Sixty-Ninth UNGA First Committee Thematic Discussion on Outer Space (Disarmament Aspects)

Christopher L. Buck, Alternate Representative, Delegation of the United States of America
New York City
October 27, 2014

Thank you, Mr. Chairman. I am pleased to have this opportunity to address the First Committee’s Thematic Discussion on Outer Space.

Space systems contribute to global economic prosperity, advance scientific knowledge, help mitigate the effects of and manage responses to disasters, contribute to transparency and stability among nations, and provide a vital communications path for avoiding potential conflicts. But the legacy of success in space also brings new challenges. Outer space is becoming increasingly congested from orbital debris and contested from human threats that endanger the space environment. Therefore, it is essential that all nations work together to preserve this domain for use by future generations.

In this context, the United States is especially concerned about the continued development, testing, and, ultimately, deployment of destructive anti-satellite (ASAT) systems. Although some States have advocated for space arms control measures to prohibit the placement of weapons in outer space, their own development and testing of destructive ASAT capabilities is de-stabilizing, could trigger dangerous misinterpretations and miscalculations, and could be escalatory in a crisis or conflict.

ASAT weapons directly threaten satellites and the information that those satellites provide. They pose a direct threat to key infrastructure used in arms control verification monitoring; military command, control, and communications; and strategic and tactical warning of attack. Furthermore, a debris-generating ASAT test or attack may only be minutes in duration, but the consequences could last for decades and indiscriminately threaten space assets used by all nations. The United States believes that testing debris-generating ASAT systems threatens the national security, economic well-being, and civil endeavors of all nations.

In considering options for international cooperation to ensure space security and sustainability, we acknowledge that some States have proposed a new, legally binding agreement that would prohibit the placement of weapons in outer space. For its part, the United States is willing to consider space arms control proposals and concepts that are equitable, effectively verifiable, and enhance the security of all nations. However, the revised draft “Treaty on the Prevention of the Placement of Weapons in Outer Space, the Threat or Use of Force against Outer Space Objects” – also known as the “PPWT” – submitted by Russia and China to the Conference on Disarmament (CD) earlier this year, does not satisfy these criteria.

As the United States has noted in our analysis submitted to the CD, which was published as CD/1998 dated September 3, 2014, the 2014 draft PPWT, like the earlier 2008 version, remains flawed. Above all, there is no integral verification regime to help monitor compliance with the ban on the placement of weapons in outer space. Moreover, Russia and China openly acknowledge that technologies do not currently exist to verify compliance with such a ban.

Furthermore, the updated draft PPWT distracts attention from terrestrially-based ASAT systems. Under the PPWT, there is no prohibition on the research, development, testing, production, storage or deployment of terrestrially-based anti-satellite weapons. Thus, the PPWT evades the fact that terrestrially based capabilities could be used to perform the same functions as space-based weapons. For example, according to our analysis, China’s January 11, 2007, flight-test of a ground-based direct-ascent ASAT missile against its own weather satellite would have been permitted under both the 2008 as well as the updated 2014 draft PPWT. China’s subsequent, non-destructive test of this same ASAT system on July 23, 2014, also would have been allowed.

In contrast to the flawed approach offered by the PPWT, there are numerous pragmatic ways where spacefaring nations could cooperate to preserve the security and sustainability of the space domain. Indeed, the United States is convinced that there are challenges that can, and should, be addressed through practical, near-term initiatives, such as non-legally binding transparency and confidence-building measures (TCBMs) to encourage responsible actions in, and the peaceful use of, outer space. Such pragmatic, non-legally binding measures either are already being implemented unilaterally, bilaterally, or multilaterally, or could be developed and implemented by spacefaring nations in the future.

In this regard, the United States fully participated in, and endorsed, the consensus study of outer space TCBMs by the UN Group of Governmental Experts (GGE), whose report was later endorsed on December 5, 2013, by the full General Assembly in Resolution 68/50. Moreover, the United States is co-sponsoring a follow-on resolution at this session on “Transparency and Confidence-Building Measures for Outer Space Activities,” which supports further consideration of the GGE’s recommendations at a joint ad hoc meeting of the First and Fourth Committees next year during the General Assembly’s seventieth session.

The GGE report endorsed voluntary, non-legally binding transparency and confidence-building measures to strengthen stability in space. It also endorsed efforts to pursue political commitments – including a multilateral code of conduct – to encourage responsible actions in, and the peaceful use of, outer space.

Mr. Chairman,

The United States also welcomes proposals for the development of additional TCBMs if they satisfy the criteria established in the consensus report. Per the GGE consensus report, non-legally binding TCBMs for outer space activities should:

(1) be clear, practical, and proven, meaning that both the application and the efficacy of the proposed measure must be demonstrated by one or more actors;

(2) be able to be effectively confirmed by other parties in their application, either independently or collectively; and finally,

(3) reduce or even eliminate the causes of mistrust, misunderstanding, and miscalculation with regard to the activities and intentions of States.

In this regard, we would note that some ideas for TCBMs that have been mentioned in the First Committee fail to meet the GGE’s criteria for a valid TCBM. For example, in assessing the Russian initiative for States to make declarations of “No First Placement” (NFP) of weapons in outer space, we conclude that the NFP initiative has three basic flaws:

First, the NFP Pledge does not adequately define what constitutes a “weapon in outer space.”

Second, other parties would not be able to confirm effectively a State’s political commitment “not to be the first to place weapons in outer space.”

Third, the NFP Pledge focuses exclusively on space-based weapons – such as the co-orbital ASAT weapon once flight-tested and deployed by the former-Soviet Union. It is silent in regard to terrestrially-based ASAT weapons, which, as previously noted, constitute a significant threat to spacecraft.

Fortunately, there are constructive proposals for outer space TCBMs that satisfy the criteria established in the consensus GGE report. For example, the U.S. Strategic Command provides to both government and commercial sector satellite operators timely notifications of satellite close approaches. In this regard, the United States welcomes China’s recent commitment to provide contact information necessary for Chinese entities responsible for spacecraft operations and conjunction assessment to receive urgent satellite collision warnings directly from the U.S. Strategic Command’s Joint Space Operations Center.

Also, the United States believes that European Union efforts to develop an International Code of Conduct for Outer Space Activities can serve as the best near-term mechanism for States to implement many of the GGE’s recommendations. Over the past two years, the United States has actively participated in the European Union-sponsored Open-Ended Consultations in Kyiv, Bangkok, and Luxembourg. We now look forward to working next year with the European Union and the international community in an inclusive process to finalize a Code of Conduct that enhances the long-term sustainability, safety, stability and security of the space environment.

In addition to continued informal exchanges at the CD in Geneva, the United States supports consideration of the GGE recommendations by the UN Disarmament Commission during its 2015-2017 cycle.

These “top-down” measures to enhance stability can be complemented by “bottom-up” efforts to ensure the long-term sustainability of outer space activities. The United States welcomes the decision by the Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS) to consider the GGE report during its 58th session in June 2015. This review can reinforce the importance of ongoing efforts of COPUOS to mitigate space debris and develop new guidelines for improved spaceflight safety and collaborative space situational awareness.

Mr. Chairman, sustaining the space environment is critical for all of mankind – for our aspirations, our economic development, our environment, our security, and our well-being. If we are serious about maintaining the space environment for future generations, we must develop and implement pragmatic and effective measures on a timely basis that remedy concrete problems, and reject initiatives that are problematic, ineffective, or irrelevant to protecting the security and sustainability of the space environment.

Thank you, Mr. Chairman.