Keeping the peace in space

Keeping the peace in space

As the number of nations capable of launching satellites grows, so does the need for cooperation and partnership


The Indian Space Research Organization launched 20 satellites in June 2016, bringing the total of satellites orbiting the Earth to more than 1,400. The successful launch, which carried three Indian satellites and 17 satellites from  other countries including Canada, Germany, Indonesia and the U.S., topped India’s previous 2008 launch of 10 at a time and advanced international cooperation in space, according to The Economic Times, an Indian daily newspaper.

India’s launch offers a glimpse into the increasing competition in space and congested traffic in Earth’s orbit. As economies advance across the Indo-Asia-Pacific, more nations are seeking better access to space and its opportunities. Space-based systems confer technological and tactical advantages on nations that possess those capabilities in the military and commercial sectors. Satellites enhance navigation, precision targeting, drones, communications, and real-time situational awareness on the battlefield and beyond.

Space will impact virtually every aspect of security, according to Anthony Cordesman, who holds the Arleigh A. Burke Chair in Strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington, D.C., think tank. “The absolutely critical point is that in a world where geoeconomics are as important as geopolitics and strategy, we need to worry about the spectrum of vulnerability. It is not just military assets that [weaponizing] space is a problem for, but our entire societies,” the former Pentagon intelligence chief told the Financial Times newspaper in November 2015.

As nations become increasingly dependent on satellites for everything from weather forecasts and instant messaging to driverless cars and air traffic, the need for cooperation will only grow. Many experts say that sharing space resources promotes dialogues and helps deter threats. For these reasons, militaries have an increasing role to play in keeping the peace in outer space. Building consensus on how to operate in and protect this realm will bolster global and regional security, experts say.


The biggest threats to space-based capabilities are natural, accidental or deliberate activities that inhibit or deny access to the space environment, experts say. Some of the clear threats to the space-based assets include increased amounts of space debris, space weather induced upsets, the increasingly easy access to space and potential cyber/electronic warfare/kinetic attacks on space and space-support ground assets.

Space debris places satellite-based technology at risk. The U.S. Air Force, for example, tracks more than 23,000 man-made objects in orbit that are roughly the size of a softball or larger and then warns operators worldwide of pending collisions, Lt. Gen. John Raymond, deputy chief of staff, operations, U.S. Air Force, told Defense News newspaper in January 2016. On the basis of the information, satellite operators reposition satellites more than twice a week, he said.

There are hundreds of thousands additional pieces of so-called space junk that are too small to track but large enough to damage satellites or even the International Space Station, according to U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). The fragments can travel at speeds up to 35,900 kilometers per hour.

In 2007, China tested its anti-satellite (ASAT) capabilities by purposely destroying a nonfunctional weather satellite. The test created more than 2,300 pieces of debris that are larger than 10 centimeters and 150,000 debris particles, according to NASA’s Orbital Debris Program Office. More than a third of the debris could remain in orbit for 20 more years. Then in 2013, the Chinese launched a rocket that approached the safe haven of strategic geosynchronous satellites.

Potential threats to satellites during a conflict are growing. Countries — including China, Russia, India and the U.S. — are reportedly developing capabilities to deny access to satellites during conflicts. Conflicts could start in space or spill over there from air, sea, land and electromagnetic domains, some officials warn.

“Adversaries are developing kinetic, directed-energy, and cyber tools to deny, degrade and destroy our space capabilities,”  Gen. John Hyten, commander of the U.S. Air Force Space Command, told a U.S. House of Representatives Armed Services subcommittee in March 2016. “They understand our reliance on space, and they understand the competitive advantage we derive from space. The need for vigilance has never been greater.”

Another U.S. general who testified before the subcommittee concurred.

“China is developing and has demonstrated a wide range of counter-space technologies to include direct-ascent, kinetic-kill vehicles, co-orbital technologies that can disable or destroy a satellite, terrestrially based communications jammers, and lasers that can blind or disable satellites,” according to Lt. Gen. David Buck, commander of the Joint Functional Component Command for Space at U.S. Strategic Command. China is modernizing its “space programs to support near-real-time tracking of objects, command and control of deployed forces and long-range precision and strike capabilities,” the three-star general said.

People watch the Indian Space Research Organization’s launch vehicle carry 20 satellites into orbit at the Satish Dhawan Space Centre at Sriharikota, India, in June 2016. THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

Although the U.S. seeks to deter space warfare, U.S. President Barack Obama’s administration budgeted at least U.S. $5 billion to be spent through 2020 on defensive and offensive military space capabilities.

“The bottom line is the United States does not want conflict in outer space,” Frank Rose, a U.S. Department of State deputy assistant secretary for space and defense policy, told Scientific American magazine in a 2015 interview. The U.S. is interested in cooperating with China and Russia to secure space, he said, however,  “we will defend our space assets if attacked.”

The combination of increasing space ambitions and increasing space dependence makes nations susceptible to attacks. “Space is going to be a vulnerable domain, so we’re going to have to think of ways to mitigate that risk and mitigate those threats,” Elbridge Colby, a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security, told The Washington Post newspaper in January 2016. As ambitions for outer space are surging across the Indo-Asia-Pacific region, “we’re going to have to find ways to persuade or coerce our adversaries not to take full advantage of their abilities to hurt us in space,” said Colby, who authored the January 2016 report “From Sanctuary to Battlefield: A Framework for a U.S. Defense and Deterrence Strategy for Space.”

The U.S. created a new center called the Joint Interagency Combined Space Operations Center at Schriever Air Force Base in Colorado Springs, Colorado, to track space threats, including ASAT weapons from spacecraft and missiles to various jamming technologies, Hyten said. The center also has cyber teams that will conduct operations with space systems.

In December 2015, meanwhile, China formally established its Strategic Support Forces as a separate military service. These forces include China’s space, electronic and network warfare capabilities. The reorganization signifies the importance the People’s Liberation Army places on space and also their recognition of the congruency between space and cyberspace, Buck said in his testimony.


The U.S. space strategy includes partnering with responsible nations, international organizations and commercial firms to pursue cost- and risk-sharing opportunities as well as sharing space-derived information. Although more work remains among Indo-Asia-Pacific nations to cooperate in such areas as science exploration, remote sensing and manned missions, experts stress the importance of collaboration in space.

So far, the Outer Space Treaty of 1967, the reigning law governing international space, has successfully maintained the peace in outer space. Current laws, however, do not fully address many new and emerging issues such as space debris and export control. Moreover, no country or authority has the power to regulate space.

Earlier this decade the European Union advanced development of an International Code of Conduct for Outer Space Activities. The code aimed to establish guidelines for the safe and responsible use of space, consistent with international law, in particular to prevent the proliferation of space debris. It also included measures to increase the transparency of the space domain by including notifications of space-related activities such as launches and maneuvers. However, the code was stalled by procedural concerns when advocates tried to push for its adoption by the United Nations in New York in July 2015, and it “appears to be dead,” according to an analysis published in The Space Review, a weekly online publication. Among its shortcomings, the code failed to clearly define what exactly entails a “space weapon,” observers note.

The challenges of managing an increasingly congested, contested and competitive space environment and its dual-use technologies, in particular, are likely to persist for decades, especially in the absence of a clear space code. Experts hope nations can learn to work together to use outer space for the benefit of all societies and manage space as a global commons.

Michael Krepon, co-founder of the Stimson Center think tank in Washington, D.C., that focuses on transnational security challenges, summed it up this way to Scientific American: “We are in the process of messing up space, and most people don’t realize it because we can’t see it the way we can see fish kills, algal blooms or acid rain. To avoid trashing Earth’s orbit, we need a sense of urgency that currently no one has. Maybe we’ll get it when we can’t get our satellite television and our telecommunications, our global weather reports and hurricane prediction. Maybe when we get knocked back to the 1950s, we’ll get it. But by then, it will be too late.”

There are some bright spots in terms of cooperation in the Indo-Asia-Pacific, however. The U.S. and Australia have joined forces to enhance launch coverage and space object detection and tracking in the Southern Hemisphere. The U.S. upgraded a C-band radar and moved in late 2015 from Antigua Air Station in the Caribbean to Naval Communication Station Harold E. Holt in Exmouth, Western Australia. The radar was slated to become operational in 2016.

The Space Surveillance Telescope (SST), developed by the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency to detect faint objects in geosynchronous orbit up to 35,400 kilometers high, will also be relocated to Australia from New Mexico under an agreement signed in November 2012 and housed in a new facility to be built over the next four years, according to Australia’s 2016 Defense White Paper. The SST will enhance the space surveillance capabilities of both nations.

“Together with other space surveillance systems such as the nearby C-band radar, the telescope will monitor thousands of objects, including satellites and space debris that can potentially threaten important satellites supporting services such as National Broadband Network,” Australian Defence Minister Marise Payne said in April 2016.

The U.S. is constructing the Space Fence System radar, a second-generation space surveillance system designed to track artificial satellites and space debris in low Earth orbit. The initial large S-band radar and facilities will be located at Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshall Islands and will be operational by December 2018, with an option for another radar site in Western Australia. The Space Fence and SST are two of the three parts of a space surveillance network (the Space Based Space Surveillance satellite that orbits at 628 kilometers is the third) that collects information about the orbiting objects and particles in order to provide faster warning on potential space debris collisions.

By 2019, Japan will add a space monitoring division within its Self-Defense Force. “Initially, the force will be tasked with monitoring dangerous debris floating in Earth’s orbit and with protecting satellites from collisions with space debris,” according to The Japan Times newspaper. Japan will share information obtained by the new division with the U.S. military and strive to strengthen bilateral cooperation in space, the newspaper account said.

The U.S. Strategic Command (STRATCOM) introduced its Combined Space Operations initiative in 2011 along with partners Australia, Canada and the United Kingdom. The multinational effort strives to optimize military space operations, improve mission assurance and increase resilience through integration, collaboration and cooperation. The joint initiative has invited New Zealand to join and is engaging other space-faring nations including France, Germany and Japan to collaborate as well.

To increase safe operation in space, STRATCOM signed a space situational awareness (SSA) agreement with 11 countries and two intergovernmental agencies to share data. They include Australia, Canada, France, Germany, Israel, Italy, Japan, South Korea, Spain, the United Arab Emirates and the United Kingdom, as well as the European Space Agency and the European Organization for the Exploitation of Meteorological Satellites. STRATCOM also shares information with more than 50 commercial satellite companies.

Chiefly, STRATCOM’s SSA Sharing Program offers collision warning information. For example, the Joint Space Operations Center can provide prelaunch conjunction assessment to foreign and commercial operators to prevent collision of resident space objects with the launch vehicle and payload on ascent and insertion into early orbit. The program also conducts re-entry assessments for satellites and can help track asteroid threats, as it did when the 45-meter-wide Asteroid 2012 DA14 passed between the Earth and its geostationary satellites in February 2013.

“Our space systems underpin a wide range of services, providing vital nation, military, civil, scientific and economic benefits to the global community,” Adm. Cecil Haney, STRATCOM commander, told the website in February 2016. “Space situational awareness, which requires cooperation in order to be effective, is one of many approaches used to ensure we continue benefiting from this critical domain.”

The world’s increasing reliance on satellite systems reinforces the need for fostering cooperation and building partnerships in space. “As more countries, companies and organizations field space capabilities and benefit from the use of space systems, it is in our collective interest to act responsibly, promote transparency and enhance the long-term sustainability, stability and security of space,” Haney told the website.

For its part, U.S. Pacific Command is working hard to implement the U.S. National Security Space Strategy in the Indo-Asia-Pacific by advancing international cooperation to increase the resiliency of space capabilities — especially of satellite systems — and deter threats, according to retired Col. Alan F. Rebholz, formerly Pacific Air Forces chief of the Non-Kinetics Operations Division and director of Space Forces.

“Space partnering to build resiliency directly leads into our next objective of deterring threats,” he explained to FORUM. “In the Indo-Asia-Pacific region, we continue to push for norms of behavior for peaceful space operations.”