The Space Reviewin association with SpaceNews

SpaceShipTwo powered flight
As the number of public and private actors in space increase, as demonstrated in part by Virgin Galactic’s recent powered flight of SpaceShipTwo, the need for effective space security measures grows. (credit: Virgin Galactic/

Effective mechanisms for space security

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The UN Group of Governmental Experts (GGE) is an important platform for discussions on issues concerning space security. The present GGE on outer space was established in 2011 and to date has held two meetings. The third and last meeting is expected during July 2013. The previous GGE on the same subject matter was held two decades back during the period 1991–1993.

Over the years, various efforts have been made to have a mutually agreeable regime in the space arena. None have met with much success.

The present mandate for the GGE is to develop Transparency and Confidence-Building Measures (TCBMs) for outer space. The idea is to develop various methods for improving cooperation and reducing the risks of misunderstanding and miscommunication in space activities. TCBMs are expected to extend concrete, feasible, and practical recommendations in this regard.

The last two decades have witnessed rapid developments in the space arena. Many new technologies have emerged and also many new players are making significant investments in the space sector. Most importantly, non-state players have also started contributing significantly in the space sector.

During last few years the states like Iran, North Korea, and South Korea have joined the coveted club of spacefaring nations. On April 29, 2013, a suborbital, air-launched spaceplane (SpaceShipTwo), being designed and developed for space tourism by a private company, successfully performed its first powered test flight. On May 7, 2013, Estonia became the 41st nation in the world to own a human-made object orbiting in space with the launch of the satellite ESTCube-1. All this essentially indicates that the stakes in the space arena are growing rapidly. Also, some events during last few years points towards the possibility of weaponization of space in the near future. All this clearly implies that there is an urgent need to develop a mechanism to oversee responsible behavior in space.

Over the years, various efforts have been made to have a mutually agreeable regime in the space arena. None have met with much success. On this issue there has been a deadlock in the Conference on Disarmament (CD) for more than 15 years simply because the states are not able to agree on the annual program of work. Also, the UN efforts, like the Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPOUS), and the prevention of an arms race in outer space (PAROS) have remained as non-starters. Presently, two major and complimentary efforts are underway: the international space code of conduct is being deliberated and the GGE is heading towards finalization.

The composition of present GGE constitutes a group of members nominated by 15 nations. The permanent five (P-5) of the UN Security Council and Brazil, Chile, Italy, Kazakhstan, Nigeria, Romania, South Africa, South Korea, Sri Lanka, and Ukraine are the other members of GGE. Apart from P-5 nations, which are all spacefaring states, only two other members of the GGE are spacefaring states, namely, South Korea and Ukraine; South Korea became a spacefaring state just three months ago, long after the GGE was constituted. In order to have a fair geographic representation, the UN appears to have has compromised inducting the actual stakeholders.

Over the years in the space arena, an absence of consensus has resulted in the failure to establishment any form of space regime. This has led to the belief that there is a need to start with an initiative that could be agreeable to all and very basic in nature. That may explain the empahsis on the development of TCBMs by the GGE, which are voluntary in nature. However, the real question is whether it is worth it to accept the lowest common dominator just because no consensus is likely to emerge. The purpose is not to argue either in favor of or against the concept of voluntary declarations. What is important, though, is to check the efficacy of developing voluntary mechanisms under current and future geopolitical settings. This is not to challenge the worth of any UN-supported architecture but to raise certain questions so as to assist making such structures more robust. Naturally, a certain amount of “compare and contrast” with the existing UN or other multilateral mechanisms is obvious.

So-called successful mechanisms in the arms control arena also suffer from major limitations.

The cornerstone of the UN mechanisms related to arms control and disarmament issues are generally viewed as the treaties related to the nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons (NPT, CWC, and BWC). All these treaties came into being because these weapons existed. By contrast, one can argue that (at least theoretically) at present, weapons are not deployed in space. But, at the same time, one can definitely learn from the structures of such treaties, mainly from the point of view of acceptance and implementation. Another multilateral mechanism that could be used for comparison is the Hague Code of Conduct (HCoC). Also, the Arms Trade Treaty could offer some lessons in regards to the purpose of multilateral mechanisms. It is important to draw useful lessons from all such mechanisms before deciding on the “operating system” for formulation of any space regime.

The NPT negotiations are an eye-opener. It creates a master-slave relationship amongst the global powers. In a broad sense, only P-5 states (which incidentally also are nuclear weapon states) are permitted to decide the nuclear policies for the rest of the world! On similar lines there exists a possibility that in future states with ASAT capability could also come together and device a treaty mechanism as lopsided as the NPT for space.

CWC has been viewed as one of the most successful disarmament treaties and some claim that it has almost finished the job of total disarmament of declared chemical weapons. In reality, though, approximately 25% of declared stockpiles are still remaining and the culprits are the US and Russia. They have brazenly violated the treaty mechanism and have failed to destroy their declared stockpiles as per the plans. They claim that they could take at least ten more years to finish the job, and rest of the world has not made much fuss about this!

BWC is actually a toothless treaty. The basic limitation of the treaty is that it is a treaty mechanism minus a verification protocol. Big powers are not keen to have any such mechanism because it could affect the interests of the pharmaceutical industry and biotechnology industry. Naturally, the treaty serves only a limited purpose.

ATT (Arms Trade Treaty), which has been adopted on April 2, 2013, is another example where political hypocrisy exists. A treaty that is highly inclined in favor of the weapon exporters also keeps the door open for arms supply to non-state actors. Most interestingly, this 21st century treaty is about the conventional arms like tanks, warships, and attack helicopters, but is totally silent about modern state-of-art weapons like laser-guided bombs, joint direct attack munitions (JDAMs), and UAVs/UCAVs (unmanned aerial and combat vehicles).

HCoC is a mechanism against proliferation of missiles. It is a voluntary mechanism where most of members are the states without missile capabilities. Also, it appears that voluntary disclosures have not been taken seriously by many. This mechanism has not serves much of propose to either in respect of CBMs or stopping the missile proliferation.

All above cases indicate that so-called successful mechanisms also suffer from major limitations. Hence, when a mechanism is being discussed for implementation in space arena, it is important to learn from the limitations of such structures and try to develop a structure that could enhance transparency and strengthen the accountability. It is important that such instruments should not be formulated just to accommodate big players catering to their apprehensions. The Cold War era mindset needs to change.

Presently, there are some opaque areas in regards to developments in the space. Major stake holders are generally not keen to offers clarity in regards to the missile defense plans, unmanned operational vehicles like the X-37B, ASAT policies, policies in regards to ground- and space-based weapons that could hamper satellite operations, satellite jamming technologies, and spy satellites. It is also important to know about why a few states are investing in rocket development: is it only for the purpose of launching a satellite or for some other purpose.

It would be of no use to have a mechanism just for the sake of mechanism. It is important to have an effective mechanism for promoting space security and not an accommodative mechanism.

Would a voluntary mechanism provide answers in this respect of above mentioned issues? Since such challenges are likely to multiply in future, there is a need to device a transparent mechanism. The present pattern of investment indicates that there are many states that are keen to own satellites and are accepting assistance of spacefaring states to launch their satellites. Many such states are expected to voluntarily disclose all their space assets, but what about the major players? It is useful to have information from a nation with even just one satellite, but if big nations are not likely to provide the total information about their satellite fleets, then little purpose is served from such disclosures.

For a few decades, that there was only one power this was capable of reaching the Moon. Today, even non-state players are keen to launch missions to the Moon. Full-fledged space tourism is expected to become a reality in a decade’s time. Low Earth orbit traffic is likely to increase exponentially and there are bright prospects that various near-space systems will also enter service in the future. An Earth-Moon-Mars economy is expected to change the character of space industry. For the smooth and purposeful conduct of all these activities, there is the need for transparent mechaniss.

Today, sustainable space development has become a necessity since various satellite technologies are playing a crucial role in the overall development of humanity. Space debris, space weather, and radio frequency interference could be viewed as important elements of space sustainability. Space debris is obviously the most important aspect in regards to ensuring space security. Space Situational Awareness (SSA) is the key for monitoring space debris. Presently, a US agency is doing a commendable role in this regard and is willingly providing advance information about possible debris positions. However, with the expected increase in space traffic, it would be important to monitor almost all objects in the space to providing any advance warning. This is possible only if various agencies share information on their various activities in space.

It is this backdrop that GGE needs to take into consideration before formulating the TCBMs. It would be of no use to have a mechanism just for the sake of mechanism. It is important to have an effective mechanism for promoting space security and not an accommodative mechanism.