Tensions in space have risen in recent years, leading to a covert arms race and what some perceive as the brink of a space war. Space-based technologies such as communications satellites are an essential part of people’s daily lives and important strategic assets for military and intelligence operations.
The first Gulf War in the 1990s is often referred to as the first space war because of the asymmetric advantage that space-based navigation, targeting, communications and intelligence gave the US-led coalition. Modern militaries are as dependent on space as they are on cyber technologies. The best way to compromise an opponent’s eyes and ears is to target their space abilities.
Space has become a contested strategic area and if armed conflict spreads there it would be catastrophic for millions of civilians as global public services also depend on space.
The UN Permanent Working Group on Space Threat Reduction held its second session in Geneva last week. The founding of the working group was followed by decades of deadlock in the pursuit of arms control in space. His shift toward articulating norms of responsible behavior rather than trying to define what skills or weapons should be banned is valuable and hopeful. It may be easier for states to agree on irresponsible behaviors, such as the deliberate creation of space debris that poses a threat to all space resources.
Last year Russia destroyed one of its own satellites with a surface-launched anti-satellite missile (ASAT). This was not the first such incident; In recent years, China, the US and India have each destroyed their own satellites in space. The Russian test was notable for generating thousands of pieces of debris and endangering the space-based assets of Russia and other nations, as well as the Russian, American, and German crews aboard the International Space Station.
The development of space norms may have obvious beneficial results, but many nations are still mired in a “prisoner’s dilemma” of pursuing their own interests to the detriment of everyone, including themselves. The main thrust of the prisoner’s dilemma is that each party does not and cannot know what the other will do, creating an environment of mistrust that discourages cooperation and encourages self-interest, even when it leads to adverse outcomes for all parties.
This was at the heart of a security dilemma in space. For example, the establishment of military space departments by various governments has been justified by the threats posed by supposedly malicious actors, further increasing the risk that more counterspace capabilities will threaten the technologies we all depend on.
The prisoner’s dilemma could be countered by a shift in perspective towards a “deer hunt”. A hunter can hunt a hare alone without help, but hunting a deer is more lucrative. However, a successful deer hunt requires cooperation with another hunter. In our case, achieving agreed space standards represents the stag that requires the cooperation of all nations.
In April, coinciding with the first meeting of the UN working group, the US announced a unilateral commitment not to conduct destructive direct ascent ASAT tests. That alone was commendable, but more importantly, it opened the door for others to follow suit. Canada and New Zealand joined the US with their own unilateral commitments. Last week, Japan and Germany announced similar commitments, stressing they do not have and are not pursuing such capabilities in hopes of developing agreed space standards. And the US has announced that it will introduce a draft resolution to the UN General Assembly calling on all states to make that commitment, a vote that would resemble a real deer hunt.
Australia’s statement at last week’s working group meeting showed its strong support for the initiative, saying that “willful, reckless or negligent creation of long-lived debris fields [is] a significant threat to the space realm” and noting the importance of the US commitment not to test destructive direct ascent ASATs. The Australian Government’s commitments to combating climate change, ensuring regional stability and increasing sovereignty capabilities would all be served by participating in this deer hunt to make space more stable, safer and more sustainable. It must now move to full commitment not to conduct such testing.
The countries that have made this commitment are important space partners for Australia. The Australian Defense Force’s newly established Space Command is in a similar position to the military space departments in these partner countries and must explore ways to shape the development of agreed space standards. Committing to a moratorium on destructive direct ascent ASAT tests would broaden the coalition working towards an agreed set of space norms. It would allow Australia to become a regional forerunner along with New Zealand and help ease escalating tensions in space.
The US government has recently begun to formalize the framework for responsible military norms in its space policy. Aggressive language has been removed from internal Pentagon documents to signal to allies, partners and adversaries that it is ready to work together to achieve agreed norms of behavior in space. Space nations must remain vigilant about the language used in their space strategies and doctrines to support the stability of space as an operational area.
To establish an agreed set of space norms, spacefaring nations must view space as other complex social environments. Treating it as a prisoner’s dilemma will hurt everyone. Australia has a big role to play, starting with working with other states in agreeing to a moratorium on destructive direct ascent ASAT tests. There are precedents for such an agreement, beginning with the laws on armed conflict, which have gradually been developed over time.
Declaring a moratorium on destructive direct ascent ASAT testing is another step on this long journey for the benefit of all and something Australia should have no hesitation in expressing in the coming weeks or months in order to be one of the world leaders in shaping it belonging to norms.