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Shaping behaviour in the space domain

On 11th October 2022, Sir Jeremy Fleming, Chair of Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), gave a speech to the Royal United Services Institute and warned that: 

[The People’s Republic of] China’s [PRC] development of the BeiDou satellite system – a rival alternative to the established GPS network – is moving quickly, providing navigation to aircraft, submarines, missiles and commercial services. The [Chinese Communist] Party [CCP] has used every lever to force Chinese citizens and businesses to adopt it – and for it to be built into Chinese exports to more than 120 countries around the world…Many believe that China is building a powerful anti-satellite capability, with a doctrine of denying other nations access to space in the event of a conflict. And there are fears the technology could be used to track individuals.

This is the latest sign of how outer space is becoming an increasingly contested and competitive domain. More attention than ever is being given to the space sector – upon which so much of the United Kingdom’s (UK) modern economic activity rests – and the activity of nations within it. 

The PRC is attempting to utilise its growing constellation of orbital capabilities to establish a space-based centre of gravity from which to align other countries with the CCP and its vision for the international order, especially in relation to how that order should look beyond Earth’s atmosphere. This includes the BeiDou satellite system, among other things.

There are also concerns with Russian activity in outer space. In November 2021, Russia launched an anti-satellite (ASAT) missile, blowing up one of its own satellites. This was a pointed signal that the Kremlin had the ability to target space based infrastructure. To complicate matters further, the disdain for the open international order and the rules that underpin it held by Vladimir Putin, the President of Russia, was laid stark by his renewed aggression against Ukraine in February 2022. Co-operating in space with Russia, or curbing unwanted Russian activity, is as a result much more difficult.

A normative approach?

On 3rd October 2022, the UK announced that it was joining a United States (US) initiative, alongside Canada, New Zealand, Japan and Germany, to not carry out ASAT tests due to their outright destructive nature and the risk of creating debris fields that pose a danger to other satellites and manned space operations. The following day, South Korea announced that it would follow suit.

A mere seven countries, albeit with space capabilities, agreeing not to carry out destructive weapons testing against satellites may seem insignificant. The guiding rules on accepted behaviour in space, first outlined in the Outer Space Treaty in 1967, have struggled to keep pace with the rapid technological advances of the last 30 years – nor are they fit for purpose in a world that relies more than ever on space-bourne capabilities. But this pledge evidences the beginnings of a coordinated effort to establish a normative framework for state based behaviour in space suitable for today’s geopolitical climate. 

In a statement announcing the decision to ban ASAT tests, His Majesty’s (HM) Government said: 

Space has a vital role for global prosperity, development and security. Space systems have become integrated into global infrastructure upon which modern life depends…Given our increasing security and socio-economic reliance on space, we believe that destructive testing of direct ascent anti-satellite missiles can be conclusively regarded as irresponsible. 

The UK has been a leading figure in establishing a United Nations (UN) open-ended working group (OEWG) focused on reducing space threats, which met for the first time in May 2022 and again at the start of September 2022. Alongside the six other countries, the UK is hoping that in actively shaping the accepted behaviours of state activity in outer space, an environment that is currently poorly regulated will become safer and better able to withstand geopolitical shocks.

A treaty approach?

The leadership of free and open nations in setting standards for behaviour in space is not something welcomed by all, however. Interests conflict, and standards vary. Russia and the PRC – hostile to the open international order on Earth – do not want to see it replicated in space without their own influence.

Both Russia and the PRC have pushed for a treaty that would ban the placement of weapons in space, following a historic international trend of using treaties to limit what can and cannot be done in orbit. They have accused the OEWG as being a politicised and discriminatory tool, and shown a preference for using treaties in regulating state behaviour in space.

However, the problem with treaties in regulating activity in space is simple: no country is required to sign it, nor are non-signatories legally beholden to its stipulations. Their regulatory power thus hinges on whether states decide to adopt the treaty, something which cannot be guaranteed. Take the Moon Agreement as an example, which was signed in 1979 and entered into force in 1984. It only has 18 signatories to date.

Treaties can also be easily manipulated during the drafting process, and are prone to oversights. Take the proposed Prevention of Placement of Weapons in Outer Space Treaty (PPWT). It is written in such specific language that its impact on limiting the capabilities of states to attack space-based targets is minimal. Furthermore, it also does not address the reality that anything moving fast enough in space can be used as a weapon, or limit the stockpiling of source to orbit ASAT weapons on the ground, two important omissions.

These issues with a treaty-based approach and the need for normative initiatives are tacitly, if begrudgingly, accepted by the PRC, which states that all countries should:

…[take] transparency and confidence building measures on a voluntary basis. All countries should enhance mutual trust and avoid miscalculation through appropriate and feasible transparency and confidence building measures, which could be supplementary to the negotiation and conclusion of an international legally-binding instrument of space arms control.

Encouraging responsible behaviour

With the seeming impasse between the leading space powers about how to properly regulate state based space behaviour, how best to proceed?

Later this year, the UK is set to become the first country to have the ability to launch satellites into orbit from Europe. 

A normative approach, like the commitment not to carry out ASAT tests, has the greatest chances of success. It requires no treaties, and countries can pledge to adopt proposed behavioural standards at their own will. As more countries align with one another, a consensus begins to emerge with its own centre of gravity, pulling other states in. After enough states are on board, a normative framework then begins to surface, which then, in itself, buttresses further commitments designed to strengthen it. 

The UK is already at the forefront of advancing this approach, and should continue its efforts apace. As mentioned, it played a decisive role in the establishment of the UN OEWG on reducing space threats. It is now at the forefront of a new normative effort to shape space norms. As Sir Jeremy observed in his speech: 

The UK has deep experience of setting workable, international technology standards, informed by open, democratic values…And we are at the heart of international and allied efforts to make them stick in a harsh geopolitical world.

Later this year, the UK is set to become the first country to have the ability to launch satellites into orbit from Europe, and its satellite manufacturing industry is already world-class. This will cement Britain as a leader in space affairs in Europe, increasing its ability to forge a normative framework for state behaviour in orbit. This is influence the UK should exert. Otherwise, norms around state behaviour in space may be defined by those hostile to it.

Richard Payne is the Communications Coordinator for the Council on Geostrategy. He holds an MSc in Global Cooperation and Security from the University of Birmingham.

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