State of Play of the Outer Space Regime and U.S.-India Space Cooperation

Frank A. Rose
Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Arms Control, Verification and Compliance
Observer Research Foundation (ORF), Kalpana Chawla Annual Space Policy Dialogue
New Delhi, India
February 24, 2016

Thank you very much for that kind introduction.

It is a pleasure to be here with you tonight, and it is an honor to return to India once more. I would like to take a moment to thank my good friend Raji as well as the entire Observer Research Foundation for inviting me here to speak and for putting on this excellent Dialogue.

Today, I would like to cover three main areas: the challenge of space debris to all nations; the use of transparency and confidence-building measures, or TCBMs, as a tool for addressing this and other space challenges; and the growth in the U.S.-India space relationship.

The Challenge of Space Debris

Today, approximately 60 nations and government consortia, as well as numerous commercial, scientific, and academic entities, operate satellites. This has led to tremendous advancements and benefits for people on Earth. The cooperation between countries and the private sector on these space systems and their associated services and applications are vital to peoples’ daily lives across the Asia-Pacific and the world, enhancing economic growth and development as well as security. However, there has been a downside to these systems: decades of space activity have littered Earth’s orbit with defunct satellites and pieces of debris, and as we continue to increase activities in space, the chance for a collision increases correspondingly.

The United States is currently tracking tens of thousands of pieces of space debris 10 centimeters or larger in various Earth orbits. Experts warn that the current quantity and density of man-made debris significantly increases the odds of future damaging collisions. Because of the high speeds in which these objects travel in space, even a sub-millimeter piece of debris could cause a problem for human or robotic missions. This serious problem is continuing to grow as more debris is generated by routine operations as well as by accidents, mishaps, and irresponsible actions.

The Need for TCBMs

If the urgent problem of debris is not addressed, access to some space services could someday be seriously degraded or even lost. To preserve the right of all nations to explore and use space for peaceful purposes, and for the benefit of all humanity, international cooperation is necessary.

As participants at today’s Dialogue are well aware, while most countries agree that orbital debris is a problem, there is disagreement regarding whether it is the most important problem on which to focus. For example, some countries have expressed the view that the potential placement of weapons in outer space, as well as the threat of their use – not debris – is the most urgent problem and have prescribed a legally-binding treaty as the cure.

The United States and many of our allies and partners take issue with this diagnosis and the prescribed cure. After all, the debris challenge is real, affects all space actors, and is worsening. Focusing on the potential placement of weapons in outer space rather than debris is, in our view, a mistake. Furthermore, the development of terrestrially-based, destructive antisatellite weapons is a far more immediate threat, as such devices exist, have been tested, and have already damaged the space environment. Yet, such terrestrially-based antisatellite weapons have actually been excluded from the updated Russian-Chinese draft Treaty on the Prevention of the Placement of Weapons in Outer Space, or PPWT.

Although the draft PPWT remains fundamentally flawed for this and other reasons, 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.

In contrast, the United States supports the pursuit of voluntary TCBMs that enhance the long-term sustainability and security of the space environment – in fact, many of these already exist and could be implemented quickly. TCBMs can address some of the more urgent challenges that all of us face, especially in the area of space debris. The creation and implementation of pragmatic and voluntary TCBMs can also encourage responsible actions in, and the peaceful use of, space, as well as promote greater mutual understanding among space actors and reduce tensions.

In some cases, we already have consensus TCBM language from the UN to build upon, as with the UN Group of Governmental Experts, or GGE, on outer space TCBMs, which issued a report in 2013 that was subsequently endorsed by consensus by the UN General Assembly. For this reason, we see the implementation of the GGE recommendations as an important, promising, and priority area for international effort. We continue to encourage all states to review and implement, to the greatest extent practicable, the full range of recommendations in the report.

A second very promising area is the work being done in the United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space, or UNCOPUOS, on the development of new international long-term sustainability, or LTS, guidelines.

For over five decades, COPUOS has played a unique role in advancing technical collaboration while avoiding unnecessary politicization. Under the capable chairmanship of Peter Martinez of South Africa, the COPUOS Working Group on has identified areas of consensus as well as remaining areas of disagreement. We understand that the Chair’s assessment is that consensus could be readily achieved on 11 of the 29 draft guidelines, with consensus on another 10 achievable within the current year. However, for the remaining seven draft guidelines – all sponsored by Russia – frankly, it is going to be difficult to reach consensus. We look forward to continuing to work with all COPUOS participants in Vienna to complete work on guidelines for long-term sustainability of outer space activities in 2016.

A third promising area for international cooperation is on the foundational area of 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; this includes India, which I will speak more about shortly. Such cooperation on SSA is very important, as international partnerships bring resources, capabilities, and geographical advantages. To date, the United States has signed 12 SSA sharing agreements and arrangements with national governments and international intergovernmental organizations, and 51 with commercial entities.

U.S.-India Relationship in Space

I would now like to turn to the U.S.-India relationship. As the world’s two largest democracies, the U.S.-India Partnership is indispensable to global peace, prosperity, and stability. In the area of space, this strategic Partnership has been strengthened by a mutual desire to deepen our relationship and to fulfill the agreement by President Obama and Prime Minister Modi in the January 25, 2015 Joint Statement “to further promote cooperative and commercial relations between India and the United States in the field of space.”

Cooperation on civil space has long been growing, and our two nations have done tremendous work in joining together to advance the exploration of outer space. For example, NASA and ISRO have established a Mars Working Group to explore how our separate Mars missions can work together and coordinate their efforts. This is just one area of effort among many across the years of strong civil space cooperation between India and the United States. We look forward to the continued growth in our space cooperation, potentially including India’s participation in research aboard the International Space Station.

In addition to these civil areas, our space security cooperation is also growing. For example, earlier today our governments held the second bilateral Space Security Dialogue here in Delhi. I look forward to continuing to deepen this Dialogue and to identifying areas of concrete collaboration.

One potential area we are continuing to look at is cooperation on SSA and collision avoidance, as identified by the U.S.-India Joint Statement of September 2014. As I mentioned earlier, SSA is a foundational capability for spaceflight safety and preventing collisions in space, and we remain interested in establishing an SSA arrangement with India.


With that, I would like to stop for now. Again, I very much appreciate ORF giving me this opportunity to speak, and I look forward to hearing from the other panelists.

Thank you.