While the terrestrial, maritime and aerial warfare are much talked about, it is outer space which is the new arena for competition and rivalry. It is important to focus on space security. In this regard, the British’s recently proposed policy emphasizes a bottom-up approach and stresses trust-building. It’s a critical first step.
From Sputnik I to SpaceX Falcon, space as a frontier has come a long way.
Until recent past, space was seen as an ‘exclusive playground’ of the superpowers.
However, with growth in the number of spacefaring nations, continuous advancements in technological and operational capabilities, and the potential for space mining, the space domain is becoming more complex, congested, competitive and contested.
More the players on this new playground, greater the competition for resources.
Hence there is the greater need for common objectives, fair rules of the road, and shared decision-making processes.
Therefore, it is desirable that the competitive space environment becomes simultaneously more collaborative.
Now, the world needs new rules of the road.
What are the current space regulations?
Space law emerged soon after Sputnik 1 was launched into outer space in 1957.
Several legally binding international instruments(treaties) governing the use of outer space for peaceful purposes have been adopted within the framework of the United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (UNCOPUOS), with the 1967 Outer Space Treaty (OST) at its core.
The UNCOPUOS was established in 1958 as an ad hoc committee of the UN (later made permanent in 1959) with UN Office for Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA)as its secretariat.
UNCOPUOS oversees the implementation of five UN treaties related to the outer space activities, namely,
Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies of 1967 (Outer Space Treaty)
Agreement on the Rescue of Astronauts
the Return of Astronauts and the Return of Objects Launched into Outer Space of 1968 (Rescue Agreement),
Convention on International Liability for Damage Caused by Space Objects of 1972 (Liability Convention),
Convention on Registration of Objects Launched into Outer Space of 1976 (Registration Convention)
the Agreement Governing the Activities of States on the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies of 1979 (Moon Treaty)
It also oversees other related international agreements like the
Treaty Banning Nuclear Weapon Tests in the Atmosphere, in Outer Space, and Under Water (NTB) of 1963
the Brussels Convention Relating to the Distribution of Programme–Carrying Signals Transmitted by Satellite (BRS) of 1979
Outer Space Treaty
The OST contains the basic rules that define the behaviour of States in conducting activities in outer space, and has resulted in more than sixty years of peaceful cooperation in space that benefits humankind as a whole.
The Treaty declares outer space “the province of mankind”.
This means that its exploration and use shall benefit all countries, be without discrimination, and ensure free access to planets and other celestial bodies.
What is the present scenario of space security?
Space security issues have potentially serious consequences. The consequences of either a deliberate or even an accidental conflict in space are too horrible to contemplate.
A day without the utility provided by outer space is difficult to even conceive and yet the actions of states might lead the world in that direction sooner than later.
Unless states take measures to restrain some kinds of activities in space, access to space will not be safe, secure, or guaranteed.
Because of the highly competitive and contested nature of major power relations today, even peaceful applications and technological developments such as On-Orbit Satellite Servicing or technologies to tackle space debris are viewed with much suspicion.
There are also more specific space security threats – the return of anti-satellite (ASAT) testing, and cyber and electronic warfare in space, for example.
Any satellite service disruption or damage will have a wide-ranging impact, one that cannot be contained to the security or economic sectors alone, and one that cannot be limited geographically either given the significant global dependence on space.
Space is truly a global commons.
What are the major threats to the space? Space security threats are growing. The major threats to the space are as follow:
increasing cyber threats to space assets (through hacking and other satellite interference)
heightened collision probability due to congestion
proliferation of space debris
entry of new players merely to ensure deterrence
visible early trends of weaponization of space
Space is becoming more accessible
threat of overwhelming radiofrequency waves spectrum by large satellite constellations
What are the recent efforts made by the countries?
There have been recent efforts including the:
2010: the 2010 EU-initiated International Code of Conduct for Outer Space Activities (ICoC)
2013: the U.N. Group of Governmental Experts (GGE) on transparency and confidence building measures (TCBMs)
2014: Russia-China sponsored draft Treaty on the Prevention of the Placement of Weapons in Outer Space, the Threat or Use of Force against Outer Space Objects (PPWT),
2018-19: The GGE on further practical measures for the prevention of an arms race in outer space (PAROS)
None of these have led to a favorable conclusion.
What is the UK’s proposal on Space Security?
The United Kingdom has made a recent proposal- “Reducing Space Threats through Norms, Rules and Principles of Responsible Behaviors”.
It is aimed at looking at problems in space through a bottom-up approach. The proposal, in one of its operational clauses:
encourages Member States to study existing and potential threats and security risks to space systems, including those arising from actions, activities or systems in outer space or on Earth, characterize actions and activities that could be considered responsible, irresponsible or threatening and their potential impact on international security, and share their ideas on the further development and implementation of norms, rules and principles of responsible behaviors and on the reduction of the risks of misunderstanding and miscalculations with respect to outer space.
Behaviour-based approach: One of the key features of the U.K. proposal is to focus on a behavior-based approach, since debates focused on an object-based approach have not gone very far.
Room for greater flexibility: The U.K. proposal is not prescriptive in suggesting a particular type of outcome or a particular format. Thus, this proposal provides room for greater flexibility and certain amount of maneuvering among member states as they debate the threats and challenges and possible ways forward.
Why outer space matters to humankind?
Answering the fundamental questions: Human space exploration helps to address fundamental questions about our place in the Universe and the history of our solar system.
Peaceful connection: Through addressing the challenges related to human space exploration, countries expand technology, create new industries, and help to foster a peaceful connection with other nations.
Understanding Earth: Experiments performed in space help us understand health problems on Earth.
Improving day-to-day lives: Space technologies improve products and services used every day such as weather forecasts, and communications worldwide.
Enhancing safety: Satellites data are used to predict natural disasters and to support emergency relief efforts.
Conservation: Satellites provide data on climate change, measure pollution, and help protect the Earth.
What are the challenges in development of an outer space regime?
Lack of consensus: The biggest challenge facing the development of an outer space regime is a lack of consensus among major powers.
Political impediments: These are essentially political impediments and therefore that much harder to overcome than practical issues.
Lack of trust and confidence: Major power relations are characterized by a serious lack of trust and confidence in each other.
What other measures are required?
Mutual benefits and sustainability: There are three measures required to ensure mutually beneficial gains, and ensure sustainability of space.
a constructive and pragmatic approach
universal and inclusive forum
a transparent process
Common understanding of governance: Countries must reach to a common understanding of basic building blocks of a governance regime such as general principles of good behaviour, effective measures to improve safety, security and sustainability of space activities and implementation of transparency and confidence building measures (TCBMs).
Conclusion Given the current political impediments, states need to invest a great deal in developing mutual interest. In this regard, the bottom-up approach emphasised in the British proposal, letting member states to identify threats and challenges from their national security perspectives is a great start and should be welcomed.