Pursuing an International Code of Conduct for the Security and Sustainability of the Space Environment
Deputy Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Arms Control, Verification and Compliance
Thank you for your kind introduction. It is a pleasure to be back at the National Space Symposium.
Just last week, on April 12, was the 51st anniversary of Yuri Gagarin’s historical flight as the first human in space. His Vostok 1 mission lasted 108 minutes, during which time Gagarin made a full orbit around Earth. A year after Gagarin’s flight, and half a century ago for us, John Glenn made his orbital flight – 3 orbits around the Earth. In just a little over fifty years, we also have gone from Corona, which took the first imagery of denied areas from space, to large constellations of spacecraft performing complex data and information collection, global communications, and from Vostok and Merucury to plans to send tourists into space. As we observe the fiftieth anniversary of John Glenn’s orbital flight this year and look back to 1962, it is obvious that the space environment has changed dramatically since that historic event.
The Changing Space Environment
In 1962, space was the domain of two superpowers, and the United States was racing against a single adversary in a “space race” for security and prestige. Today, the situation is much more complex—the actors in, uses of, and threats to the space environment have grown and changed dramatically. Space is now the operating domain of over sixty nations and government consortia, as well as numerous commercial enterprises and academic institutions around the world, all with diverse technological and economic capabilities, and strategic and political orientations. Fifty years ago we were just beginning to understand and explore the uses of space assets for life on earth. Today, the world community is reliant on space systems, which assist us in a variety of economic, societal, and national security activities, including: communications, financial operations, weather forecasting, environmental monitoring, navigation, surveillance, and treaty monitoring.
The United States also recognizes that the advantages that we and our allies and friends derive from space-based assets may not go unchallenged. Space is being increasingly contested in all orbits. Today, our space systems and their supporting infrastructure confront a range of natural and foreign threats that may deny, degrade, deceive, disrupt, or destroy assets. As more nations and non-state actors develop counterspace capabilities over the next decade, threats to U.S. space systems and challenges to the stability and security of the space environment will increase.
Irresponsible acts, such as China’s 2007 anti-satellite test, can have damaging consequences for all of us. Space debris, whether created through accidents or calculated actions, does not discriminate when it comes close to national space systems. As many of you are aware, debris from China’s 2007 ASAT test has come close to China’s own satellites numerous times over the past several years.
Over fifty years of space activity has littered Earth's orbit with debris; and as activities in space increase, the chance for collision correspondingly increases. Currently, the U.S. Department of Defense tracks roughly 22,000 objects in orbit, only about 1,100 of which are active satellites. There are also hundreds of thousands of additional objects detected but considered too small to track or catalogue that are still capable of damaging satellites and the International Space Station. It is clearly in our individual and collective interest that all spacefaring nations act responsibly in space, as access to and use of space is vital to our national securities and our economies.
An International Code of Conduct for Outer Space Activities
Unless the international community adopts pragmatic and constructive measures to avoid accidents and respond to the danger of irresponsible behavior in space, the environment around our planet will become increasingly hazardous to both human and robotic spaceflight. As part of the President’s National Space Policy, the United States is pursuing bilateral and multilateral transparency and confidence-building measures to strengthen long-term sustainability, stability, safety, and security in space. As you’re aware, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s statement on January 17 announced the U.S. decision to initiate consultations and negotiations with the European Union (EU) and other spacefaring nations to develop an International Code of Conduct for Outer Space Activities. While we are not officially signing onto EU’s proposed Code of Conduct, we believe the EU’s latest draft is a useful foundation and constructive starting point for developing a consensus on an International Code.
An International Code will establish a set of non-legally-binding transparency and confidence-building measures. It is not a legally-binding treaty or an international agreement that would impose legal obligations on the United States. Let me reassure you that all departments and agencies involved in U.S. economic, commercial, and national security space activities have been, and will remain, fully involved in the on-going U.S. interagency efforts to formulate a U.S. government policy and final decision on subscription to an International Code. Furthermore, as revised drafts of the Code are developed in multilateral diplomatic negotiations, U.S. positions will be fully coordinated across the U.S. Government. We will also continue to consult with Congress and U.S. industry.
Let me also stress that the Obama Administration would not subscribe to an International Code if it constrained or limited the inherent right of individual or collective self-defense, our intelligence community programs or operations, or our ballistic missile defense systems or capabilities. We are confident that all U.S. national security and intelligence equities will remain protected.
Now that I’ve stressed what the Code is not, I’d like to discuss what an International Code would do, and why we believe such a Code would enhance the long-term sustainability of the space environment, which is fundamentally in the national security and economic interests of the United States.
A widely-subscribed International Code would establish internationally adopted transparency and confidence-building measures – including “best practices” or “rules of the road” – which can help avoid collisions and identify irresponsible behavior. It would encourage all spacefaring nations to act responsibly in a space environment that is increasingly congested and contested, reducing the hazards of accidental and purposeful debris-generating events. It would also increase the transparency of operations in space to reduce, for example, the danger of collisions. Considering the serious and long-lasting threat posed by orbital debris and potential collisions, I think we can all agree that cooperation is necessary to address and mitigate this growing problem. This has been illustrated multiple times over the past year or more when astronauts on the ISS have been forced to take shelter when debris came close to the Station. Had that debris collided with the space station, it could have caused catastrophic damage to the station and placed the lives of the crew at serious risk. A Code of Conduct would also help reduce the risk of misunderstanding and misperceptions among subscribing and non-subscribing nations, thus improving the stability and security of the space environment.
The United States has consulted with the EU over the past four-plus years, and we will continue to shape an International Code through our active participation in international consultations and negotiations throughout 2012 and beyond.
Looking back at the space environment that John Glenn encountered half a century ago, and considering the congested and contested space environment we face today, it is clear that the space environment continues to change in dynamic and challenging ways. Today, the world is increasingly inter-connected through, and increasingly dependent on, space systems. The risks associated with irresponsible actions in space mean that ensuring the long-term sustainability, stability, safety, and security of the space environment is in the vital interest of the entire world. As more countries field space capabilities, it is in our collective interest that they act responsibly. One of the best near term options available to us today to ensure sustainability and security of our space activities is through the adoption of “best practice” guidelines like an International Code of Conduct. Failure to take action now to reverse these disturbing trends could have dramatic consequences. As Secretary of State Clinton stated, and I quote:
“The long-term sustainability of our space environment is at serious risk from space debris and irresponsible actors. […] Unless the international community addresses these challenges, the environment around our planet will become increasingly hazardous to human spaceflight and satellite systems, which would create damaging consequences for all of us.”
Thank you very much.