The Space Reviewin association with SpaceNews

debris illustration
The growing orbital debris environment makes it more important than ever to develop some kind of code of conduct for outer space activities. (credit: NASA)

Working towards a space code of conduct

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In our modern society, space capabilities play a critical role every day. Capabilities provided from space have also become an important information source for the DoD. We are now an interconnected world, and all nations have a stake in the use of space. But space systems are fragile: still more like wondrous science projects than settled technologies; more gee-wiz capabilities than run-of-the-mill utilities. We have become all too comfortable with their benefits over these last few decades.

Simply put, space is a mess! Something needs to be done, but, thus far, little more than just talk has taken place. One positive step that could be employed is to move the spacefaring community in the direction of establishing a “Code of Conduct.”

For those of us who have grown up in the space age, celebrating the exhilarating joy with each successful launch, our space systems confronts a terrifying reality: only a few irresponsible acts can bring it all to a crashing and damaging end. Indeed, decades of relatively unrestricted space activity has littered Earth’s orbits with debris. The crowding and congestion threatens satellites with on-orbit collisions, which means lost critical capabilities and lost investment of precious resources. As spacefaring nations continue to expand and augment their satellite constellations, orbital analysts observe that the potential for and consequences of collisions continue to escalate. Air Force space surveillance radars and telescopes now track roughly 22,000 objects in orbit, at speeds of up to 28,000 kilometers per hour (17,500 miles per hour) in low Earth orbit. In addition, there are hundreds of thousands of detectable objects considered too small to continuously track or catalogue though they are still dangerously capable of damaging space-based systems.

Two key events have helped generate a global consensus about problems arising from the congested nature of the space domain. In 2007, China conducted an anti-satellite (ASAT) test in low Earth orbit, while two years later, a defunct Russian Cosmos and active American Iridium satellite collided in orbit. These two events generated vast fields of space debris, shredded pieces that will remain in orbit and threaten satellites and astronauts for a century or more. This debris jeopardizes not just US national security and economic interests in space, but those of the rest of the world as well. Shockingly, material ejected from the Chinese ASAT test and Cosmos-Iridium collision now account for 36 percent of the total number of catalogued objects currently residing in, or traversing, low Earth orbit.

Space capabilities are critical to all aspects of the global community, and the current approaches employed to manage this valuable medium are untenable. Simply put, space is a mess! Something needs to be done, but, thus far, little more than just talk has taken place. No globally accepted path towards a solution has been crafted and accepted. Any positive movement would be valuable. One positive step that could be employed is to move the spacefaring community in the direction of establishing a “Code of Conduct.” A code of conduct is simply a “set of rules outlining the responsibilities of or proper practices for an individual, party or organization.” Codes of conduct can be found throughout all of humanity’s societies, sometimes described as ethics considerations or honor codes; nearly all of us has had been worked within them, whether in religious practice, the family setting, school, scouts, the workplace, or the field of sport. The successes they have achieved offers hope that a code of conduct for space could be crafted to help preserve the space domain.

With this introductory discussion in mind, it seems there are two questions for the United States: First, should we seek to develop an international space code of conduct? And, second, if we choose to pursue a code, how should we do so: as a leader or a follower?

Should the United States seek to develop an international space code of conduct?

Of course, responding to this query with a loud “no” simplifies the remainder of the debate. Certainly, there are constituencies that believe this is the best course. These opponents to a code generally argue that the United States already acts responsibly in space and would assiduously follow whatever voluntary or non-binding code we signed up for, as though it was law. They suggest that the balance of the international community would follow such a code only when it was expedient to do so, treating it as an obligation that could easily and immediately be disposed of. The United States would then be politically and diplomatically hard-pressed to withdraw from their commitments despite cheating by others. Once signed up to such a code, these people conclude that only the United States would suffer, as it would lose commercial and military competitiveness. In their view, the code’s non-binding agreement could only diminish vital US access to critical space capabilities, and produce no discernable improvement in peaceful assured access to space by the United States or the rest of the international community.

This argument is not without merit. Still, the reality is that significant space-faring nations are already cheerleading for a code of conduct or for treaties that will constrain military activities in space. For example, the European Union is evaluating its own Code of Conduct, while Russia and China have been proposing an international treaty calling for the “Prevention of the Placement of Weapons in Outer Space Treaty” (PPWT). Neither of these proposals is without problems.

Both the Bush and Obama administrations have strongly opposed the PPWT for a number of reasons, primarily because it is totally unverifiable and would place no limitations of kinetic energy (KE) ASATS like to one China demonstrated in 2007. Also, at one point, Canada had it own proposal, but it has now joined with the US and EU to develop an International Code. While I think the Canadians would love to support a legally-binding space arms control treaty, they have taken pragmatic approach because they know that no progress is going to happen with regard to space arms without US support, and because their military receives critical information from US systems and they don’t want to jeopardize this access.

To those who would argue that any space code of conduct would unnecessarily tie the national hands, they should consider that a space code of conduct could, in fact, encourage all spacefaring nations to act responsibly.

Ultimately, the United States must continue to demonstrate leadership in addressing the challenges facing the space environment. Leadership requires engagement, and the US must engage and negotiate with the international community to achieve a favorable outcome on the global discussions. Failure to engage invites a misperception that the United States has nefarious intentions. Global competitors already argue to this mischaracterization, taking to the world stage to claim they view US intentions with hostility and suspicion. These arguments could be made, in turn, to justify almost any action by adversaries who have already have plans to misbehave in space, or to limit US access to space capabilities in the event of a serious dispute.

To those who would argue that any space code of conduct would unnecessarily tie the national hands, they should consider that a space code of conduct could, in fact, encourage all spacefaring nations to act responsibly. In addition, developing a code would be fully consistent with the long-standing bipartisan goal of strengthening stability in space through measures that promote safe and responsible operations in space. Adopting a code does not necessarily mean that the United States would abandon its rights to exercise self defense. The 2010 US National Space Policy reasserts the view that nations have a right to access the space domain, and that in protecting this right 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.” The current policy should also be commended for seeking to encourage establishment of internationally adopted Transparency and Confidence Building Measures (TCBMs) to enhance the long-term sustainability, stability, safety, and security of the space environment.

Those who argue in favor of a space code of conduct believe such a statement of principle could encourage responsible behavior and provide a mechanism for singling out and pressuring those who act otherwise in space. This could have the effect of reducing the risk of misunderstandings, misperceptions, miscalculations, and misconduct.

Additionally, the US already follows a number of Codes of Conduct. Some recent examples include The Code of Conduct Against Ballistic Missile Proliferation (2002) and the UN Debris Mitigation Guidelines (2007). So, clearly, this would not be a precedent setting agreement.

If the United States chooses to pursue a space code of conduct, what should that entail?

Given the importance of space, the United States should enter into international space agreements, codes of conduct, and treaties cautiously, and only where it can assure continued access to and the availability of space capabilities, uninhibited and without interference. The behavior of every space user affects every other member of the spacefaring community. Space activities extend beyond space to influence the international community and national sovereignty issues. They are an important component of international commerce and help provide for the well being of the global population. Space is vital to protecting both the national security and economic interests of the United States, and expanding human knowledge of the universe.

I believe it is important to our national interest to maintain international leadership in space, and to maintain America’s leadership position we cannot ignore what is happening with regard to ongoing discussions about a potential code on the global stage, especially in the United Nations. To ensure that the inherent right of self-defense is not impaired, we must assume a position of leadership in these discussions. At the time of this writing, the current administration is not endorsing the European Union’s proposed Code of Conduct and has not embraced the Russian/Chinese/Canadian PPTW. Given this, and the desire that the US maintain an international position of leadership in space, the United States should proceed to propose its own code, one that satisfies both global interests as well as not eroding our own national interests.

In moving ahead, three broad options can be considered:

A. Accept the European Union developed code of conduct and sign it
B. Develop a US code of conduct and encourage the rest of the international community to adopt that version
C. Work with the international community to achieve a mutually acceptable code of conduct

The United States is apparently proceeding with option C, but not everyone, including some members of Congress, agree with that path. One critical, but subtle, issue of concern is the divining the meaning of “inherent right of self-defense” as stated in the National Space Policy. There may be ambiguity in what “self-defense” should mean in the space protection context. For example, some might interpret this clause to mean to take no action unless US or allied space systems are attacked, and then only taking limited action to solely and separately defend only the systems that are attacked. Obviously, that approach would be too constraining and unrealistic. Rather, the United States needs to feel free to consider a broad range of response options, whether in times of terrestrial conflict or prior to, during, or after any attack on US and allied space systems. The United States also needs the flexibility not only to respond to direct attacks but also to eliminate any advantages the enemy may be gaining from their own space systems. In such cases, our space systems may not be attacked, but, the enemy may be using space capabilities against us. Employing effective response options could and should be employed to save American lives.

Any proposed space code of conduct should be developed consistent with the best intentions of 2010 US National Space Policy’s goals of strengthening stability in space through measures to promote safe and responsible operations in space, encouraging all spacefaring nations to act responsibly in a space environment.

Any beneficial space code of conduct should allow the United States to retain the ability to build and test space superiority systems, whether offensive and defensive. Additionally, the United States may want to reserve options to inflict reversible space effects on others’ space systems (even short of conflict on the land, sea, and air) to convince another nation to behave as a good global citizen. This allows the President and his commanders to direct use of reversible alternatives in peacetime as one of a range of options that our nation can bring to bear on other nations, along with the ultimate irreversible option in times when there is no other option. Such provisions should minimize debris creation in peacetime.

Elements of an effective space code of conduct – specific goals and objectives

The critical goals and objectives of any proposed code of conduct should be to prevent mishaps, misperceptions, and mistrust in space; provide guidelines to reduce space hazards (debris creating events); and increase the transparency of space operations. Unless the international community can adopt positive measures such as TCBMs to address irresponsible behavior in space, the environment around our planet will become increasingly hazardous to both human and robotic spaceflight. Given this challenge, all spacefaring states should be encouraged to act responsibly to preserve unhindered access to space capabilities. Some examples of things that could be included in such a code are as follows:

  • Allow all nations the unhindered, free, and open use of space for peaceful national security, civil, academic, and commercial purposes
  • Provide for stability, safety, and security of space systems
  • Protect space commerce
  • Ensure long-term sustainability of the space environment, preserve the promise of space for future generations, and exercise due regard for other spacefaring nations. This means that code-cognizant spacefaring owner/operators and nations should:
    • Use best practices to build space systems that have a low likelihood of catastrophic on-orbit failure and that have a reasonable set of safeguards so that operators will not likely lose control of them
    • Refrain from committing irresponsible or intentionally damaging acts during peacetime
    • Not intentionally create excessive space debris
    • Not operate space systems in a way that would precipitate space debris generating events (e.g., collisions)
    • Warn of known collisions, conjunctions, environmental, and other risks to the space systems of others, and obtain or purchase the information and capabilities that support these warnings
    • Coordinate the safe emplacement and operation of space vehicles in orbital slots
    • Give notice of impending launches
    • Provide for a safe capability of disposing of space assets, including retaining enough propellant at satellite end of life to assure safe re-entry or super-synching operations
  • Build systems, whether deployed in space, land, or sea, that do not interfere with global Positioning, Navigation, and Timing (PNT) capabilities, or with commercial space systems
  • Encourage free flow of information across space platforms, de-conflict radio communications frequencies with others of the electromagnetic spectrum, and prohibit purposefully interfering with other space systems during peacetime (e.g., jamming, radio frequency interference, dazzling, cyber-attacks, etc.)
  • Do not intentionally enter into a potentially hazardous area in close proximity of other satellites
  • Defend exercise of self-defense rights within the space domain; this includes preserving capabilities to take offensive and defensive actions when absolutely necessary
  • If considered necessary for defense purposes deploy weapons that strive to have a first principle of reversibility and, most importantly, not cause the generation of additional space debris unless absolutely necessary

Concluding thoughts for a space code of conduct

I do not think that there is much argument that all nations should strive to preserve the safe and unhindered use of space for peaceful purposes. While it is not possible to build flawless space systems, and failure is always a possibility, the goal should be to minimize risks of failure, have ways to manage failures when they occur, and make the international community aware of these failures. The code should also encourage positive planning for minimizing space debris.

Any proposed space code of conduct should be developed consistent with the best intentions of 2010 US National Space Policy’s goals of strengthening stability in space through measures to promote safe and responsible operations in space, encouraging all spacefaring nations to act responsibly in a space environment. It rightly focuses on generating best practices, actions, and activities rather than prohibiting the existence of unwanted or nefarious capabilities, which are difficult to verify. It also identifies TCBMs as important steps to enhance the long-term sustainability, stability, safety, and security of the space domain. Finally and most importantly, any proposed space code of conduct must acknowledge the inherent right of self-defense, and the interests of national sovereignty.