THE WEAPONIZATION OF OUTER SPACE: HARNESSING INTERNATIONAL COOPERATION

Given the environmental challenges that are unique to the space domain and the exponential increase in the number and different types of actors in space, tenets of cooperation, collaboration, and communication are necessary to avoid unwanted escalation of potential conflicts or friction. The need for clarity and transparency in space is paramount to continued access to and use of space.

In the space domain, increased transparency is something from which we can all benefit. Exchange of information, particularly in respect of space situational awareness (SSA) and space traffic management, must be encouraged on a greater scale for basic sustainable use of space. Also, greater transparency regarding both general capabilities and specific intentions with certain manoeuver or technologies should be encouraged to reduce the risk of miscalculation or misinterpretation, thus reducing the risk of unnecessary escalation.

Furthermore, if each State actor’s capabilities are known, an appropriate and proportional response will always be more likely than if those capabilities are shrouded in uncertainty and secrecy. On the other hand, this transparency may be viewed as a vulnerability. The challenge is how to balance the clear benefits of increased collaboration and communication (increased transparency) with the need to protect one’s own space assets and the need to maintain some secrecy with respect to one’s own capabilities. Transparency will lead to better global security and the potential for peace, which is ultimately the goal for all countries.

As the space domain becomes more relevant in shaping global balances of power and forming alliances, the possibility for non-traditional U.S. alliances has become more viable. Past the traditional “five eye allies,” there are other State actors whose alliance would be beneficial for all States’ interests and advancement in the space domain. However, there may also a tension, as numerous participants noted, with the continued increase in the importance of the role of private sector actors in space. Many commercial actors have a broader client base than one State and may have clients who have unclear relationships with the U.S. government. One participant put forth the idea that diplomacy is the “missing ingredient” in the space domain and that without it, space security faces a serious threat. It was argued that the United States should act as a leader with a “rules-based system” approach to space and in so doing contribute to international security and a global order. Other State actors such as Canada should also “step up” and play a role in creating and maintaining a peaceful space system. It is commonly agreed, that passivity will lead to conflict, so it is imperative to take up the responsibility of actively working towards peace in the space domain.

The United States has already taken in proactively considering the challenges presented by the space domain and attempts at coalescing space initiatives in the Department of State and Department of Defense. A “Make America Great Again” flavour to the latest National Space Strategy, which may make it more difficult to promote International Transparency and Confidence Building Measures (TCBMs) at a national level such as launch notifications, budget information, and unclassified policy reports.

There was some debate about the impact of the Trump Administration on the progress of space diplomacy. On the other hand, some debate felt as though the United States has left a gap in global leadership in space by stepping away from a leadership role and refusing to support efforts such as the proposed International Code of Conduct on Space Activities (ICoC), an EU-led project, and the proposed Treaty on the Prevention of the Placement of Weapons in Outer Space, (PPWT) a joint proposal by China and Russia. The International Code of Conduct on Space Activities (ICoC) went through several iterations, culminating in a meeting hosted by the United Nations(UN) in 2015, but it was stymied because of critique of the Euro-centric process and the United States’ refusal to support it based on the code’s perceived restrictiveness. The Prevention of the Placement of Weapons in Outer Space (PPWT) has mixed international support, but the United States has long refused to support it because it is argued there is insufficient definition of a “weapon” in the proposed treaty and no verification mechanisms. One observation remarked that the United States may be hesitant to enter discussions over the Prevention of the Placement of Weapons in Outer Space (PPWT) for fear of limiting its own behaviour. 

A clear consensus arose that whatever reasons the United States may have for not being willing to negotiate a binding treaty like the Prevention of the Placement of Weapons in Outer Space (PPWT) or a non-binding instrument like the International Code of Conduct on Space Activities (ICoC), it should propose alternative measures which it is willing to support. Rebuffing international attempts to create more collaboration without providing alternatives means that the United States is failing to take a leadership role.

There was wide agreement among the states that the cooperation and inclusion processes necessary to successfully implement International Transparency and Confidence Building Measures (TCBMs) internationally should stem from open table discussions led by the United Nations (UN), an organization that provides an unparalleled legitimacy factor to space diplomacy. The Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS) is a United Nations (UN) body under whose auspices the existing space treaties were negotiated in the 1960s and 1970s. It operates on a consensus basis, however, making it very difficult for any decision-making, let alone advances in space diplomacy. Nonetheless, the United Nations (UN) was generally seen as the appropriate body for the development of International Transparency and Confidence Building Measures (TCBMs).

We were starkly divided on the idea that “any satellite can be a weapon” and the resulting uncertainty in defining what a “weapon” is in space. After hearing from a diverse set of experts, the argument that any satellite could be used as a weapon seemed to gain more traction. The dual-use nature of satellites makes it difficult to regulate, understand, evaluate, and define. A possible definition of a weapon in space was proposed as any “transfer of energy with malicious intent.” In response to the question of definitions, it is suggested that through verification articles and procedures written into future agreements, concerns stemming from definitional ambiguity could be mitigated.

One of the observation stressed the distinction between controlling hardware in space and controlling conduct in space, claiming the second may be easier to police. It was argued that outlawing certain hardware will very quickly become obsolete as technology advances, and furthermore, it creates loopholes that actors can abuse to justify unwanted behaviour. This prompted a resounding agreement that government bodies are going to move too slowly on regulating norms and a code of conduct in space, both at the national and international levels, and that regulation must therefore come from the international community. One of the observation also pointed out the success of this method, as the Space Debris Mitigation Guidelines came from exactly this type of process, under the collaborative work of the Inter-Agency Space Debris Coordination Committee (IADC). Similarly, the Manual on International Law Applicable to Military Uses of Outer Space (MILAMOS) and Woomera Manual projects(A woomera is an Australian Aboriginal wooden spear -throwing device) which are being drafted by a collective of international independent experts, provide a model for how non-governmental entities can provide much-needed clarification on the application of international law, the law on the use of force, the law of armed conflict, and space law to military activities. There is already a successful track record of similar manuals being developed (the San Remo Manual on Warfare at Sea, the Harvard Manual on Air and Missile Warfare, and the Tallinn Manual on Cyber Warfare).

One observation also stressed the importance of the role of policymakers alongside government organizations in shaping space policy. This participant highlighted the contradictions that prevent transparency efforts from succeeding, as many claim they want transparency while also hesitating to disclose knowledge for other State actors and private sector firms to use.

One observation proposed that policy makers may face less gridlock if they were to come together with field experts and technical experts, seeking input from a range of disciplines. Given the dynamic and multi-dimensional nature of the space domain, the benefits of “Track 1.5” diplomacy was emphasized, in which the commercial sector, technical experts, national policy makers, and the United Nations (UN) can all have an input in deciding on space norms. Furthermore, this may better allow for the prioritization of safety, decrease in debris, and overall security rather than individual State missions and interests.

The overall observation highlighted that lack of transparency and lack of clarity can often lead to problems that could have otherwise been avoided. Additionally, the barriers to building trust and promoting transparency can often get in the way of joint international progress. Ending on a hopeful note, the discussion emphasized that space operation coalitions are on the rise and becoming more inclusive, which demonstrates a slow move towards the transparency that one believes is necessary. There was consensus among all observations that trust, improved understanding of the geopolitical situation, increased space situational awareness (SSA), and greater communication at all levels will contribute to a greater likelihood that a potentially escalating situation can be resolved peacefully.

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