While the terrestrial, maritime and aerial warfare are much talked about, it is outer space which is the new arena for competition and rivalry. From Sputnik I to SpaceX Falcon, space as a frontier has come a long way.
Until recent past, space was seen as an exclusive playground of the superpowers. With growth in the number of spacefaring nations, continuous advancements in technological and operational capabilities, bigger role for space in national security calculus, growing opportunities for remote sensing, and the potential for space mining, the space domain is increasingly complex, congested, competitive and contested. Lt. Con. John E. Hyten, a United States Air Force General (currently serving as the 11th Vice Chairman of Joint Chiefs of Staff) talked of the inevitability of conflict in space as early as 2000.
More the players on this new playground, greater the competition for resources and hence greater the need for common objectives, fair rules of the road, and shared decision-making processes to enable all spacefaring nations to accomplish more for less than they could on their own. Hence, it is desirable that the competitive space environment becomes simultaneously more collaborative. Such a desire resonates with Ellen Stofan’s (former Chief Scientist of NASA) understanding of space expeditions when she says “When we go to explore, we do it as a globe. People see space as a place where you go and cooperate”.
The current space ‘regulations’ were agreed upon in a different time, at the acme of the Cold War and the nadir of relationship between the warring nations in the 1960s when only a limited understanding of space and its capabilities existed. A year after Sputnik’s launch, United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (UNCOPUOS) was established in 1958 as an ad hoc committee of the United Nations (later made permanent in 1959) with United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA) as its secretariat. UNCOPUOS oversees the implementation of five UN treaties related to the outer space activities, namely, Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies of 1967 (Outer Space Treaty), Agreement on the Rescue of Astronauts, the Return of Astronauts and the Return of Objects Launched into Outer Space of 1968 (Rescue Agreement), Convention on International Liability for Damage Caused by Space Objects of 1972 (Liability Convention), Convention on Registration of Objects Launched into Outer Space of 1976 (Registration Convention) and the Agreement Governing the Activities of States on the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies of 1979 (Moon Treaty) along with other related international agreements like the Treaty Banning Nuclear Weapon Tests in the Atmosphere, in Outer Space, and Under Water (NTB) of 1963 and the Brussels Convention Relating to the Distribution of Programme–Carrying Signals Transmitted by Satellite (BRS) of 1979 among others.
The Outer Space Treaty of 1967 (OST) designates space as the “province of all mankind” and states that the exploration of space and its use should be “for the benefit…of all countries, irrespective of their degree of economic or scientific development” however, it doesn’t provide any authoritative mechanism to decide which activities are inconsistent with these principles and fails to address issues like growing weaponization of space. While Article IV prohibits deployment of weapons of mass destruction in space and “establishment of military bases, installations, and fortifications…”, the lack of description of what qualifies a weapon creates confusion regarding modern day technologies such as lasers for communication while interpreting “…the testing of any type of weapons, and the conduct of military manoeuvres on celestial bodies shall be forbidden”.
The Liability Convention and OST have the potential to impede the private sector investment due to lack of property rights in space and imposition of liability on the states for all activities even those conducted by civilians and private entities, thereby compelling states to impose licenses and insurance on such entities.
The Registration Convention with the main purpose of stipulating a framework for reporting information (date, general function etc.) regarding launches to the United Nations is believed to have helped in the development of an international registration system. Peaceful and rational use of the space has a strong correlation to full knowledge of presence of objects in that environment. However, it would be more effective if the current requirement that states report the launching of objects into space “to the greatest extent possible and as soon as possible” is modified to ensure the states report precise functions at pre-decided, universally acceptable time period. More stringent provisions regarding data collection, verification mechanism and improved compliance has the potential to enhance transparency and confidence among states active in the domain.
Space security threats are growing – increasing cyber threats to space assets (through hacking and other satellite interference), heightened collision probability due to congestion, proliferation of space debris, entry of new players merely to ensure deterrence, visible early trends of weaponization of space, and threat of overwhelming radiofrequency waves spectrum by large satellite constellations – these are testaments to the inadequacy and weakness of the existing international bodies and treaties. There is also legal void, internationally, with respect to property rights, traffic regulation, criminal code and enforcement agencies. The existing treaties and arrangements have different gaps and loopholes that must be addressed in a coordinated manner.
As the inevitable develops, a constructive and pragmatic approach, universal and inclusive forum, and a transparent process are the need of the hour to ensure space users can derive mutually beneficial gains, shoulder responsibility and ensure sustainability of space. The domain of space when looked at from the viewpoint of a global commons creates a responsibility on states to respect other states’ interests. The challenge now, unlike that of 1960s where two superpowers with comparable military capabilities forged international space treaties in an attempt to maintain the balance of power, is to decide the rules of the road with different countries, industries and individuals looking to jump on the bandwagon.
The first objective must be to reach a common understanding of basic building blocks of a governance regime such as general principles of good behaviour, effective measures to improve safety, security and sustainability of space activities and implementation of transparency and confidence building measures (TCBMs).
Space assets are inherently ‘dual use’ in nature making it difficult to delineate the civilian use of space technology from its potential military purpose. This results into the covert nature of space activities, creating a problem where states can be falsely accused of causing damage to other states’ assets and gives an excuse to states to enter the domain to ensure deterrence. Such characteristic of outer space makes it “an inherently vulnerable and offense dominant domain” and the counter-space operations more favourable.
With over eighty countries having launched their space objects, independently or in partnership, and over US$336 billion invested commercially, it is an era of democratization and privatisation of the outer space. Hence, space needs global cooperation and governance to give equal bargaining powers to the new entrants whilst ensuring sustainable and common future accessibility.
Space dynamics are changing faster than their supportive regulations. It is, hence, a question of when and not if anymore.
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