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ASAT launch
India’s test of an anti-satellite weapon last year. Efforts to stem the development of ASATs through treaties or international agreements have failed so far. (credit: DRDO)

Space security: the need for a monitoring mechanism


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This essay examines one idea for addressing space security. The intention is to learn something from the evolution of an existing structure from the domain of arms control and disarmament. Could a similar structure be developed for the space domain?

Outer space is fast gaining recognition as the possible fourth domain of warfare. Recently, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) has identified outer space as an “operational (warfighting) domain.” At the same time, almost everybody is of the opinion that the weaponization of outer space is not in the interest of humanity. However, no rule or treaty mechanism has won widespread acceptance to stop the possible weaponization of space.

No rule or treaty mechanism has won widespread acceptance to stop the possible weaponization of space.

For decades, the Prevention of an Arms Race in Outer Space (PAROS) has been a critical issue on the United Nation’s disarmament and arms control agenda. Today, this issue remains as one of the oldest agendas in the Conference on Disarmament (CD). Particularly, over the last one and half decades some efforts have been made to evolve a globally acceptable mechanism to address the issues concerning space security.

The first noticeable effort was made by the European Union. It introduced a draft International Code of Conduct for Outer Space in 2008 to the international community. Much debate took place on this proposal and, based on suggestions and recommendations over time, the original draft underwent three iterations. However, little could be achieved and even today there is no common agreement towards acceptance of this non-legally binding, voluntary international instrument, aimed at building norms of responsible behavior to conduct activities in outer space.

For long time, Russia and China have sought a legal agreement to avoid weapons been put in the space. They published a joint working paper on this subject during 2002, and in 2008 they submitted a draft treaty mechanism on the Prevention of the Placement of Weapons in Outer Space, the Threat or Use of Force against Outer Space Objects (PPWT). This draft was subject to criticism, particularly regarding its silence on the issue of terrestrial kinetic counterspace capabilities. Unfortunately, the updated draft introduced by them to the CD on June 10, 2014, also suffers from various limitations. Other major powers have not shown any interest even to debate on this draft.

In 2005, the UN General Assembly began a new process for exploring and subsequently developing transparency and confidence-building measures (TCBMs) in outer space activities. It established a group of governmental experts (GGE) to conduct a study on outer space. Over the last decade few sessions of the GGE have been convened and their reports have been submitted. Also, there have been some efforts at multilateral levels towards identifying the need to have a global mechanism associated with space security. Such references could be found made during the meetings of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), among others.

Regrettably, all of these efforts have not served much purpose, although they have been successful to keep the debate alive on this subject. They have managed to correctly present the likely threat to the space domain, and also the futility of the weaponization of space. At present, no major powers appear keen to find a constructive solution regarding space weaponization, in large part because that would obstruct their missile defense architecture. In general, it is expected that many nations would shy away from accepting any mechanism that would limit their actions in space.

At present, no major powers appear keen to find a constructive solution regarding space weaponization, in large part because that would obstruct their missile defense architecture.

While this debate continues, major innovations are happening in the field of space technology. This is true particularly for technologies associated with space debris removal, where various commercially viable options are being explored. Last month the first docking between two commercial satellites in space took place. This could be viewed as a major technological achievement, since it was a docking with a satellite that was never designed to receive a visitor. All this clearly indicates that the facilities for the robotic on-orbit servicing of satellites could be available near future. It is expected that over time, the stakes of private industry could leapfrog those of governments in the space domain. Now, the question is how to effectively monitor both the capabilities and intent of various state and private players in the space domain from the space security perspective.

Over time, the world has somewhat figured out the possible solutions for some important security challenges posed in the nuclear and chemical domains. There are successful treaty mechanisms in place, such as the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) and the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC).

The CWC entered into force on April 29, 1997. Simultaneously, the birth of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) took place. This organization tries to fulfill the convention’s mandate. OPCW has the authority to undertake industry inspections and is also responsible for ensuring the destruction of chemical weapons stockpiles.

The NPT, which seeks to inhibit the spread of nuclear weapons, entered into force in March 1970. An organization called the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has an authority to verify, through its inspection system, that the signatory nations comply with their commitments under the NPT. The IAEA, an autonomous organization under the family of the UN, has its own member states and some of them are not NPT signatories (many members have no nuclear capacity at all.)

Interestingly, OPCW and IAEA have different origins. OPCW and CWC has the same DNA, but the IAEA was established long before the birth of NPT, on July 29, 1957. It was born in response to the challenges in regards to diverse uses of nuclear technology. Its genesis could be traced back to the then US President Eisenhower’s “Atoms for Peace” speech to the UN General Assembly on December 8, 1953. Today, this organization serves as the global focal point for nuclear cooperation, helps develop nuclear safety standards, and also ensures their implementation.

At present, the question is whether we can we learn something from the experiences of the IAEA for the space domain.

Now, learning from the OPCW and IAEA experiences, can something similar be created for the space domain? Particularly, the IAEA experience tells us that it is not mandatory to have a treaty mechanism in place to have an agency that could be responsible to monitor various issues related to space technologies. Today, there is need to establish programs like “Space Technologies for Peace.” At present, there is a need to promote benign, protected, and peaceful space technologies. Pushing for a globally acceptable and legally binding space treaty mechanism is like running after a mirage. Hence, there is a need to look for alternative options.

Safety of satellite systems could be at risk if activities like on-orbit servicing start happening without any monitoring mechanism. Also, various experimentations associated with space debris removal should happen in a transparent manner. Today, some technology testing is taking place to demonstrate ASAT (anti-satellite) capabilities by undertaking “shoot to miss” missions. Also, a time may come when we have to decide whether the presence of so many small satellites in space is actually a boon or a bane.

Unfortunately, because of a lack of any globally agreed-to rulebook, today there is no control on the conduct of such activities. Thus, there is a need to have an agency that could develop safeguards, promote safety standards, undertake projects, conduct inspections, and settle disputes. For this purpose, an agency with a specific statute would be required to be developed. The need now is to have an agency that could assist in the conduct of activities in outer space in a transparent fashion. What could be the exact form and mandate of such agency is a matter of detail and could be worked on. At present, the question is whether we can we learn something from the experiences of the IAEA for the space domain. We need to have an effective instrument of some kind in place that could assist towards ensuring space security.


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