From an EU to International Code of Conduct in Space

January 25, 2012 | 11:08 am
Laura Grego
Research Director, Senior Scientist

Last week, I was in DC for a briefing on space by Ambassador Greg Schulte, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Space Policy, and Frank Rose, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Space and Defense Policy. They were elaborating on the announcement by Secretary Clinton that the United States, in lieu of signing on to the European Union (EU) Code of Conduct for outer space activities, would be partnering with the EU to develop an International Code of Conduct.

On the face of it, this is good news. Clarifying and codifying practical rules-of-the-road for space makes a lot of sense for protecting U.S. satellites as the number of satellites and space-faring countries increase. I was certainly concerned about what was apparently a stumble by Sec. Tauscher in a press conference, when she said the U.S. would not be signing the EU Code, and had never intended to, because it was “too restrictive.”

The positives: If this is done well, the U.S. taking a leadership role could jumpstart what looked to be a languishing effort. (Although if the U.S. had signed the EU Code it may have also reinvigorated the effort.) Some countries, while not expressing serious objections to the substance of the EU Code, have bristled at being asked to sign a Code they’d not been involved in drafting. Creating a process in which the leading space-faring and space-using actors have a role in shaping the rules will, one hopes, promote ownership of the rules and adherence to them. And the call to participate in a forum like this will hopefully be the necessary push for countries to engage their domestic stakeholders, develop their capacities for negotiation on space matters, and to work out their positions on outstanding space security issues in detail.

The EU will convene working meetings to draft the new International Code, which is expected to be based on the EU Code. These meetings are expected to start in the coming months, though the entire process is likely to take a couple of years.

The negatives: The U.S. move is also risky. It essentially ends the EU process. If not shepherded carefully, or President Obama doesn’t get re-elected, the international effort may falter and it will be a heavy lift to get such a process started again.

The Pentagon recently completed a study of how the EU Code would affect its operations and recommended some changes, but as yet has not specified publicly what these changes are. Speculative reports suggest the recommendations may concern constraints on maneuvering satellites meant to be covert, and a desire to reserve the right to interfere with satellites when it suits national security.

So a particular concern is the integrity of a crucial provision in the EU Code that satellites should not be the focus of aggression:

4.2. The Subscribing States, commit in conducting outer space activities, to:
– refrain from any action which intends to bring about, directly or indirectly, damage, or destruction, of outer space objects unless such action is conducted to reduce the creation of outer space debris and/or is justified by the inherent right of individual or collective self-defense in accordance with the United Nations Charter or imperative safety considerations;

It is important to get this point right: under what circumstances, if any, is it ok to intentionally damage a satellite? Since this issue touches on national security issues, the kind of consultative process the U.S. is proposing seems more likely to bear fruit than the existing one of commenting on an EU draft.

Schulte and Rose stated that the International Code effort is focused on protecting the space environment. Protecting the space environment requires preventing the use of destructive anti-satellite weapons.

Years of careful debris mitigation and mission planning can be swamped by a single use of a destructive ASAT weapon. This is of course not a remote threat—China’s destruction of the Fengyun 3C satellite in 2007 was the single largest orbital debris-producing event ever, and by itself negated 15 years of international debris mitigation efforts. The United States has a great number of missile defense interceptors capable of destroying a satellite, and hit-to-kill interceptor technology is being developed in India and elsewhere. And as my colleague David Wright recently noted:

ASAT weapons can completely fragment a satellite, creating huge amounts of debris. And the natural targets of such an attack could be much larger than the satellite destroyed in the Chinese test. U.S. spy satellites, for example, have masses well over 10 tons. Based on NASA’s debris model and the Chinese ASAT test, the destruction of a single 10-ton satellite could produce as many as 750,000 pieces of debris larger than a centimeter, instantly doubling or tripling the amount of debris of this size in low Earth orbit.

Strong norms against damaging and destroying satellites are not only a critical step for keeping the space environment usable into the future, they are a necessary component of the U.S. strategy for keeping satellites safe.

The satellite-protecting provision of the Code is the most likely part of the Code to draw fire from those who think anything resembling arms control is anathema. (Some Senators have already weighed in.) But it is important to hold the line on this point—the space security community should be paying close attention to this process.