How to secure outerspace : space diplomacy till 2030


Obama & Poutine,  USA Today & Reuters ©

With the participation of:

Florence Gaillard-Sborowsky, research director at the Foundation for Strategic Research
Xavier Pasco, research director at the Foundation for Strategic Research
Isabelle Sourbès, senior researcher at the France’s National Centerfor Scientific Research


            Since the beginning of space technologies, but also previously during the new arms race, the USSR and the USA opposed each other to protect their particular status on the international scene. The desire to dominate is linked to security dilemma : states heavily arm themselves to protect their sovereignty. This is the reason why American representatives, since the Pearl Harbor surprise attack that was a major trauma for the country, started to focus more on National Security in the political debate. Nowadays, Democrats and Republicans tend to play the finger-pointing game to seduce the electorate into voting for them.

In the land of Uncle Sam, National Security Policy means at the same time nuclear and space security because they have similarities – both for instance concern advanced technologies or have an important strategic dimension. It is paramount for a mature economy and military power that relies on its information structure like the US to protect its satellites to prevent a shutdown of the country. This is also the reason why Americans make substantial investments over the long-term in ASAT technology to cover themselves against the risk of being paralyzed. This way of thinking security policy is characterised by not only a liberal approach to the economy promoting a great deal of interaction with external actors and a modicum of market barriers but also a conservative approach to the militar sector dimissing international security-related projects ranging from treaties of non-profileration of weapon to a code of conduct. It leaves a sufficient leeway for them to develop new weapons. This cunning strategy was used by Carter and Clinton. Nowadays, Obama administration still boycotts the code of conduct using as an excuse the fact that it would be difficult to implement such a treaty and make sure everybody respects it.

obama-un-speech-israelObama at the UN Headquarters, Spencer Platt ©

This priority given to National Security is also shared by the Russians because they also feel threatened. Since the first military reconnaissances satellites were put into orbit by the Americans in 1960, the USSR raised the issue of state sovereignty because the machines did not acknowledge borders. This was problematical because they could map strategic locations in each country. A critical turnabouts of Security Policy is the Reagan’s infamous IDS that was regarded with suspicion by the Soviets. The USSR favoured cautious investment as it had less money. In order to counterbalance American Hegemony, they resorted to international institutions to sanctuarize outerspace.

Reagan announces his Star Wars Missile Defense

After the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Russia implemented a set of important structural reforms to revive the ailing economy. The space sector would have to bear the brunt of the situation and its activity dropped drastically in the 90s. This transition period allowed a slow modernisation of the Russian economy. On the top of that, when Vladimir Putin came to office in 1999, he opted for an increase in the budget allocated to the maintenance of weaponary and followed the Security Policy initiated by his predecessors in favour of non-proliferation suggesting for instance with China to pass a treaty in 2008.

Putin also relies on provocation with for example the unannounced space rendezvous between Briz KM and Kosmos 2499 in 2014. It fuelled the fear that the country was secretly trying to develop ASAT technology. Russia recently took a more defensive stance because of the Ukrainian crisis and its stigma by the International Community. Since 2013 Russian ASAT programmes are being refinanced. On the other side, Americans invest millions in R&D to develop operational technologies such as the Aegis project or MIRACL developed by the DARPA. In addition to that, Americans resort to hardening or defragmenting to protect its satellites. They also play the intimidation card too. For instance, NASA, DARPA and the DOD funded the X-37B project – worth a billion dollars – which is a space shuttle of a new kind, capable of reaching the geostationary orbit (22,236 miles) and remain in orbit but also land in total autonomy. That is is a major technological achievement in itself. However, the goal of this space shuttle is unknown and some specialists believe it is only another way of proving American military superiority.

X-37 Orbital Test Vehicle X-37B Space Shuttle, NASA ©

Other space powers aim at developping ASAT technology although they know they never will be able to regain the ground lost to the US. China made a space debris explode (roughly 500 miles) in 2007 and regularly make missile defense tests as in 2014. New Delhi, in bad terms with Beijing, underlined that ASAT technology represents a major strategic asset as it can easily neutralize the fragile Chinese telecommunications system.

From a legal point of view, the space issue is still puzzling, especially because the key concepts of the sector remain undefined by international agreements. We are only at the start of the lenghty thinking process in the UN, although some regulations were passed regarding explosions in outerspace that are now forbidden and jamming satellites in the event of war. Though nothing precludes the militarisation of space, except from the installation of massive destruction weapons. The significant advances in legal relations of the use of outerspace only concern space debris and satellite jamming. The UE drafted a code of conduct that got rejected. The normalisation of international relations in space do not necesarily have to be dealt with by the UN and major institutions such as the ITU can play a fundamental role, notably when Eutelsat sued Iran for satellite jamming.

Martin Sarret

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