The re-emergence of great power competition is creating new, more dire threats to international peace—and never so much as in outer space.
After decades of uneasy jockeying for technological primacy that never quite broke out into a full-scale arms race, China, Russia and the United States are now openly and unapologetically testing weapons-enabling technologies and accusing each other of becoming the first to weaponize space.
The three countries have all demonstrated—and in the case of the United States and Russia, deployed—maneuvering spacecraft. Each claims its efforts are aimed at preventing potential on-orbit collisions. Each points to rivals’ projects as the potential development of weapons in space.
Other countries are following suit. India became the fourth nation to test an anti-satellite weapon in March 2019. France has announced intentions to do the same and several others are reportedly considering tests.
This is happening despite the fact that almost every nation is on record as understanding the negative consequences of war in the heavens. Most insist that they have no desire to see conflict erupt.
But, no country in recent years has seriously endeavored to find diplomatic ways to avoid a war in space.
For 40 years, the international community has discussed the Prevention of an Arms Race in Space (PAROS), but little progress has been made. International efforts to reach more limited agreements to reduce tensions in outer space have now ground to a halt. It is still unclear, for instance, whether governments are willing to put into place the hard-won set of guidelines for responsible behavior adopted by the Committee on the Peaceful Uses on Outer Space (COPUOS) in June 2019.
At this stage, creative thinking and bold ideas are needed to convince States that military restraint in outer space is not only desirable, but actually required, to protect their own national security.
And UNIDIR, as always, is at the forefront of such creative thinking.
UNIDIR began its annual space security conference in 2002—although it has been putting forward ideas about how to move the PAROS discussions forward almost since the issue was first introduced to the Conference on Disarmament’s (CD) agenda in 1982.
The Institute’s Space Security Conferences push the envelope with new ideas and have become a must for diplomats in Geneva.
In 2009, the first year of my tenure as Director, the Institute brought the chairman of the Vienna-based COPUOS to Geneva to speak in an informal session at the CD. The effort was aimed at cross-fertilizing the deadlocked CD with the then-nascent ideas of COPUOS for developing norms of behaviour in space. Those normative ideas were partially enshrined in the 2013 Report of the UN Group of Governmental Experts (GGE) on Transparency and Confidence-Building Measures in Outer Space, for which UNIDIR served as expert consultant.
While both COPUOS and the CD have long worked on space governance issues, their differing mandates—COPUOS on peaceful uses and the CD on arms control—have stood in the way of cooperation and even communication between the two bodies. Thanks in part to UNIDIR’s efforts, that artificial divide is being bridged. Indeed, one of the recommendations of the 2013 GGE report was that the two bodies, along with the UN Disarmament Commission, better coordinate their activities.
In early 2019, UNIDIR helped the 2018-2019 GGE on PAROS to organize informal discussions on elements of a possible future treaty that included intriguing ideas on how such a treaty might be verified. The Group considered mandating “keep out” zones that would limit the distance spacecraft could approach a space object owned by another party without consent. A treaty on PAROS, now more than ever, would help underpin both the security and sustainability of outer space for future generations, but it remains out of immediate reach. In order to change that, painstaking work to identify practical elements of a future treaty is needed.
Most recently, UNIDIR held a series of virtual meetings on various aspects of space security amid the COVID-19 pandemic. These seminars underscore the important work UNIDIR has been doing to inform countries less vested in space about the criticality and fragility of the space environment; and to assist emerging space actors in ensuring that their space programmes are being developed in a safe and responsible manner.
The time has come for frank discussions by the international community on the question of whether the world has now crossed the Rubicon into an uncontrolled arms race in outer space—and UNIDIR can facilitate that discussion.
Indeed, rather than be intimidated by political acrimony regarding military activities in space, UNIDIR continues to spark discussions that probe for seams of mutual interest that are often obscured by political rhetoric or diplomatic grandstanding.
The Institute provides a unique space for diplomats, military leaders, scientists and experts to argue, but also to listen. And maybe, just maybe, sow some seeds for ideas that eventually grow into future action to prevent war in the heavens.
Because that is what UNIDIR has always been about: turning ideas into action.
Theresa Hitchens, from the United States, was the fifth Director of UNIDIR serving from 2009-2014.