The security situation in outer space is under unprecedented scrutiny. The establishment of the United States Space Force in December 2019, anti-satellite missile tests by China and India, and Russian activity involving co-orbital satellites have made international headlines and prompted strong international responses. They have also increased rhetoric on the further militarization and possible weaponization of space, and raised concerns regarding an arms race in outer space. Understanding these developments is essential for states and commercial space actors to continue to operate in orbit and work towards the long-term sustainability of this environment.
Space is an area of strategic competition. It is important for military and national security activities, through the provision of long-range, secure communication; intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) data; and position, navigation and timing (PNT) capabilities. Space capabilities also provide data for many aspects of daily life, including for finance, transportation and entertainment sectors. As such, space industry and space exploration activities have huge economic benefits for a range of industries in the form of communications, Earth observation and PNT signals. Recognition of these benefits has led to more satellites in orbit to meet an increased demand and further analysis of how space is understood in terms of military purposes.
There are, however, certain challenges that space actors face. The first of these is counterspace capabilities, which range from kinetic anti-satellite missiles that can destroy a satellite, to non-kinetic measures such as cyberattacks or jamming. Such capabilities pose proliferation concerns as more countries are interested in acquiring them, putting space assets at risk and increasing concern of a future conflict in space.
The second challenge relates to the substantial increase in space actors since the beginning of the 21st century, and the resulting expansion in both the number of active satellites and pieces of space debris. As more states have become involved, there has been a huge expansion in commercial space activities. This has added an extra dimension to how all actors need to approach their operations in space.
Spacefaring states, particularly those with existing military space programmes, have reorganized the ways in which they operate, raising concerns among those advocating peaceful space activities that it is becoming increasingly militarized.
These challenges have been met with a range of responses from the international community. Spacefaring states, particularly those with existing military space programmes, have reorganized the ways in which they operate, raising concerns among those advocating peaceful space activities that it is becoming increasingly militarized. Newcomers to space often enter the sector through partnerships, recognizing the need to engage in activity in this environment. The last group are those who do not actively participate in orbital missions but recognize the reliance they have on space assets and the need to preserve the environment. It is necessary to understand the different perspectives with which various actors approach these challenges in order to find solutions.
Internationally, focus on arms control in space has increased, as have discussions regarding norms of behaviour and what it means to be a responsible space actor. As with all multilateral discussions, politics and existing rivalries affect the speed and effectiveness of such debates, as do the intentions of individual states and the ways in which they conceptualize the problems.
An argument can be made that it is incorrect and possibly even harmful to apply the term ‘arms race’ to the current situation in space (or, indeed, the term ‘space race’) – for example, as discussed in the United Nations Conference on Disarmament’s Treaty on Preventing an Arms Race in Outer Space (PAROS). Yet to understand these and other ongoing negotiations, an approach that accepts the arms race narrative must be taken.
Within this narrative, an arms race is happening across multiple domains, and space capabilities are a part of this. Approaching it from this perspective also negates any idea of a ‘space race’ that is occurring independently of terrestrial developments. The role of space within this broader arms race has two characteristics. The first is the ways in which space assets support other systems, such as nuclear command and control and missile early warning systems, and so cannot be separated from developments in these areas. The second is the recognition that satellites can potentially be the weak points in these systems and can therefore be targeted through physical or cyber means, as well as the fact that satellites provide a great deal of support for military operations. As a result, a number of states have developed a range of counterspace capabilities.
An arms race, by this definition, occurs within the strategic context and involves gaining an edge over an adversary in terms of qualitative or quantitative improvement of weapons. A 2020 report from the United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research (UNIDIR) highlighted three indicators of an arms race dynamic: rivalries, corollary developments and acceleration of development, all of which can be seen to be applicable to the context of space. There has therefore recently been a renewed sense of urgency to address the potential for conflict in space.
In 2008, Russia and China introduced the Prevention of the Placement of Weapons in Orbit (PPWT) treaty, although this has seen resistance from the West. Much of this resistance has arisen from the difficulty of defining a weapon in space, the multi-use and dual-use nature of many space capabilities and the difficulties of knowing what objects are capable of until they are used. Russia and China have also been called out for hypocrisy in promoting arms control treaties while at the same time developing advanced counterspace capabilities and, despite their push for the PPWT, neither has endorsed a recent British initiative regarding norms of behaviour. At present, PPWT discussions have stalled and show no signs of progressing.
Other initiatives include an EU Code of Conduct, which has similarly been met with political blocks, but did reach some agreement that norms can help to preserve stability. The Group of Government Experts (GGE), the Conference on Disarmament and the Disarmament Commission have all failed to make significant progress in terms of reaching agreements on concrete measures that can be taken to improve security in outer space.
The most recent discussions, centred on a UK proposal to the United Nations General Assembly, focus on the pursuit of norms of behaviour. They are intended to kick-start discussions on rules of engagement for capabilities such as rendezvous and proximity operations (RPO) and kinetic anti-satellite (ASAT) missiles. The potential success of this initiative, which emphasizes behaviour instead of capabilities, and which has received broad support internationally despite opposition from Russia and China, will provide evidence as to the likelihood of concrete future agreements among space actors being reached.
Within this complex environment, there are questions for how actors respond. This is particularly relevant for medium-sized space powers as they juggle their own ambitions with those of their partnerships and alliances, and as they cement their identities as space actors. The UK and Japan are two such states, and from the perspective of the UK, it is interesting to consider how Japan can be a useful ally in the future.
The UK context – what next for a medium space power?
While the UK was a relatively early entrant in space activity, with the launch of a satellite in 1971, it has somewhat lost its way since. Despite continuing, if at times minimal, activity, it has struggled to find its identity as a space actor. Various strategies and policies have been announced, particularly since the formation of the UK Space Agency in 2010. However, these have lacked cohesion and leadership, and as such the position of the UK as a space power has remained static. This is not to say that important work has not taken place. The role of UK industry in pioneering small satellites, which have had a large effect on the space environment, cannot be denied. Rather, space has not always been seen as a priority in the UK.
Recent events over the past few years, however, show that this is changing. Space is now a central policy area, and the UK is not alone in this regard. In the vast majority of states, the importance of space is being reflected in policy changes.
The UK has undertaken a number of steps to centralize its space governance. In April 2020, the Ministry of Defence appointed Air Vice-Marshal Harvey Smyth as its first director space, a two-star position that has already provided leadership and cohesion of military space, bringing often disparate activities under one roof. Following its inclusion in the government’s 2020 manifesto, it was announced that the UK would include an RAF Space Command within its defence strategy. While this has raised some questions as to its purpose and role, not least due to the current small number of sovereign military satellites, it has also caused concern internationally that the UK is intending to raise its status as a military space power, perhaps even to the extent of developing its own counterspace capabilities. Currently available information suggests that the Space Command’s primary remit will be to allow the UK to act more effectively in other areas of defence and with international partners. Transparency in this area is necessary to ensure that the rest of government and the international community fully understand the purpose of the Space Command and therefore the way that the UK perceives itself as a military space power. Nevertheless, the existence of the Space Command does highlight that the UK intends for the Ministry of Defence to play a larger role within military alliances when it comes to space, as well as to work more closely with domestic partners to assure and protect the UK’s space assets.
Within the broader UK context, a new National Space Council became a Cabinet Committee in June 2020, again with the intention of improving coherence across a wide variety of activities in various government departments and agencies. The Council ensures that those areas of government that do not have a central role in space activities, but that rely on the information that space provides, have a voice and are involved in discussions on future capabilities, how to protect existing assets and on ensuring continued access to orbit.
The central work of the UK is its leadership of multilateral discussions within the UN through its proposal on norms of responsible behaviour, pushing forward essential conversations regarding the long-term sustainability of orbit.
Within the foreign policy realm, the central work of the UK is its leadership of multilateral discussions within the UN through its proposal on norms of responsible behaviour, pushing forward essential conversations regarding the long-term sustainability of orbit. The UK will continue to take part in the other ongoing discussions, such as those within the Conference on Disarmament and the UN Office of Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA). However, there are other ways in which space plays a role in foreign policy. Initiatives within the UK Space Agency work internationally to support programmes concerned with development, climate change and security. Multinational scientific and exploration missions are important for maintaining and increasing international relationships. It is possible that, for a medium space power that lacks the ability and resources to match the number of satellites and launch capability of the larger powers, more focus will be given to these diplomatic and soft-power activities as a way to increase the UK’s international standing as a space power.
While there has been momentum towards this new reality over the last few years, it should be noted that much of what has taken place is related to the way in which the current government has approached space. There is full recognition of the importance that space plays and its priority role in the economy, the indigenous industry and national security. The government also recognizes the threats that are faced, such as space debris and the counterspace capabilities of adversaries. The 2021 UK Integrated Review, which looked into all aspects of defence, national security and foreign policy, reflects how space plays a role across all of these elements. In short, space is no longer seen as something separate, understood and engaged in by a relatively small number of technical experts. Space is a cross-cutting enabler, without which the mechanisms of defence and national security cannot operate.
However, questions remain. While recent events and activities have seen the UK set the scene and lay down markers to play a bigger role internationally, this is only the start. Where does the UK go now? What capabilities does it want to develop, both military and civilian, and how can it improve governance to bring different areas closer together? Thought must also be given to how the UK can build on its existing international partnerships and alliances. On the military side, the UK needs to look at its role within NATO and the Five Eyes intelligence-sharing network, and how it might fill capability gaps to increase its standing, as well as explore further alliances with states that face similar threats. On the civilian side, the UK will need to balance its role and commitments as a member of the European Space Agency (ESA) with other existing and future international partnerships, particularly as the implications of Brexit and the role of EU funding to the ESA are realized.
The Japan context
As with the UK, Japan was an early entrant into space activity, with the launch of its first satellite in 1970, but similarly it did not make significant progress until more recently. Since the formation of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) in 2003, it has become one of the leaders in space exploration. Recent successful missions, including its Hayabusa2 asteroid sample-return mission, have shown Japan to be at the forefront of technology in this area. The establishment of JAXA was followed by the adoption in 2008 of the Basic Space Law, leading to the formation of the Strategic Headquarters for National Space Policy. The law outlined Japan’s approach to space development and use, ‘contributing to the improvement of the lives of the citizenry and the development of the economy and society as well as contributing to the improvement of international peace and the welfare of humankind’. This law has also outlined priorities including disaster management, space exploration and innovation, as well as Japan’s commitment to undertake space activities in accordance with international agreements and to work towards the preservation of the space environment.
The evidence therefore supports the notion that Japan’s space policies and activities were geared towards non-military use and the avoidance of conflict in space. However, the 2008 law does note ‘national security ramifications’, albeit ‘based on the pacifism of the Constitution of Japan’, and, in 2012, JAXA’s remit was expanded to include military space development. Space was included as a priority area for advancing defence capabilities in the 2018 National Defense Program Guidelines, and this was followed in May 2020 with the launch of the Space Operations Squadron, part of the Japan Air Self-Defense Force.
The new squadron is intended to provide protection for Japanese satellites from attack and to monitor the environment, as well as to provide support for other areas of defence. It is apparent that some of the impetus for its creation is the perceived threat from Russian and Chinese developments in counterspace capabilities as well as concerns over a nascent North Korean space programme. Japan is in this sense responding to changes in the security environment rather than actively looking to engage in space-based military activity, such as through the development of offensive capabilities. It is likely that unless a Japanese satellite is attacked, and such an attack can be proven, this approach to space will remain the status quo.
Japan has also been active in multilateral discussions regarding the space environment. For example, in February 2020, the government of Japan put out a joint statement with the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA) on space debris, outlining its intention to take on a leadership role in tackling the problem. Working through multilateral institutions is a way for Japan to respond to the identified threats – both to its own space assets and to the space environment as a whole – without compromising the limitations that it may set itself in military activity.
Although there are obvious differences between the two, there are similarities between the UK and Japan in terms of their space programmes that suggest they have much to gain by working together. Primarily, both are states that have until recently had minimal activity within the realm of military space, focusing instead on civil and commercial opportunities, and are now expanding in this area. Both appear reluctant to travel too far down this path through the creation of offensive counterspace capabilities, relying instead on the international community as a route to security, safety and sustainability of orbit.
Areas for cooperation
It is clear that in order to confront the myriad challenges in space, international cooperation is key. As two medium-sized space powers with similar outlooks, the UK and Japan are well placed to work together in a number of areas, either bilaterally or with other like-minded states. Doing so would not only increase the security of each but would also build upon a growing coalition of space actors working towards the long-term sustainability of this environment.
As mentioned earlier, the first area for cooperation is in multilateral discussions taking place through UN mechanisms. Although the UK has led on the most recent agreements on the need for norms of behaviour, continued support from Japan is essential for ensuring momentum is not lost. Well-respected space actors such as Japan can also assist with reaching out to states that may be more sceptical of such measures. Cooperation in this area is perhaps the way in which states such as the UK and Japan, while limiting their own military space capabilities, can best respond to the proliferation of counterspace capabilities and the direct threats to their own space assets.
The second area for cooperation is in the area of space situational awareness (SSA) or space domain awareness (SDA). These activities, which involve monitoring and understanding the space environment, such as through tracking space debris and warning of potential satellite conjunctions, have traditionally been carried out by militaries. But in recent years there has been a shift to civil and even commercial entities, thereby removing barriers to information-sharing that is needed to gain as full a picture as possible of orbit. State support for commercial SSA data providers through bilateral and multilateral agreements on information-sharing and data interoperability could help in building up this picture.
And finally, there are many opportunities for collaboration in the areas of science and exploration. As already mentioned, Japan is well established in the field of space exploration, and future missions could benefit from incorporating British expertise, such as the technology required for close approach and rendezvous and the recent initiative to explore the uses of nuclear energy for space exploration. From the UK perspective, not only can Japan provide experience but it also offers an additional partnership option should the UK wish to look beyond its work with the ESA. There are also a number of ways in which the two states could collaborate closer to home, such as through scientific space programmes in the fields of climate research and monitoring solar weather. Leading on and partnering in multinational missions can provide impetus for working towards a space environment that remains peaceful, and can also provide opportunities for states without the means to access space independently to play more of a role.
For space to remain secure, safe and sustainable, leadership from a small number of actors can go a long way. The UK and Japan are medium-sized space powers that have shown an unwillingness to go too far down the route of militarizing space. Yet, both have the stature and readiness to bridge gaps between the larger space powers that exist because of sensitivity and ongoing rivalries.