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Space security: the impossible consensus between powers

Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopalan 1
Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopalan
Director of the Centre for Security, Strategy & Technology at the Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi

In pre­vi­ous decades, space was a domain han­dled among a mere hand­ful of key play­ers such as the Unit­ed States and the Sovi­et Union. But this is no longer the case; mul­ti­plic­i­ty of actors in out­er space (pri­vate com­pa­nies, new states), both in num­ber and diver­si­ty, has accen­tu­at­ed the chal­lenge of glob­al gov­er­nance. What are the rules? And how can we enforce them?

Space: a fragile zone

Find­ing a con­sen­sus among the many stake­hold­ers in the cur­rent cli­mate has become near­ly impos­si­ble. More­over, we are see­ing increased use of space assets in con­ven­tion­al mil­i­tary oper­a­tions for com­mu­ni­ca­tions, as well as posi­tion, nav­i­ga­tion, tim­ing func­tions, to name a few. In ear­li­er decades, use of space by mil­i­taries was pri­mar­i­ly for strate­gic func­tions1 such as arms con­trol and treaty ver­i­fi­ca­tion, and ear­ly warn­ing. Add to that the arrival of new tech­nolo­gies such as on-orbit satel­lite ser­vic­ing2 that are typ­i­cal­ly used for remote satel­lite inspec­tion, refu­elling and repair – meant to extend the life of a satel­lite or to clean up junk in space. Even though these belong to the cat­e­go­ry of peace­ful use of space, ten­sions in glob­al geopol­i­tics and inten­si­fi­ca­tion of com­pe­ti­tion among major pow­ers have dri­ven sus­pi­cions about their use. 

Still, reg­u­la­tion3 of these new tech­nolo­gies4 and activ­i­ties have not been devel­oped and giv­en the state of major pow­er rela­tions, it is unlike­ly that there will be much progress on this in the imme­di­ate future. Even though the US con­tin­ues to main­tain the lead in almost all aspects of space tech­nol­o­gy and com­pe­ti­tion, China’s grow­ing capac­i­ties and its desire to rewrite the rules and norms in space has made space gov­er­nance more difficult.

Defining rules: a problematic exercise

The glob­al rule-mak­ing exer­cise has become chal­leng­ing for sev­er­al impor­tant rea­sons. That the major pow­ers can­not agree on what the most impor­tant chal­lenges are in the space secu­ri­ty domain is a major imped­i­ment in devel­op­ing con­sen­sus on the next steps. Coun­tries like Chi­na and Rus­sia argue that the arms race and place­ment of weapons in out­er space are urgent issues. Where­as the US and sev­er­al oth­er coun­tries per­ceive the grow­ing devel­op­ment and deploy­ment of coun­ter­space capabilities—technologies that can deny advan­tages that come from the use of space—as a more seri­ous danger. 

Hence, space is no longer “a sanc­tu­ary5 from attack and space sys­tems are poten­tial tar­gets at all lev­els of conflict.” 

It could also be said that there is a philo­soph­i­cal dif­fer­ence between these two groups of states about future gov­er­nance of space. West­ern states per­ceive enor­mous ben­e­fits in pur­su­ing polit­i­cal but non-legal instru­ments. They do not have suf­fi­cient con­fi­dence in oth­er pow­ers to pur­sue legal­ly bind­ing mea­sures giv­en the state of mul­ti­lat­er­al nego­ti­a­tions6 and so they argue that less bind­ing agree­ments may be the first step in build­ing trust and con­fi­dence in each oth­er. But coun­tries such as Chi­na and Rus­sia con­tin­ue to reit­er­ate that legal­ly bind­ing mea­sures are the only means to secure space.

The world is mov­ing away from a “sanc­tu­ary” view of out­er space towards the “space con­trol” or even the “space high ground” schools of think­ing. The lat­ter con­sid­ers that “space has the abil­i­ty to be the crit­i­cal fac­tor7 in deter­min­ing the out­come of a battle.” 

Far from a consensus

Some of the recent glob­al pro­pos­als for space gov­er­nance include the draft Treaty on the Pre­ven­tion of the Place­ment of Weapons in Out­er Space spon­sored by Rus­sia and Chi­na; the Threat or Use of Force against Out­er Space Objects (PPWT), orig­i­nal­ly pro­posed in 2008; the EU-ini­ti­at­ed Inter­na­tion­al Code of Con­duct for Out­er Space Activ­i­ties (2010); the 2013 UN Group of Gov­ern­men­tal Experts on Trans­paren­cy and Con­fi­dence Build­ing Mea­sures (TCBMs); the 2018–19 GGE on fur­ther prac­ti­cal mea­sures for the pre­ven­tion of an arms race in out­er space (PAROS) and a more recent UK pro­pos­al on space secu­ri­ty. But there has been no progress on any of these ini­tia­tives. The First Com­mit­tee of the UN Gen­er­al Assem­bly vot­ed in ear­ly Novem­ber to estab­lish an open-end­ed work­ing group on safe space stan­dards8. The for­ma­tion of this group, sched­uled for 2022, is worth watching.

Why do we need new mea­sures urgent­ly?  The exist­ing legal mea­sures, espe­cial­ly the Out­er Space Treaty (OST) of 1967 have been use­ful in main­tain­ing the sanc­ti­ty of out­er space but the Treaty and the asso­ci­at­ed agree­ments includ­ing the Reg­is­tra­tion Con­ven­tion, Res­cue Agree­ment and Lia­bil­i­ty Con­ven­tion have many gaps and ambi­gu­i­ties. For instance, the OST is silent on weapons oth­er than weapons of mass destruc­tion (WMD). The fact that only the place­ment of WMD is pro­hib­it­ed by the Treaty is a big lacu­na and the treaty can­not address con­tem­po­rary chal­lenges such as those pre­sent­ed by coun­ter­space capabilities.

A critical dialogue

Recent devel­op­ments should bring some urgency to the glob­al gov­er­nance debates.  Russia’s ASAT9 test, France’s10 Space Force Com­mand, Germany’s11 mil­i­tary space com­man­der cen­ter, Australia’s12 own ver­sion of a space com­mand13, and India’s Defence Space Agency are all a recog­ni­tion of the grow­ing secu­ri­ty-dom­i­na­tion of out­er space, and the chang­ing dynam­ics of space secu­ri­ty. Rus­sia came up with its own Russ­ian Space Forces even ear­li­er in 2011 and Chi­na estab­lished the Strate­gic Sup­port Force (PLASSF) in 2015, inte­grat­ing the Peo­ple’s Lib­er­a­tion Army (PLA) space, cyber and elec­tron­ic war­fare capa­bil­i­ties, mak­ing a more potent force to deal with. 

The crit­i­cal point here is to note that with­out mul­ti­lat­er­al nego­ti­a­tions, states will be com­pelled to pur­sue their own means of secur­ing their inter­ests in space, by demon­strat­ing their coun­ter­space capa­bil­i­ties includ­ing anti-satel­lite (ASAT) weapons to devel­op­ing ded­i­cat­ed mil­i­tary space insti­tu­tions, all of which could only height­en the poten­tial for con­flicts in space.



Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopalan 1

Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopalan

Director of the Centre for Security, Strategy & Technology at the Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi

Dr. Rajeswari (Raji) Pillai Rajagopalan was the Technical Advisor to the United Nations Group of Governmental Experts (GGE) on Prevention of Arms Race in Outer Space (PAROS) (2018- 2019). She joined ORF after a five-year stint at the National Security Council Secretariat (2003-2007), Government of India, where she was an Assistant Director. Prior to joining the NSCS, she was Research Officer at the Institute of Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopalan was also a Visiting Professor at the Graduate Institute of International Politics, National Chung Hsing University, Taiwan in 2012. As a senior Asia defence writer for The Diplomat, she writes a weekly column on Asian strategic issues and has authored or edited nine books including Global Nuclear Security: Moving Beyond the NSS (2018) and Space Policy 2.0 (2017). She has published research essays in various peer-reviewed journals and has contributed essays to international newspapers such as The Washington post.

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