Assessing the British Proposal on Space Security

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Assessing the British Proposal on Space Security

The U.K. proposal emphasizes a bottom-up approach and stresses trust-building. It’s a critical first step.

Assessing the British Proposal on Space Security
Credit: Unsplash

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. 

All of this suggests we need new rules of the road. There have been recent efforts including the 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), originally proposed in 2008 (with a revised text introduced in 2014); the 2010 EU-initiated International Code of Conduct for Outer Space Activities (ICoC), the U.N. Group of Governmental Experts (GGE) on transparency and confidence building measures (TCBMs) in 2013, and the 2018-19 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.

The biggest challenge facing the development of an outer space regime is a lack of consensus among major powers. These are essentially political impediments and therefore that much harder to overcome than practical issues. Major power relations are characterized by a serious lack of trust and confidence in each other. And therefore, what we need in the first instance are measures that would strengthen confidence. 

The United Kingdom has also made a recent proposal — “Reducing Space Threats through Norms, Rules and Principles of Responsible Behaviors” — 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.

It further calls on the U.N. secretary general to get views from member states in a substantive report to be submitted to the General Assembly at the 76th session scheduled for September 2021 for additional discussion. The plan is to include this in the provisional agenda of the General Assembly’s session, under the item, “Prevention of an arms race in outer space,” with a sub-item entitled, “Reducing space threats through norms, rules and principles of responsible behaviors.” 

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. 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. 

Even though there is no particular preference for a specific format as an outcome, it is important to look at this as a process that would lay stress on trust-building as a key driver. Given the high level of disagreements among major space powers, this is a sensible approach. In this regard, transparency and confidence building measures (TCBMs) offer a good first step between recognizing the functional need of regulating space and the negotiation of a binding instrument. There has been any number of debates on the need for and effectiveness of binding and non-binding instruments, but these discussions have not led to any meaningful outcome. TCBMs are certainly not a substitute for legal measures but they can be effective tools in bringing about openness, transparency, and information sharing, which are badly required to raise the level of political confidence between key great powers. TCBMs are essentially a bridge that can provide opportunities for countries to talk to each other and work on building greater trust in each other. This is a recognition that political issues have become the biggest hindrance in developing new rules of the road for outer space activities. 

A few measures that could be considered in this regard include pre-launch notifications (already contained in the Hague Code of Conduct against Ballistic Missile Proliferation) and ASAT test guidelines and rules for intentional orbital breakups. Others include the UNIDIR proposal (no debris, low debris, and notification) and pledges like “Not the First to Act beyond the scope of Article 51” because many developing countries worry that the right to self-defense under U.N. Charter Article 51 may be used as an excuse for space weaponization. 

While an end goal of developing more binding agreements for space security must be pursued, reaching a political consensus to commit to legal instruments appears to be difficult in today’s political and security environment. Revising or reforming the 1967 Outer Space Treaty is problematic precisely due to the current political impediments. Therefore, states need to first invest a great deal in developing mutual trust. The U.K. proposal provides an alternative to the PPWT or the EU ICoC, both of which have run into their own problems. The bottom-up approach emphasized in the U.K. proposal, letting member states to identify threats and challenges from their national security perspectives, is a welcome step.