The diplomatic rift in outer space
14 Sep 2022|

The night sky may look calm and tranquil, but the domain of outer space is on red alert, with all indicators pointing towards a distressing future.

Outer space affects all of us. It’s likely you seldom have a day in which you don’t depend on those satellites orbiting over your head. Hidden in plain sight, outer space has become a pillar of human civilisation. Examine any sector of society—communications, banking, agriculture, healthcare, emergency services or defence—and somewhere you’ll find the heroic work of our space infrastructure.

Yet these satellites, and everything that depends on them, are at risk.

Geopolitical tensions, strategic competition, the development of offensive capabilities, bourgeoning mistrust, misunderstandings and miscalculations, all served with a side of chronic diplomatic stalemate, threaten to knock down this pillar.

This week, the United Nation’s open-ended working group on reducing space threats will meet in Geneva for the second time. In the first session, in May, the United States, Russia and China agreed on three basic premises. First, outer space is vitally important. Second, outer space is facing urgent threats. And last, the legal and normative framework regulating the domain has become frail and outdated.

Yet how to fix this insufficient framework is where the US and its like-minded peers are locked in disagreement with Russia and China—one built upon decades of diplomatic impasses.

To understand the diplomatic rift between these space powers, it’s helpful to distinguish between space security and space safety.

In a nutshell, space security focuses on capabilities, as in the absence (or presence) of military-based threats in outer space. This includes ground-to-space, space-to-ground and space-to-space weapons such as anti-satellite missiles, orbital bombardment systems and proximity operations.

Space safety, on the other side of the same coin, focuses on behaviours and is concerned with the sustainable use of space. It’s about the presence (or absence) of responsible norms, behaviours and principles within the spacefaring community.

With this we get to the crux of the problem that has plagued decades of stalled meetings at the Conference on Disarmament and has once again reared its ugly head at this year’s UN working group meetings on reducing space threats.

The problem is: do we control behaviours by regulating our capabilities, or do we control capabilities by modifying our behaviours?

To illustrate the difference, consider anti-satellite weapons.

Anti-satellite missiles are designed to smash through satellites with their momentum. The debris from both the missile and the obliterated satellite forms into a large and dangerous cloud. This destructive horror of super-bullets disperses around the globe, indiscriminately endangering any satellites or spacecraft it encounters.

If you believe the best approach is to control behaviours by regulating our capabilities, you’ll likely favour a ban or a disarmament treaty for anti-satellite missiles.

Unfortunately, that approach is fraught with pitfalls. Outer space is a domain of dual-use technology. Snapping our fingers and magically ratifying a global ban on anti-satellite missiles won’t get rid of the threat. Even the most ostensibly civilian satellite can be programmed to manoeuvre into another satellite and destroy both—a rendezvous attack—which would have the same consequences as an anti-satellite missile. Without changing the behaviour of states, limiting their capabilities will only result in a horizontal shift of the problem.

A better approach is to control capabilities by modifying our behaviours. This means creating a transparent, precise and widely accepted framework setting out which behaviours are acceptable and which aren’t. The technology of anti-satellite weapons wouldn’t be banned, but states would be encouraged to shift their behaviour through the international community’s ire.

It may seem painfully slow to focus on space safety and allow progress to flow organically into space security, but it is the only way forward that stands a chance.

In fact, the proof of this method is already apparent.

In April, US Vice President Kamala Harris announced that the United States would no longer test anti-satellite missiles. Canada and New Zealand soon followed with similar pledges. This didn’t occur because of a ban on technology but through a behavioural shift that created a bottom-up, organic commitment to sustainability. Yet this behavioural change remains, for the time being, confined to a small group.

A decade ago, the European Union attempted to steer the global space sector with an international code of conduct that promoted responsible behaviours. Russia and China countered that effort with a draft treaty on the prevention of the placement of weapons in outer space known as the PPWT. Unfortunately, the PPWT focused on capabilities, sheltering Russia’s and China’s irresponsible behaviours, and ultimately assisted in the code’s inglorious death.

Now a new effort to improve global behaviour in outer space is facing the same resistance. Russia and China are still trying to push the spotlight onto the PPWT and have lambasted the UN working group’s efforts as timewasting, politicising and discriminatory.

But it isn’t discrimination to call out unsustainable practices. It isn’t politicisation to pressure everyone to act responsibly. It isn’t a waste of time to place principles above capabilities.

The UN working group must succeed, despite the resistance emanating from Russia and China. It is, perhaps, the only way to steer outer space towards a peaceful and sustainable future.