Side event on non-governmental perspectives on reducing Space Threats

October 22nd, 2021

On 13 October, the United States Department of State hosted a First Committee side event, “Non-governmental perspectives on Space Threats”. The afternoon panel, moderated by Eric Desautels of the US Department of State, focused on the perspectives of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) within the framework of norms of responsible behaviour in outer-space with a view to help manage the potential for conflict in outer-space.  

Mr. Michael Gleason, of the Center for Space Policy and Strategy, started off the discussion by reviewing the papers submitted by NGOs to the Secretary-General pursuant to resolution 75/36. Their papers underscored both the value of space as well as current and potential threats to space systems and are intended to support policymakers and non-technical audiences. They covered topics such as the contribution of space-based services to individual quality of life; issues around space debris; the physics of military conflict in space; management of space traffic; the dual-use nature of space systems; and space cyber security.   

Mr. Bruce McClintock of the RAND corporation addressed near-term possibilities to improve sustainable behaviour in space, cautioning that current treaties and agreements are inadequate for the long-term. Contributing to this challenge, the speaker said, are the rapid growth in the number of objects in space; the fact that space situational awareness systems are not accurate enough to ensure safety; the lack of internationally accepted distancing guidelines or standards; and the conflation of “safety” and “security” when discussing space. The speaker put forward possible solutions to address these challenges, such as increased communication, engagement and transparency between States, quickly achievable agreed measures by States to demonstrate responsible behaviour, and prioritizing the pursuit of agreements on safety ahead of security.    

Ms. Victoria Samson of the Secure World Foundation continued by examining major threats to the space domain, examples of responsible behaviour, and ways to move forward. She flagged that the growing number of State and private actors engaging in space activities has resulted in increased congestion, while a growing number of countries are considering the development of their own counter-space capabilities. The danger of proliferation of counter-space capabilities, including to non-State actors, was also stressed in this context. The speaker argued that the mechanisms to deal with these threats should focus on behaviour rather than technologies, especially as much of the relevant technology is dual use in nature. She added that encouraging responsible behaviour in space must start with the international community establishing a shared understanding of what constitutes responsible or irresponsible behaviour.  

Looking forward, Ms. Samson noted that the current framework is implicitly permissive, as there is no meaningful prohibition on the placement of non-nuclear weapons in space, and no consensus as to what constitutes use of force or armed attack in relation to space capabilities. Common understandings are therefore needed, including through space situational awareness (SSA) capabilities, which must be matched with the stipulations of an agreement, and for all parties to feel confident in their verification capabilities. 

Panellist Victoria Samson discussing the danger of proliferation of counter-space capabilities

 Ms. Jessica West of Project Ploughshares welcomed the leadership shown by countries, including the United Kingdom and the United States, in engaging with civil society on this process. She reviewed existing frameworks, stressing that norms are relational  and that agreement on values that inform and motivate conduct are key. In her view, this means that the consideration of new norms must first examine the existing environment. A number of core values like sustainability, environmental protection and safety are already present, but a codification of norms involving peace and security are relatively weak. In order to address this, she encouraged practical approaches that would establish standards to promote norms and values, as well as greater data sharing, transparency, communication and clear commitments to practices in line with existing obligations in space, such as a ban on debris creating anti-satellite tests. In closing, she stressed the importance of preventing an arms race in outer space as the core goal of these efforts in the First Committee.  

In the discussion that followed, the panellists considered the need to enhance understanding and awareness amongst States without developed capabilities, and discussed ways to increase educational outreach, including through engaging with civil society organizations. Additionally, they stressed the importance of extending discussion of these issues beyond the space expert community to include other stakeholders as well as the wider public, and considered ways to best do so. Discussing SSA, panellists considered how to encourage cooperation in this area, including through agreements that can be reciprocally verified, the establishment of a “Chicago convention for space”, and the potential for expanding the concept of SSA information sharing to include relevant non-physical activities and activities on the ground.  

Text and photos by Charlie Ovink.