Challenges to Arms Control in Space and Pragmatic Way Ahead

Frank A. Rose
Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Arms Control, Verification and Compliance
3rd ARF Workshop on Space Security, Session II: Enhancement for Space Security through Arms Control Measures, Including Legally-Binding Instruments
Beijing, China
November 30, 2015

Overarching Challenges

As we’ve heard in this Session, there have been many proposals from a range of countries regarding space arms control measures. I will now take the opportunity to step back and examine some of the overarching challenges in the space arms control area, how these challenges are manifested in recent proposals, and offer a way ahead.

First, let’s look at the broad challenges associated with arms control in outer space: verification; scope; and the ability to address the most pressing and existing threats.

The verification challenge is a serious one: How does one verify and monitor that limitations on space weapons are being enforced? Assuming we identify an effective methodology for verification, does the technology to rigorously apply this methodology even exist?

A second key challenge is determining the scope of space arms control measures. For example, just what is a “space weapon?” Many space assets are potentially dual-use, making it impossible to determine if they constitute a weapon. If one satellite collides with another satellite, destroying the latter, is the first satellite a weapon? Even if the former satellite was constructed with completely benign intentions and the collision accidental, the fact remains that it has now destroyed another space asset. This key definitional problem remains unsolved.

A third key challenge is ensuring that any arms control measures equitably address the most pressing and existing threats. Some governments have recommended that we focus our attention on the placement of weapons in outer space. While the Soviet Union did indeed produce, place, and test weapons in outer space, we think that focusing on a recurrence of such deployments is a misprioritization. The most pressing and existing threat to outer space systems is actually terrestrially-based anti-satellite weapons, which exist, have been tested, and have already damaged the space environment. The continued development of such weapons, and their potential use in a conflict, should be of grave concern to all governments. Due to high impact speed in space, even sub-millimeter debris poses a realistic threat to human spaceflight and robotic missions.

Recent Proposals Fundamentally Flawed

Having examined some of the key challenges associated with space arms control, I would like to consider how these challenges have been addressed in some of the measures discussed earlier during this Session, notably the PPWT and NFP.

First, with regards to the verification challenge, the PPWT contains no integral verification regime to help monitor and verify the limitation on the placement of weapons in space. The United States could not support an approach in which verification provisions were determined only through subsequent negotiations of an “additional protocol.” In addition, as the United States has pointed out, it is not possible with existing technologies and/or cooperative measures to effectively verify these proposals. Nor does the development of such technology appear to be imminent. The authors of the latest draft PPWT have admitted as much in official Conference on Disarmament documents. The NFP also lacks any effective confirmation features, rendering it impossible to demonstrate the efficacy of such a proposal.

Second, on the scope issue, the PPWT again has serious problems. Typically, arms control treaties that prohibit the deployment of a class of weapon also prohibit the possession, testing, production, and stockpiling of such weapons to prevent a country from rapidly breaking out of such treaties. The PPWT contains no such prohibitions and thus a Party could develop a readily deployable space-based weapons break-out capability. The NFP is also silent on this particular scoping issue. Moreover, since it does not define a “weapon in outer space,” states lack any mutual understanding of the operative terminology of such a pledge.

And third, the draft PPWT fails to address the most pressing and existing threat to outer space systems: terrestrially-based anti-satellite weapon systems. There is no prohibition on the research, development, testing, production, storage, or deployment of terrestrially-based anti-satellite weapons; thus such capabilities could be used to substitute for, and perform the functions of, space-based weapons. Unlike more hypothetical threats that some speakers have suggested we focus on, terrestrially-based anti-satellite systems have actually been tested in recent years. We cannot allow such a weapon to be retained, as our Russian colleagues have argued, as a “hedge” against cheating in the PPWT. The NFP proposal shares these same weaknesses.

The Way Ahead

Given the fundamental flaws contained in these two proposals, my fellow participants will not be surprised to find out that the United States does not support either initiative and does not see them as an acceptable basis for negotiation in the Conference on Disarmament or in any other forum. However, I would like to point out that the United States is not opposed to space arms control agreements in principle. Indeed, as the U.S. National Space Policy makes clear, “[t]he United States will consider proposals and concepts for arms control measures if they are equitable, effectively verifiable, and enhance the national security of the United States and its allies.” Furthermore, we believe that it is not in the international community’s interest to engage in a space weapons arms race; indeed, our efforts are aimed at preventing conflict from extending into space.

Instead of focusing on fundamentally flawed proposals, we would instead offer a pragmatic way ahead in order to address some of the urgent challenges that we all face, especially in the area of space debris. We believe that way is through the creation and implementation of pragmatic and near-term transparency and confidence-building measures, or TCBMs,that can encourage responsible actions in, and the peaceful use of, space. Unlike inadequate proposals, TCBMs can make a real difference in the near term, and such pragmatic measures can lead to greater mutual understanding and reduce tensions.

As I mentioned during my opening remarks earlier today, one promising area is the important work being done in the UN Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space, or COPUOS, on the development of new international long-term sustainability, or LTS, guidelines. The agreed work plan for the COPUOS working group on LTS is near completion, and we look forward to joining other COPUOS delegations to reach consensus on a clear and practical set of guidelines in 2016. I look forward to hearing Dr. Peter Martinez of South Africa, who is the Chair of the Working Group on LTS, present tomorrow on this important effort.

Another promising area on space TCBMs is the continued implementation of the recommendations of the UN GGE study of TCBMs. The 2013 GGE report, which was later endorsed by consensus by the UN General Assembly, highlighted the importance of voluntary, non-legally binding TCBMs to strengthen stability in space. Such TCBMs can include the adoption of the previously-mentioned LTS guidelines in COPUOS, which can serve as a foundation for other TCBMs.

A third promising area is international cooperation on space situational awareness, or SSA, which can help contribute to a more comprehensive picture of what is transpiring in space and ensure the safety, sustainability, stability, and security of the space environment. We see opportunities for cooperation on SSA with other governments and nongovernmental space operators around the globe. Such cooperation on SSA is very important, as international partnerships bring resources, capabilities, and geographical advantages. To date, the United States has signed 11 SSA sharing agreements and arrangements with national governments and international intergovernmental organizations, and 50 with commercial entities. SSA is a critical capability to help us achieve our goal of preventing conflict from extending to space in the first place; this goal is consistent with the ARF’s objective “to make significant contributions to efforts towards confidence-building and preventive diplomacy in the Asia-Pacific region.”

One regional example of our cooperation in this area is our ongoing coordination with our Chinese co-hosts on orbital collisions. The Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs has provided the United States with email contact information for the appropriate Chinese entity responsible for spacecraft operations and conjunction assessment, allowing this organization to receive Close Approach Notifications directly from the U.S. Department of Defense. This lays the ground work for a much faster process for sharing information, which reduces the probability of, and facilitates effective responses to, orbital collisions, orbital break-ups and other events that might increase the probability of accidental collisions in outer space.

Thank you for your time, and I look forward to your questions.