Dancing in the dark redux: Recent Russian rendezvous and proximity operations in space
Policy implications and recommendations
The first major implication from this analysis is that RPO is an issue that is not going away, and will likely become an even more pressing issue over the next several years. Although only activities by the United States, Russia, and China have been discussed here, other spacefaring countries such as Canada, Japan, and Europe already possess many of the same capabilities. Furthermore, several of the advanced space capabilities under development by both governments and commercial industry, such as disaggregated constellations, on-orbit satellite servicing and repairs, active debris removal, and on-orbit inspection, all rely on RPO, meaning that the technology and capabilities will only become more widespread over time.
The second major implication is that RPO present a significant challenge for future space security and stability. As scholar Jeffrey Lewis presciently noted in 2004, the combination of small satellites and increased autonomous rendezvous and proximity activities in Earth orbit challenge the existing rules and norms governing space activity, and create increased opportunities for misperceptions, mishaps, and mistakes. A decade later, we are seeing clear evidence of his prediction coming true in the RPO activities outlined in this article.
Moreover, RPO is just one of many challenges to the future of space security and the existing norms, roles, and governance structures. The space world is currently experiencing a diffusion of technologies and democratization of capabilities. The vast majority of that diffusion is good, in that it will yield significant socioeconomic benefits for many countries and open doors to new commercial opportunities. However, it also means the proliferation of national security space capabilities, and with it a greater number of countries with military space activities and interests in degrading other countries’ space capabilities.
It is also worth pointing out that this more “contested” and threatening space world is exactly what we expected, given the US policy stance taken in the early 2000s. For the first decade of the 2000s, the mantra from the United States was that there is no arms race in space, and US national policy was actively hostile to any discussions of new agreements or other governance mechanisms that would constrain US freedom of action in space. It’s no coincidence that such a US position was taken while it was primarily the United States that was testing and developing these capabilities years or decades ahead of any potential rivals.
Now that other countries are taking advantage of the same freedom of action, it is understandable that the United States suddenly deems the proliferation of these capabilities a massive US national security concern. What’s harder to understand is the US policy response. Instead of finally engaging seriously in discussions on how to strengthen space governance and mitigate the risks of the proliferation of counterspace capabilities, the emerging zeitgeist within the US national security community is that norms and the rule of law are fantasies and miscalculations and incidents aren’t so bad. Instead, the sole focus seems to be on a significant military buildup, threats of use of force, and a more aggressive posture.
Other domains of human activity have handled similar situations by negotiating agreements, codes of conduct, or even binding treaties. But the prospect of doing so in the space world looks uncertain, at least in the near term, given the outcome of the most recent negotiations on the International Code of Conduct for Space Activities, a rather bland attempt at non-legally binding norms. Those discussions failed for multiple reasons: a lack of effective diplomatic leadership, lack of capacity to address this issue at the national level in many emerging and developing states, a wide disparity in views over the issue of self-defense in space, and exploitation of the leadership gap and disparity in views by a disruption campaign from Russia. All of these challenges will need to be addressed before the space security community can make progress on upgrading its own governance framework to try and deal with the emerging threats and risks.
However, that does not mean there is nothing that can be done. There are still steps that can be taken to enhance transparency and confidence-building measures for RPO, and other space security and stability challenges as well. The most important step to take is to recognize the value of making more information on activities in orbit publicly available. The analysis presented in this article was possible only through the ability to access such public information. Without the public information, those outside of classified government circles would have no basis to determine what is going on, aside from the information provided by governments, and thus could not play a role in bringing political pressure to bear on irresponsible actors. Publicly accessible information also allows a much wider group of people to analyze it, increasing the chances that innovative techniques will be developed and important insights will be found.
Increasingly, open source analysis based on publicly accessible information is also having a significant impact on world affairs. An early pioneer in this field, the Satellite Sentinel Program, used data from commercial imagery satellites and other sources to document war crimes and deter mass atrocities in Sudan and South Sudan. Open source analysts have also provided public evidence about the shoot-down of Malaysian Airline Flight 17 over Ukraine, China’s island-building in the South China Sea, and Russia’s expanding military presence in Syria. In the space world, publicly-available data and open source analysis was able to debunk some of the wilder rumors about the on-orbit activities of the US X-37B spaceplane.
This call for more publicly accessible data does not mean all governments need to be completely transparent about their space activities. There will always be activities for which the national security concerns outweigh the benefits of transparency. However, at the moment, nearly all the on activities in space data is controlled by militaries, and much of it is hidden from public view. Perhaps a good model for a better balance between transparency and secrecy is the aviation world, where the vast majority of data on aircraft activities and flight are publicly available, and where militaries still find ways to operate clandestinely where necessary in specific places and situations.
There are also worrying signs that the US government may be reducing the amount of data on space activities it makes publicly available. Historically, the US government has been the primary source of public information on activities in space, a policy stance for which it should be commended. However, the Space Situational Awareness Sharing Strategy that was put in place by USSTRATCOM in 2014 indicates that might not be the case in the future. Since it was implemented, the United States has stopped providing data on the size of objects in its public satellite catalog, and now simply refers to objects as “small, medium, or large.” It has also placed more emphasis on only sharing specific data with specific end users, and only after those end users sign a legally binding agreement that places significant restrictions on what can be done with the data. While in the short-term this strategy might help keep US control of SSA data, over the long-term it is likely to incentivize the creation of alternative sources of data that ultimately lead to less US control. And it also hinders the introduction of new sources of data, and wider innovation in SSA techniques and capabilities.
Increasing the transparency of activities in space will not address the challenges from RPO by itself. Transparency is a necessary, but insufficient, condition for deterring irresponsible or aggressive activities in space. It must be coupled with political or legal agreements on what constitutes responsible behavior in space. In the case of RPO, there needs to be strong consideration of policies and agreements that clarify which RPO activities indicate threatening behavior. The importance of such agreements is not that they will always be honored, but rather that they help distinguish peaceful activities in space from hostile threats, and increasing the legitimacy of a self-defense response.
At the same time, the United States needs to think very carefully about focusing only on a military response to the threat it perceives. There is a strong case to be made that the Russian and Chinese RPO activities that present so much of a concern today are reactions to US policies and programs from a decade or more ago. While it is critical for the United States to defend its interests and assets in space, a purely military or aggressive approach is likely to generate more long-term problems than it solves, and threatens the creation of a “Guns of August” scenario, where—once prepped for war—it will be nearly impossible to de-escalate a crisis and avoid the “war in space” that the US military says it is trying to. This is particularly true if the US policy stance continues to emphasize maximum freedom of action for all US space actors, and therefore its potential adversaries as well, and avoiding serious consideration of any political or legal agreements that limit harmful or irresponsible behavior in space. Increased defensive and offensive capabilities do have a role, but only as components in an overall strategy that also includes increased TCBMs and establishing norms of behavior.