Whither Arms Control in Outer Space? Space Threats, Space Hypocrisy, and the Hope of Space Norms

Good afternoon, everyone.  This is only my second Zoom teleconference, but hopefully I am getting the hang of this format now.  I’m glad that we are able to find ways to keep interacting with NGO experts such as yourselves during this pandemic.  It’s great to be able to talk to you today. 

Outer space — or more specifically, the area of it that surrounds our planet — is today an extraordinarily dynamic environment.  Whereas for almost all of human history pretty much no one had any idea that there even was such a domain in which humans could give expression to their inherent dynamism, and whereas for some time thereafter space issues were conceived primarily through the lens of bilateral Cold War rivalry, outer space is today all but pulsing with activity and possibility.  

There are more actors operating in space than ever before, with more than 100 governments and countless inter-governmental organizations and non-state actors playing some kind of role in space activity, including important sectors of industry and academia.  The range of commercial technological and entrepreneurial innovation in space is also exploding, in a kaleidoscope of fascinating innovations and initiatives — among them the advent of “mega constellations,” the build-out of 5G communications and applications in space, the development of reusable and even self-returning space-launch vehicles (SLVs), the proliferation of nanosats, and the arrival of robotics for on-orbit servicing and active debris removal.  Today, moreover, recourse to space-based communications and space-facilitated functions is so ubiquitous that there are surely few, if any, countries anywhere that do not depend upon outer space in some way for their prosperity or security. 

But there is also a dark side to all of this vibrancy and activity, for outer space has also emerged as a battlespace — a domain of conflict that will almost certainly be a key arena if there is a war between any major powers.  Space has long been important to war fighting, with both sides during the Cold War coming to depend heavily upon space-based communications and intelligence assets, and the early development of anti-satellite (ASAT) weaponry.  Thanks to the aggressive development and deployment of counterspace capabilities by Russia and the People’s Republic of China (PRC), however, outer space has more recently become an alarming potential location for warfighting as a real domain all its own.   

This raises questions, of course, about what the international community should do about such threats to the orbital domain upon which we all depend so heavily.  Not surprisingly, the range of answers under discussion is quite broad, with some proposals being rather more reasonable than others — and some ideas being downright awful.  So I’d like to talk today about how we in the U.S. Government see these challenges, and how we are pursuing a constructive way forward.   

I. The Threat  

One cannot have a coherent discussion about outer space security solutions without understanding the problem, so let me first outline the nature and gravity of the space threats that Russia and the PRC present today to every country that depends upon space-based assets. The CSIS and Secure World Foundation reports that will be the focus of the panel following my remarks do an exceptional job at describing these counterspace weapon developments in detail, but let me myself remark on some of the more significant developments in recent years.   

The world has known about the PRC ASAT threat since 2007, when Beijing tested a ground-based missile that destroyed a satellite, in a test that produced an appalling amount of orbital debris that even to this day – almost 13 years later – still threatens all countries’ low-earth orbital constellations.  What is less well known is that since that infamously irresponsible 2007 test, the PRC’s program has matured into an operational ground-based ASAT missile capability for destroying satellites in low-earth orbit.  The PRC is also likely pursuing additional ground-based ASAT weapons capable of destroying satellites in geosynchronous orbit, where many important capabilities such as U.S. nuclear command and control and missile warning satellites reside.  It is clear that Beijing conceives of outer space as a critical warfighting domain, and that it expects to escalate in this arena very quickly in wartime.  Military and strategic thinkers in the PRC now openly talk and write about their intentions to move against U.S. satellites early in any future conflict. 

Despite the PRC’s irresponsible 2007 ASAT test and methodical approach to developing these counterspace capabilities, however, it is Russia that enjuoys the dubious honor of being the poster child for dangerous and provocative space postures.  Nor do the Russians bother to hide it, instead openly bragging about their development of counterspace capabilities.  In 2017, for instance, a Russian Air Force commander said that Moscow is developing new missiles with which to destroy satellites, and the Ministry of Defense admitted it is working on “a mobile attack anti-satellite system.”  Vladimir Putin himself announced in March 2018 that Russia was developing a mobile anti-satellite laser system, and the Ministry of Defense (MoD) has since confirmed that its Space Troops have indeed now received a mobile laser of this sort.  Both Beijing and Moscow, therefore, are building up their arsenal of terrestrially–based ASAT capabilities, and they don’t seem shy about showing it. 

But that’s not nearly the end of it, for such threats are in no way limited to terrestrially–based systems.  Outer space is a domain in which there remains a good deal of secrecy, but also one in which lots of people with telescopes can see some key aspects of what’s going on.  Thanks to observations and analyses by amateur astronomers, commercially provided information, and the orbital data that the U.S. Government releases to the public, it is now possible to talk at the unclassified level about Russia’s apparent development of in-orbit anti-satellite weaponry.  Let me give you some examples. 

In October 2017, the Russian Ministry of Defense deployed a space object, Cosmos 2519, that officials claimed was a “space apparatus inspector.”  The behavior of Cosmos 2519, however, was notably unusual, and inconsistent with anything seen before for on-orbit inspection or space situational awareness — and inconsistent, in fact, with any sort of device except an ASAT weapon.  Once in orbit, Cosmos 2519 deployed a sub-satellite, Cosmos 2521, that displayed the ability to maneuver around another satellite in space.  So far, I guess, you could argue that this was consistent with the declared purpose of being a “space apparatus inspector.”  But what happened next is the disturbing part: the sub-satellite Cosmos 2521 itself launched an additional object into space, Cosmos 2523 — at the high relative speed of about 250 kilometers per hour, straight off into space.  Not to put too fine a point on it, but Cosmos 2521 demonstrated the ability to position itself near another satellite and fire a projectile.      

Having demonstrated this capability in October 2017 – and done so in what counts as being “in public” in space, since if you want to, you can go look up these orbital tracks yourself on the website – Russia has followed up this activity with some additionally provocative satellite movements.  

Since that date, as General Raymond, the commander of U.S. Space Command and Chief of Space Operations, has noted, for instance, two other Russian MoD satellites, Cosmos 2542 and 2543, were deployed last November and December and have actively maneuvered near a U.S. Government satellite in low earth orbit.  After launch, the Cosmos 2542 satellite demonstrated similar capabilities as Cosmos 2519.  Since the Russian military had already demonstrated its ability to fire a projectile from one satellite in space just over two years before, Russia’s irresponsible movements are clearly hugely provocative.  

Moreover, we have some concerns about Russia’s ability to operate in close proximity to other satellites.  Last year, in another episode involving the Russian Ministry of Defense launching a supposed “inspector satellite,” Cosmos 2535 and Cosmos 2536 maneuvered near each other — after which mysterious small additional objects appeared.  The Russian Federation has not yet registered these objects, so they don’t appear to be new satellites.  Instead, the logical conclusion would be that the two satellites collided and created debris.  If so, that suggests something went very wrong with their proximity operations, which is why you can understand our concern about Russia being in close proximity to a U.S. government satellite.  There’s really no good answer: either these two satellites accidentally crashed into each other, highlighting the risks inherent in Russia’s proximity operations, or something happened intentionally.  In neither case does Russia look much like the responsible space actor one wishes it were. 

Together, these irresponsible Russian and PRC actions obviously represent quite a remarkable and provocative escalation of military posture in outer space.  They demonstrate the dangerous degree to which Moscow and Beijing have already weaponized the space domain in threatening ways, and they highlight the importance of the rest of the world coming together to speak with one voice in condemning such approaches and in developing constructive answers to these threats. 

II. Dangerous and Hypocritical Answers   

But we are not the only ones talking about answers to these questions, and as always in the arms control arena, one needs to be wary of snake oil salesmen.  In what one might be forgiven for thinking is an effort to win some kind of international chutzpah competition, in fact, Russia and the PRC are offering what they describe as a draft “Treaty on the Prevention of Placement of Weapons in Outer Space,” or PPWT – an instrument that purports to help solve the problems that its drafters have themselves worked hard to create.  They also proffer something Russia calls the “No First Placement” initiative, in which countries voluntarily agree not to be the “first” to place weapons in space. 

As you can tell from the facts I’ve already recounted, these initiatives would be humorous punch lines if the subject matter were not so deadly serious.  The draft PPWT would by careful design fail to address in any meaningful fashion the terrestrially–based ASAT systems that both Russia and China have long since developed and deployed.  As for Russia’s initiative about not placing weapons in space, a more accurate term for this efforts might be the “No Second Placement” initiative, for the point of this diplomatic overture seems simply to be propaganda, or worse.  In the spirit of Moscow’s so-called “moratorium” on intermediate-range nuclear forces in Europe, the effort apparently aims to lock in unilateral military advantage – that is, to persuade other countries not to do in space what Russia gives every sign of already having done itself.  

It’s important to make these points because not listening to deceptive or dangerous answers is an important — and often-overlooked — aspect of arms control wisdom.  Given all these factors, it is hard not to come to a conclusion that this call for quick negotiations looks like an attempt by Russia and the PRC to constrain the United States and our allies without either Moscow or Beijing having the slightest intention of abiding by the commitments they are proffering.   

But having evaluated such disingenuous Russian and PRC responses to the outer space militarization problems that Moscow and Beijing have created, and having dismissed these responses with the derision they deserve, it is still necessary to look for better answers.  So how are we in the United States approaching these challenges? 

III. A Better Way Forward   

To answer that question, let me begin by mentioning what we are doing in order to protect our security interests and deter outer space-related provocations directly before turning to our diplomatic efforts.   

 A. Deterrence  

First and foremost, we are working to deter aggression and dangerous, escalatory provocations in outer space.  First and foremost, you can see how serious an issue this is in the President’s creation of the U.S. Space Force as a sixth branch of the armed services.  Additionally, the U.S. National Security Strategy (NSS) makes clear that “[t]he United States considers unfettered access to and freedom to operate in space to be a vital interest,” and that “[a]ny harmful interference with or an attack upon critical components of our space architecture that directly affects this vital U.S. interest will be met with a deliberate response at a time, place, manner, and domain of our choosing.”  This covers not just attacks upon assets that are themselves in space, but also attacks upon any aspects of our space architecture, including ground systems.  Our potential adversaries need to know that there is nothing “different” in this respect about any component of the U.S. space architecture: if you attack it, you are attacking us

Indeed, we have made clear that we do not rule out even the use of nuclear weapons in response to a sufficiently severe attack upon critical aspects of our space architecture.  The latest U.S. Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) declares that “[t]he United States would only consider the use of nuclear weapons in extreme circumstances to defend the vital interests of the United States, its allies, and partners.”  As you’ll recall, our space architecture is specified in the NSS as a “vital U.S. interest.”  This is no coincidence. 

In fact, the NPR goes on to clarify that the “extreme circumstances” in which the United States will not rule out nuclear weapons use “could include significant non-nuclear strategic attacks.”  What does this mean? Well, according to the NPR,

“[s]ignificant non-nuclear strategic attacks include, but are not limited to, attacks on the U.S., allied, or partner civilian population or infrastructure, and attacks on U.S. or allied nuclear forces, their command and control, or warning and attack assessment capabilities.”   

I need hardly point out — but I will nonetheless, for emphasis — that the U.S. National nuclear Command, Control, and Communications (NC3) architecture depends to some extent upon space-based systems.  Any harmful interference with or attacks upon such components of our space architecture at any time, even if undertaken only with non-nuclear tools, thus starts to move into “significant non-nuclear strategic attack” territory, and would lead to a significant and potentially drastic escalation of a crisis or conflict.  It is essential that any potential adversary understand this with crystalline clarity.  And with the PRC exploring capabilities to attack satellites in orbits such as those of our NC3 systems, it is important to note that this is not just a theoretical or hypothetical question.   

B. Normative Development

That said, our hope is to do much more than just deter the worst sorts of behavior in outer space.  We also hope to build broad international support for norms of responsible behavior that will help forestall problems and reduce escalation and accident risks in this rapidly evolving domain. 

As I made clear in December at a European Union conference on nonproliferation, outer space is a domain in which technologies are evolving so quickly, private and governmental actors are intertwined, and definitions of what can be a “weapon” are so vague, that it is hard to see how traditional, rule-based and legally-binding “prohibitory” approaches to arms control could work.  I am convinced, however, that it remains possible to develop better and better normative expectations in outer space – just as we have been making progress on doing in the even faster-moving arena of cyberspace during the last few U.N.-sponsored cyberspace Groups of Governmental Experts (GGEs).  U.S. diplomats are looking, in other words, to work constructively with their counterparts in other spacefaring nations to develop approaches to outer space norms that will help improve predictability and collective “best practices” in the space domain.  

There is nothing untoward about trying to develop normative expectations in outer space.  Important standards for space-related behavior already exist.   Some have grown from legally–binding instruments, such as the Outer Space Treaty (which bars placing nuclear weapons into orbit, or on celestial bodies), or the Registration Convention (which calls for registration of all space objects).  In the interests of preserving the efficacy of arms control verification, a number of arms control precedents between the United States and the USSR or the Russian Federation prohibited interference with space-based “national technical means” of verification.  The Constitution of the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) and its Radio Regulations articulate a norm against harmful interference with space radiocommunications services, while there are also legally binding rules against nuclear testing in outer space written in to the Limited Test Ban Treaty (LTBT).  

As a consensus study in 2013 by a UN Group of Government Experts noted, moreover, norms and transparency and confidence building measures (TCBMs) do not have to be legally–binding or be articulated in legally–binding instruments in order to be useful and contribute to constructive behavior and the promotion of global “best practices” for governmental and a broadening range of private sector space activities.  The Hague Code of Conduct (HCoC), for instance, urges the provision of Pre-Launch Notification (PLNs) for missile tests in order to improve trust and confidence and reduce the risk of inadvertent escalation.  The 2019 United Nations Committee on Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (UNCOPUOS) process guidelines on the Long-term Sustainability (LTS) of the Outer Space Environment Activities, the  U.N. S2007 COPUOS Space Debris Mitigation Guidelines, and the recently updated U.S. Orbital Debris Mitigation Standard Practices are also articulations of expected “best practices” that are proving helpful in the outer space domain. 

There is also constructive thinking underway in both government and the private sector about how to formulate analogous best practices in areas such as satellite collision avoidance, and on-orbit rendezvous and servicing operations and utilization of space resources.  As a result, U.S. diplomatic engagements on these issues rely on extensive and thoughtful inputs provided by American companies and academic experts. 

So far, however, none of these various efforts, as salutary as they are, have yet directly addressed the security problems that are emerging as a result of ongoing Russian and PRC weaponization of the space domain and placement of weapons in outer space.  We clearly need to do more to develop non-legally–binding international norms of responsible behavior that are complementary to the existing legal regime – both through “bottom-up” best practices developed cooperatively with other the full range of established and emerging space actors, and through “top-down’ voluntary, non-legally binding TCBMs.  And we need to do this in the security arena, in order to cope with the challenges presented by Russian and Chinese space weaponry. 

I’m certainly not here today to outline as set of “take-it-or-leave-it” U.S. ideas on space norms.  You don’t just declare norms; you grow them, as it were, with your partners.  As one scholar of nonbinding norms has noted in the context of cyberspace, but which is equally true in outer space, 

 “simply solving the puzzle of what substantive normative prescriptions might address … and announcing this to the world does not create a norm. Others need to buy in and recognize that the norm’s behavioral prescriptions apply to them (or to other actors who can be held to account).” 

But I do believe it’s important to be thinking about these questions and trying to develop such norms, lest unscrupulous actors such as Russia and China gleefully conclude that there are no standards of responsible behavior in space — and lest we and our partners and friends find ourselves normatively voiceless in the face of more of the kind of problematic behavior in this domain that we’ve seen from those two powers so far. 

Why not, for instance, start where the cyberspace GGEs did, in acknowledging that there’s nothing special about outer space that would make it an arena of warfare different from any other with regard to the applicability of International Humanitarian Law (IHL) — and that, therefore, traditional IHL principles of humanity, necessity, proportionality, and distinction between combatants and non-combatants apply in outer space?  Is it possible also for the space domain to follow the Cyber GGEs in articulating a nonbinding norm against peacetime attacks upon critical civilian infrastructure that is largely owned and operated by the private sector?  And what about those Russian satellites that appear to be capable of firing projectiles but yet maneuver up alongside of other countries’ satellites?  Is it possible to articulate a standard for what constitutes responsible — and thus, impliedly, irresponsible — behavior in proximity operations?   

Such questions deserve sustained attention.  As General Raymond, the Chief of Space Operations has suggested, perhaps we could consider whether it would be beneficial to establish a norm that it is irresponsible to conduct on-orbit experiments such as the ones Russia did recently in close proximity to another country’s satellites without prior consultations.  That sort of behavior is easy to detect.  The establishment of such a norm, coupled with the fact that this sort of orbital “pattern of life” is increasingly easy to detect and assess, would enable the international community to develop a response – and perhaps we could thereby help deter such irresponsible behavior.  

For this reason, I’m pleased that at the last Strategic Security Dialogue (SSD) we held with the Russians – which I led on the U.S. side, and which was led by Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov for the Russians – they accepted our proposal for a space dialogue focused upon such questions.  There is already active and constructive engagement on these topics among a number of likeminded Western partners, and it’s important to gradually build such discussions outward in order to develop improved mutual understanding and start to set expectations for all parties about what responsible behavior looks like in outer space — as well as about what it doesn’t.  Such steps will not solve the outer space problem, by a long shot, but they would still represent an important step forward. 

In addition, our allies need to do more.  We need diplomatic burden sharing.  We need allies to call out such malign behavior both privately and publicly, and have the courage of their convictions to vote against Russian and Chinese phony proposals for space arms control at the UN when they know the truth of what Moscow and Beijing are up to in space.  Given all that I’ve recounted here this afternoon, for instance, it’s clear that no U.S. Ally should has any business supporting the Russo-Chinese position when it comes to votes on issues such as Russia’s disingenuous “No First Placement” resolution.  Instead, our Allies and partners should step up and join in the development of constructive expectations of behavior of the sort I have been describing. 

IV. Conclusion  

We don’t claim to have all the answers, but we are working closely with our partners to start asking the right questions, and it’s very clear that supposed solutions such as PPWT are terrible answers.  This should give all responsible states — and all the many public and non-governmental stakeholders involved in the modern space domain — something to work with as we strive together to find a better path.  

We look forward to working with all of you on these issues in the months and years ahead.  Thank you. 

About the author

Dr. Christopher Ashley Ford

Assistant Secretary - Bureau of International Security and Nonproliferation

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