similar to the Outer Space Treaty and related accords. However, developing a treaty can be long, involved process that does nothing in the short term to address critical issues. Past proposals for treaties banning space weapons, for example, have not advanced at all at the Conference on Disarmament (CD), the international forum for negotiating arms control accords.

“We hope to make a decision very much in the near future,” Rose said about endorsing the EU Code, without giving a specific timetable for that decision.

An alternative approach is to outline, and voluntarily agree to abide by, some basic “rules of the road” for space operations. In December 2008, the European Union (EU) issued a draft “Code of Conduct for outer space activities” to address those issues. The code, based on work performed by the Washington-based Stimson Center since 2002, is intended to “enhance the safety, security and predictability of outer space activities for all.”

The Code of Conduct’s provisions include a call for nations to refrain from actions that would damage or destroy other satellites or interfere with their communications, and to minimize the risk of collisions. Similarly, nations would take steps to limit the creation of orbital debris, citing existing, non-binding guidelines for mitigating debris. The document also includes provisions for notifying others of launches, maneuvers, and reentries, as well as the general exchange of information on national space policies and related topics. It is, in essence, a guide to good behavior in orbit.

While the guide’s contents might be common sense and not terribly controversial (who would disagree that minimizing the creation of orbital debris is a good thing?) the draft code would go nowhere unless other major space powers expressed interest in adopting it. Now, though, there are signs that the United States is willing to throw its support behind the EU Code of Conduct.

“We have been working very, very collaboratively with the EU the past two years” on the Code, said Frank Rose, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Space and Defense Policy, at a Stimson Center event in Washington on December 1. The new national space policy, which includes provisions for considering the use of “transparency and confidence-building measures to encourage responsible actions in, and the peaceful use of, space,” opens the door for a formal endorsement of the EU Code, he said.

“We hope to make a decision very much in the near future,” Rose said about endorsing the EU Code, without giving a specific timetable for that decision. Later, in response to a question, he said while the US hasn’t made a decision on whether to support that document, such a code “is very consistent with the key policies outlined in the president’s new space policy.”

Greg Schulte, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Space Policy, also endorsed the need for some kind of code of conduct, if not the EU Code itself, in comments at the same event. “We need to start work on ‘rules of the road’” for space operations, he said, with such rules including not just debris mitigation and collision avoidance but also potentially radiofrequency interference and “discouraging destabilizing behavior in a crisis.” He added this his office is supporting Rose’s group at the State Department in its review of the proposed EU Code.

The document should be able to win support beyond the US as well, experts noted. “I think the EU Code of Conduct is attractive as a relatively available, sort of ‘off the shelf’ multilateral gesture,” said Paul Meyer, a former Canadian ambassador and representative to the CD, during a space security panel in Washington on December 15 organized by the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS). “Its relatively modest provisions will make it attractive in some quarters.”

Getting Russia and China on board

One issue with the EU Code, warned Meyer, is that it is patterned after the International Code of Conduct against Ballistic Missile Proliferation, sometimes known as the Hague Code. “The unsatisfactory record of support for and compliance with the Hague Code may leave some other states cool to the code as representing the appropriate vehicle for advancing multilateral space security goals,” he said.

“One of the messages we’ll be giving to our Chinese friends is, ‘We think you ought to look at the EU Code of Conduct, as we are,’” Schulte said. “Let’s see if there’s something here we can work with.”

Two of the biggest obstacles towards approval of the Code may be China and Russia. In 2008 the two countries jointly submitted to the CD a draft “Treaty on the Prevention of the Placement of Weapons in Outer Space”, typically referred to by the acronym PPWT, the latest version of similar treaties the countries have proposed for several years. As the name suggests, the treaty would ban the placement and use of space-based weapons, which officials from the two countries see as essential to the prevention of an arms race in outer space.

The United States has opposed the PPWT treaty, a stance reiterated by the current administration. “The US position on the PPWT treaty has not changed. We still see the document as a flawed document that is neither equitable nor effectively verifiable,” Rose said earlier this year. “That said, and let me be very clear, the United States is very interested in working with Russia, China, and other spacefaring nations to promote concrete transparency and confidence-building measures that will provide for stability in space.”

At the Stimson event, Rose discussed how the US was trying to work with Russia and China to win their support for measures short of a treaty to improve space security. In the case of Russia, that included meetings in August in Russia, as well as an invitation for Russian officials to visit the US Joint Space Operations Center, which coordinates US space situational awareness efforts. “We have been having some very good discussions, working together to develop pragmatic transparency confidence-building measures,” he said.

Rose said that American and Russian officials had discussed a UN General Assembly resolution on the topic that Russia planned to introduce in the fall. “We were very much open to co-sponsoring the resolution,” Rose said. “We came very, very close.” However, Russia’s insistence on including a reference to the PPWT treaty in the resolution proved to be a stumbling block, and the US ended up abstaining when the resolution came before the General Assembly.

Rose added that he’s also open to discussions with China. “We are very interested in engaging in a dialogue with China on these issues,” he said. That dialogue, he said, may be less designed to change their minds on these issues but instead make it clear where the US stood.

The US, he said, has been willing to provide China with information about potential conjunctions, or close approaches, between debris and Chinese satellites. One example he noted was six months ago, when his staff notified him of a potential conjunction between a Chinese satellite and a piece of debris from, ironically, China’s 2007 ASAT test. “At first I said, ‘Do we really want to give them this?’” he recalled. “But then I thought that if this piece of debris hits their satellite, it would create more debris, and that is not in anyone’s interest.”

Schulte said that the US would be encouraging China to adopt the EU Code of Conduct as an alternative to their PPWT treaty. “One of the messages we’ll be giving to our Chinese friends is, ‘We think you ought to look at the EU Code of Conduct, as we are,’” he said. “Let’s see if there’s something here we can work with.”

The role of US leadership in space security

Even if the US decides to accept the draft EU Code of Conduct—which could lead to an international forum as early as next year where countries would be invited to attend and formally adopt it—space security experts see it as only an initial step in efforts to preserve the space environment for all users.

Last month UCS released a report, Securing the Skies, which outlines the steps that the US in particular should take to improve space security and sustainability. The report’s recommendations range from a declaration that the US will not be the first to put weapons in space and stop any plans for space-based missile defense, to efforts to make satellites less vulnerable, to attack to export control reforms that make civil and commercial space cooperation easier.

“Policymakers in the US and around the world are recognizing that the existing legal agreements and norms are not adequate to ensure the security and sustainability of space for the future, and that new international discussions are urgently needed,” said Laura Grego, UCS senior staff scientist, at the UCS event last week.

“The US can’t solve this problem alone, but it can and should take the lead,” Grego said.

One alternative to both the Code of Conduct and a full-fledged treaty would be specific space security “pledges” made by individual countries, said Meyer. Canada has proposed a number of such pledges, such as agreeing not to place weapons in space and refraining from destructive ASAT testing. “These ideas are seen to represent somewhat of a middle ground between the non-weaponization treaty option on the one hand and the ‘security-light’ measures of the EU Code of Conduct on the other,” he said. These pledges, while initially made unilaterally, could eventually be combined into a legally binding document, he said.

Regardless of the approach used for space security—code of conduct, treaty, pledges, or something else—experts say the US role will be critical. “The position of the US, as a principal spacefaring nation, I think will be decisive in determining which, if any, of these channels will be activated in the near term,” Meyer said.

“The US can’t solve this problem alone, but it can and should take the lead,” Grego said. She said the new national space policy “shows an encouraging awareness” of the issues of space security, but it needs to follow through with specific measures. “It needs either to initiate these efforts or to respond constructively to others’ initiatives so that progress can be made.”

Rose, in his earlier Stimson Center comments, said that US leadership could be demonstrated by helping bring other “like-minded” countries to the table to agree upon a code of conduct or similar concepts. “That’s going to be the challenge in the coming year: how do you make this happen?” he said. “There are very few nations in the world that can get everybody—all the key players—together.” If the US makes a decision to support the EU Code, he said, “I think that is something that you would see the United States doing: getting everybody to sit down at the table together.”