Three rules for peace in orbit in the new space era
by Brian G. Chow and Brandon W. Kelley
|Worse, countries could agree to and implement an STM regime actively harmful to the security and/or economic interests of those who join it.|
Fortunately, the US can prevent both outcomes. To do so, the US must adhere to three rules in its approach to STM. First, the STM system must be “bad actor”-proofed. Second, the regime must provide timely warning and defense. Third, the STM regime must be structured in such a way as to align all parties’ incentives toward agreement and compliance. By building these three rules into STM design and negotiations from the outset, the US and its allies can establish a strong foundation for continued peace and prosperity in orbit.
It is the policy of this administration, as articulated in the most recent National Security Strategy (October 12, 2022), that,
America will maintain our position as the world’s leader in space and work alongside the international community to ensure the domain’s sustainability, safety, stability, and security. We must lead in updating outer space governance, establishing a space traffic coordination [STC] system and charting a path for future space norms and arms control.
For such a system to be effective (note: this article uses the term STC interchangeably with STM), it must be built on three core principles. These criteria will enable the regime to balance peace, security, and stability on the one hand, with prosperity, sustainability, and safety on the other.
The first rule is that the US must refuse to join any STM system which is not adequately “bad actor”-proofed. The US and its partners should firmly establish and declare as a non-negotiable precondition that they will accept no STM system consisting of any rule(s)—or lack thereof—vulnerable to exploitation by bad actors. The STM regime adopted must not reward or incentivize aggression, but must also not sidestep the need to address key threats to space security. There are particularly strong reasons to believe that China and Russia, if not denied the opportunity via an adequate STM regime, will seek to exploit various space governance lacunae in the coming years. For example, there are concerns that they could seek to hold many critical US satellites at risk by as early as 2026, with dangerously destabilizing results.
The second rule is that the STM regime must ensure timely warning and defense. This requires first that abstract concepts of responsible behavior be translated into concrete rules of the road for space that are transparent, verifiable, and enforceable. Second, those rules must be deliberately designed to favor the defense, including maximizing warning time and facilitating adequate response measures. This will prove especially critical during a crisis or in the early stages of an incipient military conflict, during which ambiguity is especially dangerous.
|The current approach to STM focuses almost exclusively on space sustainability… The result is that insufficient attention is being paid to counterspace threats.|
The third rule is that both the US negotiating strategy and the STM regime itself must be designed to actively incentivize agreement and continued compliance. The US and its allies have many carrots and sticks at their disposal to induce consensus and to deter and punish defection, and should make full and creative use of these. As one example, the US and its allies can and should condition continued access to lucrative Western space markets on assent and adherence to STM rules such as norms of responsible behavior and limits on close approaches to critical assets. Doing so could significantly alter the incentive structure of various nations, most importantly Russia and China. A second example is that the US should publicly elaborate its understanding of relevant international legal rules, and especially of what means of retorsion are lawfully available to states to “encourage” a return to compliance with such rules. This would make clear that rogue actors should expect to pay steep costs for little reward, making defection and cheating much less attractive options than they will otherwise be.
How does the current US approach stack up against these rules, and what changes are required?
The current approach to STM focuses almost exclusively on space sustainability. Moreover, measures currently being pursued are almost exclusively voluntary, and the current process is limited primarily to traditional decision-by-consensus international fora.
The result is that insufficient attention is being paid to counterspace threats, which is likely to have serious consequences for national security. Given the option, Russia and China will ensure that any consensus which does emerge is pure theater, failing to deal with the most significant real threats. One example, covered at length previously, is that current STM proposals will likely do very little to prevent or deter potential adversaries’ dual-use “R-spacecraft”, capable of rendezvous and proximity operations (RPO), from prepositioning very close to critical but vulnerable strategic military, intelligence, and navigational assets housed in geosynchronous, highly elliptical, and medium Earth orbits during this decade and well into the 2030s. There are other threat vectors, of varying severity and timeline. By establishing as a necessary precondition for agreement on any STM regime that the STM system must meaningfully limit such harmful and destabilizing behaviors, the US and its partners can avoid unwittingly creating a hollow orbital regime—or, worse, tying their own hands.
There is growing awareness that passive defenses, such as proliferated architectures, are necessary but insufficient to deal with a myriad of emerging new challenges to peace and sustainability in orbit. Instead, these must be countered by clear rules established ex ante to enable monitoring, attribution, timely warning, and effective defenses, in order to deter hostile behavior, and facilitate strong but de-escalatory responses in a crisis should deterrence fail.
Unfortunately, this growing recognition has, with limited exceptions, not yet translated from abstract principles to actionable rules of the road. For example, the Biden Administration’s Defense Department has publicly emphasized various principles that should govern on-orbit operations, including safe separation, an approach consistent with international negotiations that have heretofore remained similarly broad. This accrues to the interest of potential adversaries: for example, the Chinese delegate to the current OEWG on space security insisted that “the use of particular capability or technology in particular circumstances” is “not appropriate to be discussed in the OEWG.” However, such a capabilities- and situations-focused approach is exactly what is required.
The US must begin by systematically identifying what rulesets would facilitate successful monitoring and attribution and provide adequate warning and an advantage to the defense. The US must then publicly establish clear, stabilizing limits in line with these needs, and elaborate the contours and international legal bases for such rules—jointly with allies if possible, and unilaterally if not.
There are many options for what form this might take. For over 30 years, various authors have forwarded different proposals for how to safely regulate on-orbit activity, including self-defense zones, safety zones, keep-out spheres, and warning/self-defense zones. While these proposals vary significantly in their provenance and details, they all share one central analytic insight: the pressing need for a framework disincentivizing and countering dangerous behavior on-orbit, and especially shielding the highest-value assets from harm. This is critical, not only because of preserving capabilities of the vulnerable satellites themselves but because of removing dangerously destabilizing pressures for first-use—or for threats thereof—that such vulnerability may otherwise create.
|The US cannot afford to adopt an approach to STM predicated on some assumption of shared values, mutual interest, or global community. Instead, the approach must always be grounded in a clear-eyed assessment of every player’s incentives.|
Now is a unique opportunity to establish such a framework. Developments over the past few years, including the Artemis Accords’ use of safety zones and discussions of CONFERS, have lent additional credence to this concept. In December 2022, US Space Force (USSF) issued the Space Doctrine Publication 4-0 Sustainment, Doctrine for Space Forces, which “articulates extant best practices and lessons learned for sustainment of space forces.” It refers to RPO and docking as “prerequisite enabling capabilities,” and notes that “proximity operations commence when a visiting vehicle enters the keep-out sphere established for the target vehicle.” This reference to keep-out spheres as a best-practice for governing on-orbit support of space operations is promising, but in order to shape other countries’ behavior, as well as to minimize the potential for undue escalation, it must be supported by public elaboration of the rules. Establishment of these STM rules will, in turn, give rise to additional needs for doctrinal revision and procurement: a system of “keep-out spheres” will require the capabilities and procedures necessary to monitor and enforce said spheres.
In particular, the United States should develop and deploy small and cheap bodyguard spacecraft, optimized for cost-effective defense against R-spacecraft and with similar capabilities, to enable persistent monitoring and enforcement of the “zones” surrounding high-value assets. These bodyguards can be designed to have non-destructive measures onboard to deal with low-level incursions in non-escalatory ways. For example, a bodyguard can escort an invader out of the zone, or catch it and maneuver it outside the zone for release, or use reversible and non-debris-producing means to disable it. That said, more forceful measures—whether direct or cross-domain—should remain available, in case their use should become necessary and legally justified.
Finally, while the current efforts to generate international consensus are admirable, they are often insufficiently attentive to the differing incentive structures of various actors, especially potential adversaries.
Key decisionmakers in Moscow and Beijing have interests clearly orthogonal to those of the US and its allies. Russia’s illegal and horrific invasion of Ukraine, as well as their wantonly destructive direct-ascent anti-satellite (DA-ASAT) test, should dispel any lingering doubt on this point. China’s tacit acceptance of the Ukraine invasion, as well as their treatment of the Uyghurs, open intent to seize Taiwan against its will, and countless other examples, further underscore the degree to which these autocracies have core national interests inescapably in conflict with those of the United States. As President Biden openly acknowledged in September 2022 before the UN General Assembly, contrary interests have routinely lead both countries to play spoiler in international negotiations, weaponizing their ability to single-handedly frustrate consensus. The space domain is no exception.
For this reason, the US cannot afford to adopt an approach to STM predicated on some assumption of shared values, mutual interest, or global community. Instead, the approach must always be grounded in a clear-eyed assessment of every player’s incentives. The US and its allies must do everything in their power to incentivize potential spoilers to agree to, and remain in ongoing compliance with, a well-designed STM regime. We must be cognizant that the perceived benefits of refusal—or of initial agreement followed by noncompliance, whether overt or covert—are likely to be quite high for potential rogue actors. Thus, wherever possible, these benefits must be attenuated, and substantial associated costs established and their imposition made as certain and credible as possible.
One promising example of such an incentives-focused approach would be for the United States and its allies to leverage conditional access to Western space markets as a carrot for agreement to and compliance with an STM system (reference 1 and reference 2). Such a regime may include a variety of provisions aligning with the declared tenets by the US of responsible behavior in space, but must at least include limits on en masse pre-positioning near vulnerable critical satellites.
|One promising example of such an incentives-focused approach would be for the United States and its allies to leverage conditional access to Western space markets as a carrot for agreement to and compliance with an STM system.|
This would not be a leap: indeed, US market access is already conditioned on compliance with various US rules and regulations. As recently as September 2022, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) officially adopted a new order requiring that the operators of satellites ending their missions in or passing through low Earth orbit dispose of their spacecraft via re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere within no more than five years of mission completion—a rule that applies not only to satellites licensed in the United States, but also to those licensed elsewhere and seeking US market access.
In this way, and others, the US can attach benefits to agreement, attenuate the upsides of noncompliance, and sharply increase the costs of cheating or defection. This is likely to influence other countries’ calculations, especially those of Russia and China. This may produce agreement and compliance, as they decide that the benefits of joining far outweigh the associated costs.
Alternatively, should they refuse to join, the fact of having to forego substantial benefits in order to do so will be impactful. First, it holds great normative significance for the international system. Second, because the mere act of opting out despite the clear economic benefits would signal that these countries have a strong preference for retaining the ability to freely conduct hostile ASAT actions, which in turn would bolster the legitimacy of protective actions and efforts to enforce the Western STM regime’s rules. Finally, even if they refuse to join, this framework, especially equipped with timely warning and defense, would heavily limit their ability to conduct hostile or unsafe on-orbit operations.
The United States is standing at the precipice of a new era in space security. The Biden Administration faces an historic opportunity to build an STM regime well-suited to the new space age. To make the most of this opportunity, however, the US will have to update its approach. By adopting the three key recommendations above—refusing to agree to any STM rules vulnerable to exploitation by bad actors, adopting timely warning and defensive advantage as core design principles, and proactively employing carrots and sticks to shape the incentive structures of relevant parties—the US can help to ensure peace and prosperity in the 21st century, and head off dangerously destabilizing pathways to great power escalation.
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