The Biden administration plans to move ahead on discussions with allies and partners about establishing rules of the road for systems in space.
On Dec. 7 last year, the United Nations General Assembly passed A/Res/75/36, a resolution sponsored by the United Kingdom and backed by the United States, that encourages U.N. member states “to study existing and potential threats and security risks to space systems, including those arising from actions, activities or systems in outer space or on Earth, characterize actions and activities that could be considered responsible, irresponsible or threatening and their potential impact on international security, and share their ideas on the further development and implementation of norms, rules and principles of responsible behaviours and on the reduction of the risks of misunderstanding and miscalculations with respect to outer space.”
This fall at the convening of the 76th U.N. General Assembly, U.N. Secretary General António Guterres is to submit a report, which is to include the views of member states on such norms of behavior in order to jump start the effort.
U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Uriah Orland, a Pentagon spokesman, wrote in a Jan. 29 email that DoD “will be working closely with the Department of State as the United States works with other countries to realize the objectives of that [U.N.] resolution.”
The U.N. General Assembly approved the resolution on Dec. 7 on a vote of 164 to 12 with six abstentions. China, Russia, Iran, North Korea, Syria, Venezuela, Cuba, Nicaragua, Bolivia, Zimbabwe, Comoros, and Burundi voted “no.”
Russia and China have been advancing direct ascent anti-satellite weapons (DA-ASAT), such as the Russian Nudol, and have not been interested in establishing space norms of behavior, but rather in working within the U.N. Committee on Disarmament to protect their DA-ASAT advantage through a treaty on the Prevention of the Placement of Weapons in Outer Space (PPWT).
The U.S. and other Western nations have opposed the PPWT, as they believe the latter is unverifiable and does not touch on terrestrial counterspace systems, such as DA-ASATs and directed energy weapons, which Russia and China are developing. U.S. Space Command has also said that Russia has a co-orbital ASAT, which demonstrated an on-orbit kinetic weapon in 2017 and last year.
Also last year, the United Kingdom and the U.S. said that Russia had launched the “nesting doll” Cosmos 2542 and 2543 satellites, which could pose a significant danger to low Earth orbit (LEO) satellites (Defense Daily, Jan. 21). In January last year, Michael Thompson, a respected space tracker, noted that the space surveillance/inspection bird, Cosmos 2542, launched on Nov. 25, 2019 had synchronized its orbit with USA 245–launched in 2013 and one of four multi-billion dollar, classified Lockheed Martin [LMT] KH-11 electro-optical spy satellites under the National Reconnaissance Office’s (NRO) Keyhole/CRYSTAL program.
In July, U.S. Space Command said that Cosmos 2543 had “injected a new object into orbit” as part of an ASAT capability “inconsistent with the system’s stated mission as an inspector satellite.” Such a hidden capability illustrates why U.S. officials have stated their opposition to the PPWT as unverifiable.
“The Biden-Harris administration supports the responsible use of outer space, and will work with our allies and partners to reinvigorate existing alliances and also work to strengthen and build new partnerships,” a State Department spokesman wrote in a Feb. 2 email.
White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki told reporters on Feb. 3 that the Space Force “absolutely” has “the full support of the Biden administration, and we are not revisiting the decision” to establish the sixth military service–a creation championed by former Pres. Trump and finalized in the fiscal 2020 National Defense Authorization Act.
U.S. Space Force Chief of Space Operations Gen. John “Jay” Raymond told reporters during a Defense Writers Group session on Feb. 3 that “one of the things we’ve been working very hard on are these norms of behavior.”
The Space Force has had discussions with Japan, France, and Germany and with nations in the so-called Five Eyes Alliance, which includes the U.S., U.K., Canada, Australia and New Zealand.
“We’ve wargamed this,” Raymond said on Feb. 3. “We’ve had multiple discussions on this with our international partners. I think they would agree that we’ve made some good progress…What the U.K. has put forward [A/Res/75/36] I’m supportive of, and it’s really been informed, as we’ve worked this together over the last couple of years.”
Air Force Maj. Nicholas Mercurio, a spokesman for Space Force, wrote in a Feb. 4 email that “neither the U.S. Space Force nor national leadership want to see a conflict begin in or extend to space.”
“Potential adversaries threaten our forces and our access to/use of the domain,” he wrote. “The Space Force seeks to build partnerships with like-minded, space-faring nations in order to promote responsible behavior in space, deter those who would consider threatening on-orbit systems, and protect the interests of our nation and its allies should deterrence fail. As space is inherently global, it is a shared advantage for all nations to champion the safety, security, and long-term sustainability of space operations.”
Stephen Flanagan, a senior political scientist at RAND, and Bruce McClintock, the lead of the RAND Space Enterprise Initiative, wrote in a blog post last month that “one norm [of space behavior] that has engendered broad support is that states eschew destructive ASAT tests and other activities that would add to debris in space.”
“Other norms that have been under discussion in the international community include: (1) further guidelines on mitigation of space debris including disposing of satellites that have ended their service life; (2) greater transparency regarding space operations; and (3) norms for on-orbit servicing of satellites, which could be used not only to repair but also to damage or destroy another state’s satellite,” they wrote.