The lack of space governance will prove to be a problem in the near future as terrestrial geopolitical rivalries are being mirrored in outer space
The outer space domain has seen remarkable changes over the past decade. Many changes, from the total number and diversity of players to space security dominance and arrival of new technologies, are making space governance challenges ever more difficult.
A domain that used to be almost entirely state-run now has large numbers of private and other non-state players. The entry of new commercial actors across various facets, from satellite manufacturing and satellite launches to developing propulsion technologies and space-based services. The advent of private enterprise in the space sector has ushered in many benefits, the biggest of which is the democratisation of space, bringing down the cost and making space much more accessible. Satellite manufacturing and launch prices have come down and the entry of more players across different regions will fast-track it further. A big change is also that private sector participation is no longer restricted to the West, which was the case earlier, but has spread to other regions as well, including Asia. Ambitious projects from colonising the Moon and Mars to asteroid mining and space tourism are part of the investments that the private sector is making. Space tourism also made some important strides in 2021, with Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic taking paying customers on sub-orbital flights. Meanwhile, SpaceX has developed a reusable spacecraft, meant for transporting both crew and cargo to space.
From a handful of states that used to dominate the space domain for the past several decades, it has seen a significant growth with many developing countries and emerging economies realising the importance of space in human development.
The global space industry is worth US $350 billion, and it is estimated that the sector is expected to reach more than US $1 trillion by 2040. “The Space Tech 2021 report” from Space Tech Analytics noted that there are around 10,000 private sector companies and 5,000 leading investors in the area of space tech. Even as this is the new reality, a formidable challenge lies ahead in terms of finding a voice for the private sector in writing the global rules of the road. While there may be a glimmer of hope in some of the platforms like the UN Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS), it is a lot trickier in space security and arms control platforms such as the Conference on Disarmament (CD) in Geneva, which are dominated by state actors.
Space has also become an overpopulated domain with the increase in the number of players as well as the growing space debris. From a handful of states that used to dominate the space domain for the past several decades, it has seen a significant growth with many developing countries and emerging economies realising the importance of space in human development. There are concerns that the growing number of countries in Asia, Africa, and Latin America investing in space may make outer space even more congested, but it is difficult to justify such concerns when utilising outer space is critical for the social, economic, and scientific growth of less developed countries. Nevertheless, the difficulties of managing an overcrowded and congested space are real.
Amazon subsidiary Kuiper Systems, too, has plans to provide space-based internet connectivity, rivalling the SpaceX plans.
The Kessler syndrome, where a collision between two space objects could set off a cascading chain reaction, cannot be dismissed. Given the speed at which space objects travel—around 17,000 miles an hour—any collision between two objects in space could set in motion a disastrous turn of events with more and more collisions, creating an unmanageable amount of space debris. But despite these dangers, the space population is only going to grow given that many players have laid out ambitious plans to build large constellations in low Earth orbit in the coming years. Over the last few years, SpaceX has already launched around 2,000 of its Starlink satellites. Amazon subsidiary Kuiper Systems, too, has plans to provide space-based internet connectivity, rivalling the SpaceX plans. Kuiper Systems has won the US FCC’s approval to build a low Earth orbit satellite constellation that can deliver affordable internet connectivity in regions that remain unconnected so far. Reportedly, Amazon plans to invest “more than US $10 billion in Project Kuiper over an unspecified period of time.” With such growth plans, it is unlikely that the problems of an overcrowded and congested space are dissipating anytime soon.
Another growing characterisation of space activities is the dominance of space security-driven utilities. An upward trajectory in the use of space assets for conventional military operations, shifting away from the traditional use of space for strategic functions such as arms control and treaty verification and early warning, is alarming. Militaries around the world are moving away from passive military uses of space for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance to active integration of space into conventional military operations, making space extremely fragile. Growing military dependence on space has also increased vulnerabilities. Development of counterspace capabilities is taking place at an accelerated pace, increasing the vulnerabilities to anti-satellite (ASAT), cyber, electronic warfare and attacks from Directed Energy Weapons. The pursuit of these disruptive technologies is destabilising because it has pushed many other states who were on the margins to get serious about protecting their own space assets, thus, more states are engaged in developing matching capabilities as a means of deterrence.
Growing securitisation of space has meant that even peaceful technologies meant for defensive uses are seen with a lot of suspicion. For example, there is considerable wariness about new technologies such as the on-orbit satellite servicing used for remotely repairing and refuelling a satellite. The current state of Great Power politics and the competition and rivalry increasingly playing out in space have contributed to the misgivings about these technologies. Given the intensifying power politics, it is unlikely that the much-needed rules of the road for these new technologies will be developed anytime soon.
The underlying reason for the current state of competition, rivalry, and the securitisation of space is the changing balance of power dynamics in the Indo-Pacific and beyond. This phenomenon is most evident in China’s pursuit of advanced and sophisticated space capabilities in an effort to match up to the United States (US). But given the nature of inter-state relations in the Indo-Pacific, especially amongst the major powers such as between China and Japan or China and India, the competitive dynamics—including in space—is intensifying. Due to this elevated level of competition and rivalry, China’s growing space prowess has been of particular concern to countries like India and Japan as well as others. India’s demonstration of its ASAT capability in March 2019 was an indication of this dynamics. Japan is also planning to develop an interceptor capability in the coming years, yet another illustration of the competition playing out in the Indo-Pacific. Unfortunately, even though Asian space programmes will likely make impressive strides in scientific and technological terms, the impact of the terrestrial geopolitics cannot be ignored, which will be reflected in the development of destabilising technologies. Another fallout of the increasing competition is the emergence of dedicated military space institutions, a trend that is unlikely to slow down in the coming years. Russia’s Aerospace Defence Forces, China’s PLA Strategic Support Force, the US’ Space Force, and India’s Defence Space Agency are examples of the new space security institutions that are taking shape.
Global governance has come under enormous stress for a number of reasons, including a large number and diversity of actors, return of geopolitics, and the role of the private sector.
Each of these developments have cast a shadow on the progress (or the lack of it) in global governance of space. Global governance has come under enormous stress for a number of reasons, including a large number and diversity of actors, return of geopolitics, and the role of the private sector. The Outer Space Treaty of 1967 is a comprehensive instrument that has maintained the sanctity of outer space to a large extent, but the treaty suffers from an important gap because it prohibits only the placement of Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) in space. The treaty is silent on non-WMD weapons including counterspace capabilities. This is just an instance highlighting the criticality of new rules of the road.
Given the stagnant nature of multilateral negotiations, more states are likely to pursue the path of deterrence in space, which is destabilising. There have been several recent global proposals for space governance including the draft Treaty on the Prevention of the Placement of Weapons in Outer Space, sponsored by Russia and China, originally proposed in 2008, with a revised text in 2014; the EU-initiated International Code of Conduct for Outer Space Activities (2010); the 2013 UN Group of Governmental Experts on Transparency and Confidence Building Measures (TCBMs); and the 2018-19 GGE on further practical measures for the prevention of an arms race in outer space (PAROS), but none of these have taken the global space community closer to establishing new rules of the road, which demonstrate the enormous difficulties in the area of global governance of space. But the urgent need for new rules cannot be emphasised enough because the rapid development of counterspace capabilities that cannot be tackled by existing international instruments governing space.
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Dr Rajeswari (Raji) Pillai Rajagopalan is the Director of the Centre for Security, Strategy and Technology (CSST) at the Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi. Dr ...Read More +