Saturday, January 5, 2013

Drawing the Boundaries: Ideal Ingredients of a Space Code

Here's a short essay on an international code of conduct on space and what are the few issues it must contain and clarify.

The idea of establishing a space code of conduct has been gaining ground in the last few years. The recent steps by the European Union (EU) towards institutionalising a set of rules on outer space affairs is a welcome step although it has been met with some criticism, mostly on the process but in part on

the content of the code as well. However, given the enormity of challenges, there is a need for all the spacefaring powers to unite in this exercise, especially as the EU evolves a more inclusive process in galvanising support for the code. In turn, the EU must be sufficiently open-minded to have an inclusive agenda in order to ensure greater support from other regions. There is clearly a need to ensure critical mass if a space code is to become effective.

Given the number of multiple actors and new technologies, there are likely to be several issues driving the agenda. However, there has to be greater clarity on the key points of disagreement that must be addressed in a code.

For the full essay, click here.



It is important for India and others to debate and decide on two aspects: what it thinks the norms should be and what sort of future it wants to achieve in space. Obviously, long-term sustainability of outer space and ensuring space security remain major driving factors. A large number of countries and not just the major space powers are dependent on outer space one way or the other. Therefore, it is important that we define, categorise and regulate what activities are permissible and what needs to be restricted. Also defining certain limits on activities by states or non-state parties has become essential for ensuring the security of outer space.

While many states are dependent on space assets for societal and developmental utilities, there has also been the growing trend of militarization with states using space assets for a variety of military missions including surveillance and reconnaissance, signals intelligence and early warning. However, the more recent trend towards weaponisation of outer space with some states making investments in their military space programmes is worrying. The advance nature of military space programmes in Asia, for example, poses major challenges. New capabilities being developed such as anti-satellite missiles (ASAT) are potentially destabilizing. With ASAT capabilities, the concern is not just about additional debris creation but more importantly that the threat perception about space weaponisation could become real. This could lead to a regional arms race, including in the space domain.

Meanwhile, space debris has become a larger challenge requiring immediate attention. Much of the space debris was created between the 1960s and mid-1990s. After this, for a decade the debris growth line had flattened out. However, the Chinese shooting down of an old weather satellite in January 2007 created more than 2,500 pieces of debris. In addition, the 2009 collision between the Russian Cosmos and US Iridium satellites resulted in a debris of more than 2,000 pieces. These two incidents have changed the situation for the worse. The rapid growth of space junk has meant devastating impact on civilian space assets calling for immediate attention.

While these are some of the broad issues that should become part of any code that might come into existence, there is a need to address several definitional issues. The lack of definitional clarity of many space security-related terms has provided ample scope for mischief. Terms and concepts such as ’peaceful activity’, ’space weapon’, ’defensive actions in space’, and ’space weaponisation’, among others, need to be clarified.

Additionally it is also of importance to codify activities that may need to be restrained. While it is not logistically possible to list all activities that are acceptable, it will be of great value if the code is in a position to outline the kind of actions that may fall outside of the category of "responsible behaviour." This should be within the realm of possibility.

The Outer Space Treaty of 1967, for instance, laid out some of the basic tenets although the treaty has become quite open-ended in its understanding and explanation of the uses of outer space. An excellent analysis by Gopal Raj on the loopholes of the outer space treaty, raises questions about the definition of air space and outer space. This is particularly relevant as the treaty prohibits the placement of weapons in orbit around the Earth, in outer space, or on celestial bodies. Unless there is clarity on where ’outer space’, which is part of the global commons, begin going beyond the national boundaries and sovereignty, one is bound to see competing definitions leading to potentially dangerous situations.

Similarly, how do we define space weapons? Any weapon used in space warfare can be technically called a space weapon. It could include anything from anti-satellite missiles to the old Soviet Almaz military space station which carried a fixed 23 mm cannon for preventing hostile interception and a lot more. The fact that none of the current treaties address this definitional gap needs to be corrected.

The current treaties and agreements also do not take a categorical stand on what construes peaceful activity. Today, peaceful has come to be narrowly defined as "non-aggressive" in intent, which is quite broad considering the array of activities possible in outer space.

Lastly, the current treaties only address the issue of placement of weapons in outer space, which is seen as the biggest threat, leaving outside its ambit the entire range of ground-based weapons that are bigger challenges.

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