Insight - Space Security Discussions

Wednesday, July 10, 2019

One of the major issues affecting the long-term sustainable use of space is the security and stability of the space environment.  Given space’s increased importance in ensuring national and international security, losing access to or the use of space can be greatly destabilizing.  Traditionally, discussions on issues of international security have taken place in formal multilateral fora such as the United Nations (UN) Conference on Disarmament, but those discussions have not made any real progress on the issue of space security and stability.  Hence, it is helpful to host conversations either alongside multilateral fora (to insulate them somewhat from the geopolitical constraints preventing real forward movement there) or have conversations among like-minded nations where there is an increased potential for coming to a common understanding of the best ways in which to ensure the sustainable and responsible use of space. 

Along those lines, SWF co-organized several conferences this spring to foster conversations on the future of space security and stability and how to best create agreement on norms of behavior that will lead toward the responsible use of space. 

The first was the 19th annual space security conference hosted by the UN Institute for Disarmament Research (UNIDIR) May 28-29, 2019, in Geneva, Switzerland.  This year’s conference, “Supporting Diplomacy: Clearing the Path for Dialogue,” was organized by UNIDIR in collaboration with SWF, Fondation pour la recherche stratégique (FRS, with funding from the European Union), and the Simons Foundation Canada, and with the support of the governments of Brazil, the Holy See, the People's Republic of China, and the Russian Federation. SWF has partnered with UNIDIR on this event since 2007 because it provides a good balance to our work in the civil side of space within the UN system at the Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS).  The UNIDIR Space Security Conference is the only conference that brings the civil space and disarmament communities together and allows for the discussion of other space security issues, like rendezvous and proximity operations or law of armed conflict in space. Furthermore, the UNIDIR Space Security Conference has highlighted the difference in how various blocs within the UN system view the biggest threats to the space domain. For some, it is technology-specific, with the main concern focused on the potential threat of theoretical space-based weapons that would be primarily used for missile defense purposes.  Others view behavior on orbit and irresponsible actions as the biggest factor contributing to an unstable and unsafe space domain. 

For the first time, the 2019 Space Security Conference was entirely on the record; as such, it was broadcast live on UNIDIR's Facebook page and videos of the conference presentations and discussions are available. SWF’s Executive Director Peter Martinez gave opening remarks and spoke on the panel, “Next Steps for Multilateral Dialogue,” while SWF’S Washington Office Director Victoria Samson spoke on the panel, “On-Orbit Operations: Friend or Foe?” The full conference program can be accessed here

A few common themes emerged over the course of the conference.  All speakers noted the need to incorporate all stakeholders in conversations about space security and stability, particularly focusing on bringing in the commercial sector.  Furthermore, there was a very high level of support for establishing national space policies or similar documents as a transparency and confidence-building measure (TCBM). This is part of a broader shift in how some of the international community are thinking about how best to shore up space security: to move away from a focus on banning dual use technology that could provide a counterspace capability, but could also provide information that meets economic development or other non-military objectives, to putting more effort into promoting behavior on orbit that is responsible. 

The conversation continued at another event, the 5th Prague Security Studies Institute (PSSI)’s Space Security conference, “Evolution of the Counterspace Threat and Strengthening of International Space Partnerships,” held June 9-11, 2019, in Prague, Czech Republic. SWF co-organized this conference with PSSI and the European Space Agency (ESA); under the auspices of the Czech Ministries of Foreign Affairs, Defence, and Transport; with principal partners Mitsubishi Electric, IHI Aerospace Co., Ltd., Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, NEC Corporation, and Bawd Foundation, and partner Aerospace Corporation; and with media partner SpaceWatchGlobal. Key topics at the PSSI Space Security conference were the evolution of the counterspace threat, space domain awareness, space resilience and risk mitigation, the role of partnerships in international space security, and deterrence and space crisis management. The full conference agenda can be found here.  Dr. Martinez gave opening remarks and Ms. Samson moderated the opening panel on the “Evolution of the Counterspace Threat.”  

The PSSI Space Security Conference provided an excellent discussion of the evolution of the space security domain and possible ways in which to strengthen and expand it.  Furthermore, being held primarily among U.S. partners and allies allowed for a different type of discussion than was held in Geneva and also brought in European and Asian viewpoints.  The conference speakers also placed a high level of importance on the role commercial space has to play in enhancing national and international security in space. It also highlighted the need to come to an understanding on what actionable norms of behavior can be agreed to amongst like-minded nations - a need that also was raised at the UNIDIR conference a few weeks prior - and a high level of interest by participants in further examining the relationship between space and deterrence.  

Finally, while SWF’s inaugural Summit for Space Sustainability covered a variety of issues affecting the long-term sustainable use of space, there were a couple of discussions relevant to the security and stability of the domain.  A spotlight talk by PSSI’s Jana Robinson covered “Militarization and Potential Conflict in Space,” while a panel discussion headed by SWF Director of Program Planning Brian Weeden examined the relationship between commercial space and counterspace.  It looked at how national security space issues can - both positively and negatively - affect commercial plans for space and how the commercial sector can help increase the resiliency of space capabilities for all.  

SWF looks forward to continuing these conversations at various fora, in the United States and abroad, with all space stakeholders, in order to work toward some consensus about space security and stability priorities and paths forward. 

Last updated on July 9, 2019