Responsible behaviour in outer space protects everyone

Outer space is a major investment opportunity and a driver for new technology, but global security is at risk without a shared understanding of the rules.

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As a vital part of both national and international critical infrastructure, outer space is becoming a crowded field with a growing number of space-faring countries, private sector interest, and competition between global powers. And yet the Outer Space Treaty (OST) agreed way back in 1967 and subsequent agreements have not been developed with additional security measures to take account of these new factors.

Despite a clear need for new norms of behaviour and ‘rules of the road’, the Conference on Disarmament has failed to negotiate any new agreement since the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT) in 1996. The resulting gridlock grew from an inability of key states to overcome competing interests and diverging priorities and, as a result, negotiating any new binding treaty appears impossible.

Just recently the US has stated it aims to prepare a proposal for the United Nations with the hope it will result in a ‘binding resolution’ to support the UK-sponsored UN General Assembly (UNGA) initiative on reducing space threats through ‘norms, rules and principles of responsible behaviours’. During the Donald Trump administration, the US declared a goal of space dominance and opposed binding rules for space, so this is clearly a change of policy and a signal that the US is willing to engage in multilateral discussion.

States no longer dominate space

But discussing a binding instrument right now would be challenging as states are no longer the only dominant actors in outer space. A significant amount of investment comes from the private sector, and the commercialization of space technology means states are increasingly dependent on corporations for the provision of space services and products, creating layers of complexity in any new space regulations.

There are also problems specific to the outer space security environment, such as a lack of agreement on definitions on where outer space begins, what is a space weapon, or what to control in outer space. Sensitivities and security concerns exist around inspections of payloads before launch and on who would be most appropriate to conduct them.

The commercialization of space technology means states are increasingly dependent on corporations for the provision of space services and products, creating layers of complexity in any new space regulations.

Verification is a challenge because it is harder to detect and monitor objects in Low Earth Orbit (LEO) due to the velocity and smaller size of satellites, and there are disagreements around whether dual and multi-use technologies, such as robotics and drones being used for debris cleanup, should also be verified as these can potentially be used for malign purposes.

Space technology is advancing rapidly, with smaller, faster, less costly satellites being developed and new technology applications pushing the sector ever forwards, from potential uses of new artificial intelligence and robotics for space exploration to additive manufacturing for long duration flights. Academia and the private sector innovate at high speed so, whenever states negotiate treaties, they are often behind the curve regarding space technology.

For all these reasons, we need to find smart, workable solutions to existing problems , and this holds true for outer space security. Dialogues and exchanges on perceived and real threats and examining the implications for international security should be achievable but, even in happier diplomatic times, legal frameworks are inherently challenging due to their rigid ‘pass-or-fail’ nature.

Although important to hold parties accountable for their actions, leaving a treaty due to concerns over non-compliance does not ultimately prevent a party from continuing said action – and it can result in relationships deteriorating while political differences, competition, and rivalry grow.

There are other ways to hold parties accountable: attribution or indictment policies in cyberspace are appropriate ways to hold parties accountable. After the Skripal poisonings in the UK, the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) was granted a mandate to attribute responsibility for the use of chemical weapons.

Agree on norms, shared behaviours and principles

As outlined by the UK’s Permanent Representative to the Conference on Disarmament, there first needs to be international agreement on which behaviours exacerbate tensions and drive competition.

The security and sustainability of outer space is for the benefit and in the interest of all and, as such, both states and the private sector should be involved in the discussion and be part of the solution.

While developing norms, principles and rules, there are at least four areas states should consider working and expanding towards:

  • Establish or extend de-escalation mechanisms, such as communication hotlines, to prevent miscalculation and misunderstanding and allow for timely information-sharing.
  • Gain a better understanding of perceived threats by identifying intentions and underlying security concerns through inclusive Track 1 and Track 1.5 dialogues and simulation exercises. The Strategic Security Dialogue between the United States and Russia is a good example of exchanging views – there is a need to hold such dialogues also at the multilateral level.
  • Engage with the private sector in identifying existing and potential threats and security risks to space systems, and in characterizing actions and activities that could be considered responsible, irresponsible, or threatening.
  • Address the impact of changes in outer space on international security and vice versa to explain why certain actions, which were not an issue before, are now problematic. For instance, rendezvous and proximity operations (RPO), once primarily used for servicing activities between two space objects such as the transfer of astronauts to and from space stations, are now challenging security. By coming into close proximity with another country’s satellite, operators can conduct a close inspection or potentially intercept communications.

The security and sustainability of outer space is for the benefit and in the interest of all and, as such, both states and the private sector should be involved in the discussion and be part of the solution. There is much at stake. Irresponsible behaviour and disregard for the rules of outer space, especially when there is universal agreement on what those rules should be, endanger not only the space-based assets on which we all depend, but also the global system of international peace and security.