Disarmament DiplomacyIssue No. 81, Winter 2005
Safeguarding Space: Building Cooperative Norms to Dampen Negative Trends
Whether most people realise it or not, outer space is now part of everyday life for much of the planet's population. Satellites have become fundamental to modern society, especially so in the developed world but also increasingly in developing nations. Broadcast television, the internet, ATM machines, banking transfers, telephone service, credit card validation, weather prediction, terrestrial and oceanic mapping, atmospheric and natural disaster monitoring, urban planning, navigation, and even targeting of sophisticated weaponry all rely on the use of satellites. At least 19 nations have launch capabilities and some 40 operate satellites for various purposes, and there are some 600 to 800 operational satellites currently in orbit, although the exact number is impossible to find due to lack of any centralised database.
Up to now, humankind's exploitation of space has been relatively non-contentious and space has largely remained a zone of cooperation rather than a zone of conflict. But the possibilities for conflict in space are growing ever more worrisome. As civil society, commercial industry and, in particular, national militaries become more dependent on the use of space systems, there is a growing potential for tension, suspicions and outright disputes. This dependency is coupled with the fact that, physically, space systems are quite vulnerable to deliberate disruption, in large part due to the technological advances that have made space more useful. Increased perceptions of vulnerability have given rise to concerns about protecting those assets. In addition, the advantages that space systems have for civil activities, such as providing global telecommunications, make space systems more and more coveted by militaries for enhancing power projection.
Under the administration of President George W. Bush, the US Air Force and Missile Defense Agency have begun to pursue the development of space weapons technologies - defined for the purposes of this essay as terrestrially-based anti-satellite weapons (ASATs) to target on-orbit assets and weapons based in space aimed at targets on the ground, in the air and in space. For example, the Missile Defence Agency has announced its intentions to pursue space-base kinetic energy interceptors to target ballistic missiles; the US Air Force is developing so-called guardian micro-satellites and manoeuvring micro-satellites that, while ostensibly for non-threatening purposes, could easily be deployed as ASATs.
It is not surprising, therefore, that the US position against a space weapons ban has hardened. This is due both to a renewed interest in acquiring space weaponry for both offensive and defensive purposes, and to the current administration's deeply-held distrust of international treaties - although it must be noted that, up to now, most US administrations, including that of Democrat Bill Clinton, have been leery of a space weapons ban that would close off US military options in space.
Nonetheless, it is apparent that the current campaign by the US Air Force's Space Command to garner domestic political approval for a space war strategy has reached a peak not seen since the darkest days of the Cold War. Further, for the first time in US history, a string of US Defence Department and Air Force documents have now been published officially articulating US plans for war-fighting "in, from and through" space, based on a desired future arsenal of ASATs, space-based missile defences, and space-based weapons deployed against both terrestrial and on-orbit targets.
This, in turn, has led to renewed agitation on the part of many other nations about a dangerous arms race in space. Russia and China joined together in 2002 to push for revitalisation of talks in the Conference on Disarmament (CD) on the agenda item 'Prevention of an arms race in outer space' (PAROS). During the following years they have tabled draft treaty concepts and working papers and hosted meetings and seminars to discuss these issues. Canada too has been spearheading efforts to jump- start progress in preventing a space arms race, including urging the G-8 nations to support international discussions of a weapons ban.  Progress toward a treaty will be impossible, however, without US acquiescence. This is unlikely in the foreseeable future under any administration, because, as noted above, most US policymakers of any political stripe share concerns about closing off options in this strategic arena at a time when technological innovation may be providing others with improved military capabilities.
Meanwhile, China seems to be pursuing a classic "two-track" approach to space arms control: promoting a treaty while pursuing research and development into weaponry either to hedge against a US deployment or to use as a bargaining chip. Some analysts, particularly in the United States, argue that, conversely, China is pursuing space weapons for offensive purposes while seeking to inhibit acquisition of similar weapons by the United States and other nations via its political stance promoting a weapons ban treaty. What is certain is that there are voices within China's military promoting the development of ASATs as a counter to both US space and power-projection capabilities. In addition, there have been media reports that at least two other space powers, India and Israel, may be considering pursuit of their own space arsenals.
The political climate for achieving a space weapons ban appears as grim as during the Cold War, when both the United States and Russia were actively testing ASAT weaponry. That said, no nation has yet committed to strong policies embracing space weapons, or major budget support for their development. And it is fairly certain that no nation currently has any such weapons in operation (although of course it is impossible to rule out that some nation has covertly acquired some type of simple ASAT or on-orbit weapon). Indeed, it is clear that many nations (and the general publics in nearly all nations) fear that the advent of space weapons will be catastrophic for the future of the human race.
Because space is a global commons and most satellites are dedicated to civil and commercial functions, warfare in space could likely debilitate its use for near- and mid-term economic and social development here on Earth. The spectre of warfare could undercut the positive trend toward cooperative exploration of the universe - exploration that could lead to scientific developments of major benefit to future generations and, perhaps, even help make possible humankind's migration beyond the Earth's solar system some time in the future.
Mitigating Space Environment Threats
In the absence of any near-term possibility of a ban on space weapons, what then can be done to reduce the chances of a dangerous arms race and possible warfare in space? Some positive approaches may emerge from the fact that the elevation of armed conflict to the heavens isn't the only threat to the safety and security of the global usage of space. Besides the spectre of space warfare, today's threats to space security revolve largely around what might be termed as over-taxing of the "space environment." The key "environmental" issues are the threat of space pollution from orbital debris; and the growing saturation of useful radio-frequency (RF) spectrum, along with attendant crowding of orbital positions required for satellite operations from Geosynchronous Orbit (GEO) where most communications satellites are based.
These issues are increasingly recognised by the international community as emerging problems of "resource management" for space, and as threats that pose dangers for civil and military space assets alike. Therefore, it is in the mutual interest of all space-faring powers, as well as users of space, to address such questions in a cooperative and collective manner. Any efforts to mitigate these threats subsequently hold out promise for increasing trust, dampening fears and setting collaborative norms.
If cooperation on mutual threats and concerns can be strengthened and normalised, it is further possible that international efforts might also be expanded into more direct strategic and military confidence-building measures amongst space-faring powers. Classic techniques include information exchange about strategic goals, doctrines and programmes, as well as expert meetings and exchanges. There is hope, therefore, that if a framework can be set over time for cooperative security in space, perhaps the drivers for military competition in space might be mitigated.
Some first cooperative steps
International cooperation is furthest along on the issue of space debris, widely recognised now, following several decades of careless behaviour. Most space-faring nations now have policies and standards for limiting the amount and types of debris created by their space launches. Further, the United Nations and the Inter-Agency Space Debris Coordination Committee (IADC) have been working to develop international debris mitigation guidelines. The IADC comprises the space agencies of China, France, Germany, India, Italy, Japan, Russia, Ukraine, the United Kingdom and the United States, plus the European Space Agency. The UN Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS) in 2001 asked IADC to develop and submit a set of voluntary international guidelines for possible adoption by COPUOS and the United Nations at large.
The guidelines were originally expected to be endorsed by COPUOS in 2004; however, several nations (particularly Russia and India) raised issues of concern. After much political jockeying, a less technically specific version of the IADC guidelines was adopted by the COPUOS Science and Technical Subcommittee in June 2005. These agreed draft guidelines are currently under consideration by national governments, and officials involved in the exercise are hopeful that a final version can be agreed by the COPUOS subcommittee in February 2006.
The United States, through NASA, has been a leader in the international mitigation efforts. This is in part because the United States is the dominant space actor, both in civil and military space, and so has the most to worry about vis-à-vis debris. Further, the United States - via the US Air Force's sophisticated Space Surveillance Network - is also the only nation routinely able to track and monitor space debris and other space objects. Up to now, the US government has generally shared data about space debris with commercial space operators and foreign governments alike. However, this may change under a new system, in which the provision of such data is now put under the direct auspices of the US Air Force rather than NASA, apparently due to NASA's budgetary difficulties. Because of the differing perceptions about the need for secrecy at the Air Force and within the intelligence community, a less transparent and more restrictive process for accessing US space surveillance data has arisen as a consequence. Concerns already have been piqued amongst the international community of amateur space trackers about these restrictions on obtaining and sharing such data. 
Space tracking and surveillance capabilities and data are critical for detecting and monitoring debris, for following satellites, for predicting and avoiding potential collisions, and for verifying compliance with orbital slot allocations. Effective space surveillance is also the underpinning for any future regimes to manage space traffic or control the behaviour of space actors. Furthermore, transparency in space could help dampen fears among potential competitors about military intentions and so lower the risks of a dangerous arms race in space.
Hence, the ability to "see" what is going on in space is a precursor to international cooperation and future security in space. Unfortunately, surveillance and tracking capabilities are not what they need to be for the above tasks. In particular, experts recognise the need for better capabilities in surveilling GEO.
Furthering and deepening efforts to improve debris mitigation and space surveillance, therefore, ought to be considered first steps by the international community in attempting to build norms for cooperative behaviour in space. Among possible near- and mid-term actions that could be considered by the United States and the international community are:
i) Space users and observers could press the US Defense Department to move more rapidly to set clear processes and guidelines for its new SpaceTrack programme for sharing orbital data. Although interim guidelines have been put forward, it is unclear how the system may work in the future. Further, the DoD should reverse its trend toward applying restrictions on how approved users may publish/redistribute the data. The basic orbital elements that have been published by NASA for years are of little use to those wishing to target satellites; further, a determined attacker could find a way to do so without access to that data.
Finally, the new fee-paying system for more detailed data and analysis should not overly charge government and/or industry customers, as it is the newly emerging space powers in the developing world that would suffer most if fees are set too high.
ii) The United Nations and COPUOS should continue to encourage the development of improved space surveillance and tracking technologies and methodologies, in particular urging those countries with technical resources to focus attention on the issue.
iii) The emerging effort by the European Union to build coordinated capacity should be further encouraged and supported. However, it would make sense for the Europeans to consider tailoring their effort to fill current gaps in, and add new surveillance capabilities to, the US network rather than simply duplicating US capabilities.
iv) The international community, perhaps under the auspices of COPUOS, should consider the creation of an independent, multinational alternative to the US Space Surveillance Network (SSN) and SpaceTrack. The COPUOS Science and Technical subcommittee should be tasked to: determine which nations have surveillance assets that could be used; review models for networking current and future assets; and explore the technical feasibility of creating such a publicly available surveillance, tracking and data distributing network.
An alternative to the SSN could not only play a role in supporting and complementing the US network, but could also ensure long-term availability of such data to all space-faring powers - given the trend-line in the United States toward more secrecy that may only be exacerbated if the US Air Force follows its current strategy of developing and deploying space weapons. The fact that the US military is the sole repository of most space surveillance data is potentially a problem - in that any reluctance to provide such data to others could undercut the safety of international space operations; data provided could be seen as unreliable/suspect by other users during times of crisis; or that such a monopoly could be seen as dangerous by US enemies and thus provoke potential threats to the system.
Further, the independent space tracking community should be encouraged to engage actively with both Europe and the United Nations in considering the development of alternatives to the SSN. The role of civil society in space has long been crucial, and the amateur/academic community can bring much expertise and experience as well as possible insights to low-cost approaches to the development of an internationally available data base.
v) National space agencies and licensing bodies should be encouraged to compare, contrast, and harmonise as much as possible national regulations that relate to debris mitigation, collision avoidance and space traffic management.
For example, NASA since 2003 has required satellite programme managers to coordinate with DoD before undertaking any manoeuvre that would change an object's orbital altitude by more than 1 km as part of its debris mitigation guidelines. Another such national measure would be requiring operators to perform a collision risk assessment for new launches as part of their licensing requirements.
vi) As a matter of domestic policy, military space powers should refrain from any weapons testing that would create orbital debris in levels beyond that created by a successful civil space launch. To encourage others, nations could publicly declare this pledge on a unilateral, voluntary basis. National governments should further require their militaries to abide by all domestic debris mitigation requirements, with few or no avenues for waivers (such as those based on cost).
Space tracking and surveillance could be greatly improved if operators openly provided not only original orbital insertion data but also updates on either planned or unexpected movement. All such data is required for operating a satellite; however it is not routinely shared either among satellite operators or with the space surveillance/tracking community. Further, current international instruments for registering satellite data - maintained by the United Nations and the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), which coordinates radio-frequency and GEO slot allocation - are both inadequate and poorly complied with by space-faring actors. Actions could include:
The JDEC called for sharing of data on space launches obtained by each other's ground- and space-based early warning systems including launch time, azimuth and geographic launch base, as well as identification of the launch vehicle or missile class, on each other's launches, and eventually on third party launches. The Pre- and Post-Launch Notification agreement called for an Internet Information Centre for posting of similar data before a launch of ballistic missiles or space launches. Both agreements also suggested voluntary notification of satellites forced from orbit and of tests that might interfere with each other's early warning radar.
Those nations with national security and military space assets have a common interest in assuring each other and the rest of the world that these activities are consistent with, and non-threatening to, peaceful uses of outer space. Such assurances are vital to avoiding misunderstandings and political tensions. Further, all nations using space assets for military purposes have a common interest in defining for themselves and each other what activities in space they might consider threatening, dangerous or escalatory, and in establishing norms of peacetime behaviour that do not cross those lines. Otherwise, the risks of accidental warfare in space are likely to grow. While direct military and national security space confidence-building will take strong national political will, and no doubt be difficult to implement, goals worth pursuing include:
A Treaty on Debris-Creating Weapons?
The steps suggested above are those that might be undertaken in the near-term, setting a firmer foundation for a secure future for space activities. Thinking in the slightly longer term, there may also be some prospects for more formal international negotiations on barring the testing, deployment and use of debris-creating weapons.
As noted above, space debris is an area of broad accord amongst space users, and efforts to combat space junk in the civil arena are already well underway. The creation of enormous amounts of space debris through the testing and/or use of destructive ASAT weapons would be in no one's interest. Indeed, even the US Air Force is on record as highly concerned about the hazards of debris: Air Force officials have declared that the service's priority in achieving 'space control' is via "temporary and reversible means" that do not destroy a satellite and render it debris. This is because debris in space recognises no nationality; it does not distinguish between military and commercial satellites or between enemy and friendly assets. It poses a danger to all.
Encouragingly, some US Air Force officials privately agree that an international treaty barring testing and deployment of destructive ASAT weapons would be in the US (and its military's) interests, given that the United States operates more satellites than the rest of the world combined. This is based on the belief that the service can both protect its own assets and negate enemy use of its space assets during a conflict, largely through sophisticated electronic warfare methods such as jamming and spoofing; whereas other less technically-advanced space-faring nations would be hard pressed to develop ASAT technologies other than destructive means. In addition, since the US Air Force itself has no love for debris-creating weapons, it would be losing little if anything under such a treaty.
There may already be established legal grounds acceptable to the US military that could underpin such an agreement. For example, the chief legal counsel for international air operations for North American Aerospace Defence Command (NORAD), Lt. Col. Christopher Petras, wrote in a 2003 paper: "A cursory review of relevant provisions of the law of armed conflict suggests that there is at least a foundation for dialogue with respect to an agreement that would prohibit the use of weapons that cause widespread, long-term and severe contamination of the commons of space with debris."
It must be noted that Petras' paper represents his personal view and does not purport to reflect any sort of consensus in Air Force legal circles. Nonetheless, the arguments in the paper are intriguing in that they are based on several tenets of customary international law: discrimination, the requirement that attackers must discriminate between combatants and non-combatants; military necessity, a principle which includes a prohibition on attacking civilians and civilian property unless absolutely necessary to winning a conflict; and proportionality, the stricture that an attack must not cause excessive or disproportionate damage compared with the military advantage gained.
Space debris by its nature is "indiscriminate," therefore employing a debris-creating weapon may arguably be illegal already, though it would be to US advantage to clarify and underscore this by means of a recognised and specific international agreement. Most satellites serve either civilian or dual military-civilian users, thus perhaps further limiting a state's right to target them in warfare under the concept of military necessity. Finally, the costs of directly destroying a civilian satellite in view of the benefits it provides to large numbers of users, as well as the costs of polluting the space environment, might weigh against destructive space weapons being deemed "proportional" in most, if not all, circumstances.
As a first step toward initiating negotiations on debris-creating weapons (whether based on kinetic energy or directed energy technologies), Canada - as a partner in NORAD - could consider spearheading a military-to-military dialogue aimed at reaching a common position that might later be translated into a broader international accord. Meanwhile, perhaps the CD - or a group of experts from member states - could begin to explore the legal issues surrounding whether debris-creating weapons are consistent with the laws of armed conflict, starting with the lines of inquiry highlighted by Petras.
Another expert panel might flesh out scenarios to postulate the potential impact of conflict debris in LEO and GEO from even a limited exchange of destructive weaponry. While the current US administration is notoriously allergic to international treaties of any sort, a future administration - whether Republican or Democrat - may be persuaded that a well crafted, limited agreement on debris-creating weapons is in US interests. Other space-faring nations are also likely to accept that such a treaty would have merit in furthering efforts to increase space security. If nations such as China were to refuse to support such talks, it would cause questions to be raised about their good faith on the issue of a space weapons ban.
Negotiations about a ban on destructive space weapons would no doubt encounter a number of difficulties relating to definitions and verification. In particular, there are likely to be disagreements over defining the level of debris creation by weaponry that could be considered safe (as nearly every space activity creates some level of debris). Moreover, if the US continues with its pursuit of space-based missile defences, that could cause further difficulties. Nonetheless, given the confluence of interest among all space stakeholders regarding debris, some sort of accord ought to be possible.
Such a treaty, while not completely barring ASATs or space weapons, would make a very useful contribution towards addressing some of the most egregious negative repercussions of space weapons; and might open the way for the militaries of space-faring powers to pursue space control missions in a "controlled" manner that would protect civil assets even during wartime.
Although prospects for direct action to block the future weaponisation of space are currently not good, the indiscriminate nature of current threats to global utilisation of space opens the door to a variety of opportunities for international cooperation across stakeholder communities. Such cooperation is vitally necessary to ensuring the future security of space.
On the international stage, past and current efforts have largely been focussed on a space weapons ban, but it is important that this long term solution not derail progress toward more achievable mid-term goals that could serve to dampen threat perceptions and help prevent conflict. In other words, those concerned about the future security of space should not let the best stand in the way of the good. To this end, government and international organisations need to pay attention to building cooperation against today's threats to the space environment including the potential of weapons-created debris, developing confidence-building measures and fostering step-by-step approaches to civil and military space 'rules of the road' that would be more politically acceptable to the United States (and beneficial to all space-faring nations) in the shorter-term.
One of the key obstacles to collective measures to mitigate mutual concerns about space security is the lack of cross-stakeholder interaction. This lack of interaction often leads to misunderstandings and suspicions among various communities about motives, as well as squabbling about priorities. Thus, it behoves the international space community to find ways to build and improve collective efforts to address areas of common interest. Such efforts need to include bridging the communications gaps between national civil and military space agencies, and among international organisations such as COPUOS, the CD and the ITU.
While bureaucracies are notoriously difficult to change, and doubly so on the international scale, it is not impossible, with creative thinking, for coordination amongst stakeholder communities to be fostered and enhanced. For example, the international community, perhaps through the Office of Outer Space Affairs (OOSA), could strive to identify areas of mutual interest and concern across space stakeholder communities, and plan a series of meetings to bring communities together to discuss these issues and cross-fertilise efforts to address problems.
Civil society and industry in space-faring nations must also play a role in furthering these goals. Nongovernmental organisations (NGOs) need to redouble their efforts to educate policy-makers and publics about issues facing the broad community of global space actors. This could be done through cross-stakeholder seminars to address these issues in a holistic manner, as well as research and work to identify cooperative mechanisms that could bridge these different communities. In particular, NGOs and industry should consider how their communities might cooperate in such endeavours.
Since the dawn of the space age, space has been an arena of both competition and cooperation. Up to now, competition has been largely controlled and cooperation valued, thus opening space as a global commons and avoiding weaponisation and conflict. This balance between competition and cooperation must be actively protected by all space stakeholders, individually and collectively, if humanity is going to continue to reap the benefits of access to space. The fate of space cannot be allowed to fall victim to the 'tragedy of the commons', nor to the inertial forces driving military competition. Too much is at stake for the security of the world today, and for that of future generations.
 Author's email exchange with a NASA official, February 2003.
 Although both the United States and the Soviet Union dabbled with ASAT weaponry during the Cold War, neither side went as far as to formally deploy systems due to costs, technical hurdles and concerns about the possible destabilising role such systems might play in the nuclear competition between the two superpowers.
 There is no internationally agreed definition of a space weapon; because most space technology is inherently dual-use. For the purposes of this essay, the term space weapons refers to a system in any basing mode designed to destroy a satellite, or any type of weapon (whether lethal or non-lethal) based in space. Terrestrially-based jamming systems using radio-frequency or laser capabilities to temporarily block satellite operations are not included. The logic behind this definition is that the types of weaponry included either directly target satellites themselves (rather than simply their usage) or use space as a platform for offensive operations. Further, these types of systems present the greatest dangers to the useful functioning of space in peacetime because of their potential for creating orbital debris.
 These include a classified DoD policy on space control, the US Air Force's Transformation Flight Plans for 2003 and 2004, and most recently the US Air Force Counterspace Operations Doctrine - for more information see CDI's Space Security Project at http://www.cdi.org.
 'Air Force Space Command Strategic Master Plan FY 06 and Beyond,' U.S. Air Force Space Command, Peterson Air Force Base, Colorado, October 1, 2003, p.8.
Saunders, Jing-dong Yuan, Stephanie Lieggi, and Angela Deteres,
"China's Space Capabilities and the Strategic Logic of
Anti-Satellite Weapons," Center for Nonproliferation Studies,
Monterey Institute of International Studies, July 22, 2002,
 See, for example, Leonard David, 'The Clutter Above', Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, July/August 2005.
 Email exchange with an official involved in the IADC and COPUOS discussions, March 5, 2004.
 David Finkleman, "Data Restrictions" (Letter to the Editor), Space News, January 31, p. 20.
 Specific recommendations are taken from "Future Security in Space," see pp. 8-18.
 Carolyn O'Hare, 'Seven questions: Space weapons part II,' an interview with Lt. Gen. Daniel Leaf, Air Force Space Command vice commander, Foreign Policy online, Aug. 18, 2005, http://www.peterson.af.mil/hqafspc/News/News_Asp/nws_tmp.asp?storyid=07-259
 According to the Union of Concerned Scientist's Satellite Database, the United States has 413 operational satellites compared to 382 for the rest of the world combined; see http://www.ucsusa.org/global_security/space_weapons/satellite_database.html
 Lt. Col. Christopher M. Petras, USAF, "The Debate Over the Weaponization of Space - A Military-Legal Conspectus," Annals of Air and Space Law, Institute and Centre of Air and Space Law, McGill University, Montreal, Canada, 2003, p. 206. Emphasis in original.
 Ibid, pp. 206-208.
Theresa Hitchens is vice president, and director of space security, at the Center for Defense Information, a non-partisan think tank in Washington, D.C. This article is partly drawn from the author's publication, "Future Security in Space: Charting a Cooperative Course," Center for Defense Information, September 2004, published through the support of Carnegie Corporation of New York.
© 2005 The Acronym Institute.