By Dr. Walter M. Conrad
Faculty Member, Space Studies at American Public University
When the space age began, the opportunities to access space were limited to only a few nations and there were limited consequences for bad behavior. The special nature of space as a sphere of civilian and military activity continues to draw increasing interest as more countries develop and enhance their space programs.
Our initial forays into space were dominated by the competition between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, best characterized by the race to the Moon. Despite this fierce rivalry, the two states were able to reach a remarkable degree of consensus on a number of founding principles that form the basis of an international legal framework for state use of outer space.
Today, more than 50 nations including China, India, Brazil, France, Germany, Australia, Japan, South Korea, and the European Union have on-orbit satellites and 11 nations have indigenous launch capability. International interest in space has spurred the growth of a global space industry, to include the marketing of space capabilities by both governments and private companies.
The interconnected nature of space capabilities and the world’s growing dependence on them mean that irresponsible acts in space can have damaging consequences for all. For example, decades of space activity have littered Earth’s orbit with debris; as nations continue to increase activities in space, the chance for collisions increase. (See image below.) In addition, there is a need to combat the proliferation of space weapons, prevent international terrorism, and carry out multilateral peacekeeping operations.
The following challenges were only partly addressed by the 1967 Outer Space Treaty:
- Safety. With space increasingly congested, the United States is committed to taking steps to improve space safety by reducing “accidents, breakups, and purposeful interference.” The proliferation of space debris and the increased possibilities of collision and interference raise concerns about the long-term sustainability of space activities, particularly in the Low Earth Orbit and Geostationary Earth Orbit environments.
- Security. The U.S. is deeply concerned about the security of systems in outer space, which to date has remained immune from sabotage or active targeting for damage or destruction (albeit not interference). We have not yet found it necessary to use military force to defend a space asset, but with foreign states currently developing anti-satellite weapons, that may change in the future. While taking a number of unilateral steps to provide additional security to its space systems, the U.S. hopes to work with other space-faring nations to ensure responsible nations have access to space and the benefits of space operations.
- Stability. With multiple governments expressing concern that competition in outer space may lead to conflict, the U.S. believes it is important to take steps to prevent incidents, misunderstandings, or deployments in space from fraying and breaking relations between nations and consortiums. There must be some communication of intent and the development of ways to resolve potential disputes to ensure that state competition does not become state conflict.
These challenges, and others, are recognized as serious threats to the safety and freedom of operations in space. The U.S. cannot address these threats and challenges alone. The best and most effective solution is to establish partnerships and coalitions with like-minded nations and consortiums to improve the safety, security, and stability of space.
A more cooperative, predictable environment discourages destabilizing crisis behavior and helps to maintain space as a peaceful domain. At the beginning of the space age, the peaceful use of space referred to non-military satellites and activities. Today, with the large number of military satellites on orbit, peaceful use refers to preventing the placement of weapons in space, and the development and testing of space-weapon technology.
Outer space activities have provided this nation and the world with a number of benefits. Space capabilities have expanded the global economy, strengthened international relationships, and advanced scientific discovery. Space technologies and applications have become essential in everyday transactions across multiple sectors including information technology, health and medicine, industrial production, banking, communications, media, emergency response, and transportation. In addition, access to space technologies and capabilities increase the competitiveness of U.S. firms and help promote U.S. business interests abroad.
It is essential to maintain the free and open use of space for all nations; cooperation and diplomacy will help ensure the challenges we face are resolved peacefully. Cooperation and diplomacy can take many forms, to include:
- Sharing critical information about current and future threats and vulnerabilities
- Developing strong human resources and capabilities through education and training
- Creating international guidelines and agreements that encourage nations to act responsibly in outer space
- Conducting war games and exercises using scenarios that generate realistic outputs.
On the other hand, if we do nothing or are unable to come to an international consensus on how to best resolve these threats and challenges, we could lose the capabilities and benefits space has provided. That would significantly affect the global economy and damage our national security.
These topics are a worthy area of study for those interested in working in related areas. Space Cooperation and Diplomacy would be an excellent course for students to work in teams or individually and think critically about the importance of cooperating, and the skills required for successful diplomacy, to develop solutions to the world’s most critical and complex problems in space. Our long-term success and leadership as a nation depends on it.
About the Author:
Dr. Walt Conrad has 30 years of space experience at the Wing, Air Staff, OSD and Joint Staff levels. His 23-year Air Force career included assignments as a squadron operations officer, Directorate Executive Officer, and Detachment Commander. He currently works for SAIC as a senior national security space policy analyst.
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