Promoting Space Security and Sustainability

Mallory Stewart
Deputy Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Arms Control, Verification and Compliance
Space Situational Awareness 2015: "Accelerating Space Situational Awareness Capabilities"; College Park Marriott Hotel and Conference Center
East Hyattsville, MD
May 12, 2015

Thank you, Dr. [Moriba] Jah, for your kind introduction, and for the opportunity to speak with you today. I’d like to thank Corinium Global Intelligence and Boeing for inviting me to speak at this important conference.

This is a great opportunity for the U.S. Department of State to discuss our role in promoting space security and sustainability. It is especially nice that I can speak with and learn from such an expert, international audience on these issues without having to travel very far.

Many of the speakers we will hear from today will provide detailed assessments of the risks and challenges we are facing in space -- risks from debris, some of it caused by on-orbit collisions and from the rise in man-made debris, and challenges that are larger than any one country can tackle alone. Space presents a unique environment that complicates our ability to address challenges as difficult as space debris. Specifically, with the rapid rise in the use of space, ever-evolving technological capabilities, and the presence of many new actors in space, the challenge of spaceflight is growing more complex by the day. The difficulty of addressing those challenges is complicated by the sheer number of actors now involved. And, we all have become increasingly aware that bad actions in space can be difficult to attribute to any specific party; thus accountability for negligent or irresponsible actions will become even more difficult in the future.

That is why we believe diplomacy is so important. The U.S. State Department has been tasked by President Obama with expanding international cooperation to address the challenges we face in outer space. We are working closely with countries around the world to highlight the necessity of strengthening the long-term sustainability, safety, and security of space. International cooperation, such as sharing space situational awareness and best practices in space -- is crucial to preventing uncontrolled chaotic future in space, and contributes in important ways to a safe and secure space environment.

Today I will briefly discuss some of the challenges we are facing and then discuss what we are doing through international cooperation and collaboration to tackle those challenges.

Challenges to the Space Environment

As this audience well knows, orbital debris is one of the greatest challenges facing the world as more countries come to use space for their own benefit. There are now more than 20,000 man-made objects large enough to be tracked in various Earth orbits – from operational satellites, to parts of rocket bodies, to other pieces of debris resulting from more than half-a-century of space launches. And there are many more objects, too small to be tracked, that still present a threat to all forms of spaceflight. We are all well aware of the recent incidents of collisions and near-collisions between spacecraft, including the need to maneuver the International Space Station to avoid debris.

This debris problem, which is compounded by intentional or negligent actions in space, should be an alarm bell for all nations. The U.S. Government is particularly concerned that irresponsible behavior in space significantly increases the threat to all of Earth’s satellites, making the peaceful use of space ever more difficult.

We should be aware that such irresponsible behavior in space now includes the development and use of anti-satellite, or ASAT, systems. Even in the development phase, the debris generated by testing of anti-satellite capabilities creates hazards for all spacefaring actors. Indeed, still today thousands of pieces of debris from the destructive 2007 Chinese anti-satellite test continue to endanger space assets of all nations, including China itself and will continue to pose that threat for many years to come. It is estimated that 50 percent of the debris caused by China’s 2007 test could still be in orbit for another 20 years.

Despite the potential for debris, and the serious international concern voiced by the United States and others, some nations continue to develop their ASAT systems.

The United States believes that such destructive capabilities are both destabilizing and a threat to the long-term security and sustainability of outer space. Moreover, in an environment in which warning – unfortunately- is not the norm, and attribution can be difficult to achieve, there are often limited means to prevent or address the destructive effect or any resulting debris generated from these new capabilities.

A related issue is the challenge of ensuring that we have situational awareness of the space environment. A long-standing principle of U.S. and international space policy is that all nations have the right to explore and use space for peaceful purposes, and for the benefit of all humanity, in accordance with international law. Strengthening stability depends on having awareness and understanding as to who is using the space environment, for what purposes, and under what conditions. The inherent warning, attribution, and accountability hurdles that are exacerbated because of the immense expanse of space, make the need for situational awareness in space that much greater.

The U.S. National Space Policy directs us to collaborate with other nations, the global commercial sector, and various private and intergovernmental organizations to improve our shared space situational awareness – in other words, to improve our collective ability to rapidly detect, warn of, characterize, and attribute natural and man-made disturbances to space systems. Having this information as early as possible and as accurately as possible is critical for safe human spaceflight and for ensuring a stable environment in space that benefits all nations.

Having information that enables us to achieve space situational awareness and understanding is necessary but insufficient unless we can take steps to avoid the perceived threats. In other words, the challenges of increasing debris in space and the growing complexities of responsible, as well as irresponsible, space operations lead to another challenge, that of collision avoidance.

Responding to These Challenges

The United States takes these issues seriously, and our National Space Policy reflects the importance we attach to addressing these challenges. The Department of State, in cooperation with our interagency colleagues, has been actively working with our allies and partners around the globe to preserve the long-term security and sustainability of the space environment.

A large part of our international cooperation – in accordance with the President’s National Space Policy guidance – involves transparency and confidence-building measures (TCBMs) to encourage responsible actions in, and the peaceful use of, space. TCBMs are pragmatic, voluntary actions, and a means by which governments can address challenges and share information with the aim of creating mutual understanding and reducing tensions. Examples of bilateral space-related TCBMs include dialogues on national security space policies and strategies, expert visits to military satellite flight control centers, and discussions on mechanisms for information exchanges on natural and debris hazards. Examples of multilateral space-related TCBMs include joint resolutions and commitments on space security and the prevention of debris-generating activities, and adoption of international norms or “codes of conduct”.

At a very basic level, our international efforts involve outreach, cooperation, and norms development. I will briefly speak about each of these.


Outreach is often the first step in transparency and confidence building, and we engage in outreach efforts both multilaterally and bilaterally. We have established 13 formal Space Security Dialogues on a bilateral basis to discuss these issues with foreign countries, and numerous less-formalized dialogues with international and domestic partners. These dialogues allow in-depth conversations about the collective challenges we face, and encourage collaborative brainstorming on how we can work together to develop and implement solutions to these issues.

Outreach also involves notifications. Currently the United States provides notifications of potential conjunctions to other government and commercial satellite operators through our cooperative relationships and the web site


Outreach also entails cooperation. The Department of State also works with the Department of Defense on the dissemination of orbital tracking information through lines of communication established in space situational awareness (SSA) cooperation agreements with foreign partners.

In fact, the Department of State is working with the Department of Defense’s (DoD’s) U.S. Strategic Command (USSTRATCOM) to implement its first SSA Sharing Strategy that promotes sharing more information on a more timely basis with the broadest range of partners in an interactive way. The foundations for these cooperative efforts are those SSA sharing agreements and arrangements that provide for enhanced exchanges of unclassified information. To date, the United States has signed 11 SSA sharing agreements and arrangements with national governments and international intergovernmental organizations, and 47 with commercial entities.

Beyond these foundational agreements and arrangements, State is working with USSTRATCOM and others in the national security community to foster the development of routine operational partnerships, creating a true data-sharing environment that extends to the robust sharing of spaceflight information. This work supports broader U.S. efforts to ensure that data from sensors and spacecraft operated by Allies and other governmental and private sector sources can be aggregated and processed into actionable information.

Finally, in addition to outreach and cooperation, the adoption of norms of responsible behavior is instrumental to our space policy:

The United States continues to lead the development of international standards to minimize debris, building upon the foundation of the U.N. Space Debris Mitigation Guidelines. The United States has been engaged for more than three years in a multilateral study of the long-term sustainability of outer space activities within the Scientific and Technical Subcommittee of the U.N. Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space, or UNCOPUOS. Scheduled for completion in 2016, this effort is examining the feasibility of voluntary “best practices guidelines” to help reduce operational risks to all space systems.

In addition, the United States supports a number of multilateral initiatives to establish consensus guidelines – “rules of the road” – for responsible space activities that support U.S. and international security interests. For example:

  • Assistant Secretary Frank Rose served as the U.S. expert for the United Nations Group of Governmental Experts (GGE) study of outer space transparency and confidence-building measures. That group published a consensus report in 2013 endorsing voluntary, non-legally binding TCBMs to strengthen sustainability and security in space.
  • Additionally, for the past several years the United States has worked with the European Union and other nations to advance an International Code of Conduct for Outer Space Activities. We will participate in negotiations this year and hopefully develop a Code of Conduct that enhances the security and sustainability of space. This Code would be a voluntary, “top-down” commitment that complements and expands upon the approach of the UNCOPUOS efforts to develop long-term sustainability guidelines. The Code could help solidify safe operational practices, reduce the chance of collisions or other harmful interference with nations’ activities, contribute to our awareness of the space environment through notifications, and strengthen stability in space by helping establish norms for responsible behavior.

Among the draft Code’s most important commitments is for subscribers to minimize, to the greatest extent possible, the creation of space debris, in particular, the creation of long-lived space debris and to refrain from any action that brings about, directly or indirectly, damage, or destruction of space objects, unless required and allowed under the international law right of self-defense..


In sum, solving foreign policy problems today requires us to think both regionally and globally, to see the intersections and connections linking nations and regions, and to bring people together as partners to solve shared problems. Partnership in space endeavors entails shared responsibility and shared commitment. We have made it clear in our bilateral and multilateral dialogues with other nations that solving the challenges of orbital debris, situational awareness, collision avoidance, and encouraging responsible and peaceful behavior in space, as well as precluding irresponsible behavior in space, are the duties of all who are, or will be, engaged in space activities. This includes not only “established” space-faring nations, but also those countries just beginning to explore and use space. Although we hope we are on our way to resolving some of these challenges technologically, issues of warning, attribution, accountability, and transparency remain.

The world has become more reliant on space capabilities and space-derived information than ever before. Ensuring the long-term sustainability and security of the space environment is vital to the future of the entire international community, and space situational awareness is foundational to achieving that goal.

Thank you for your time and attention.