CFR (Feb 23, 2021)
Outer space is growing more crowded and contested. Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopalan recommends regulating activities that disrupt, deny, or destroy space systems to ensure outer space is available to all.
This Global Governance Working Paper is a feature of the Council of Councils (CoC), an initiative of the Council on Foreign Relations. Targeting critical global problems where new, creative thinking is needed, the working papers identify new principles, rules, or institutional arrangements that can improve international cooperation by addressing long-standing or emerging global problems. The views and recommendations are the opinion of the author only. They do not necessarily represent a consensus of the CoC members, and they are not the positions of the supporting institutions. The Council on Foreign Relations takes no institutional positions on policy issues and has no affiliation with the U.S. government.
Outer space is crowded, with more than eighty countries either owning or operating satellites. The types of actors are also increasingly diversifying. Space is no longer only a realm of states. A growing number of nonstate actors, including the private sector and academic institutions, are also jostling for access. Simultaneously, outer space has become a more contested arena. Fueled by changes in regional and global balances of power, increasing security-driven competition in space has compelled many states to develop counter-space capabilities that can be used to disrupt, deny, or destroy space systems. These activities need to be regulated to ensure safe, secure, and sustainable use of outer space for all.
These trends are proving to be a growing challenge for existing global governance mechanisms. Outer space activities are governed by a number of treaties and agreements, the foundation of which is the 1967 Outer Space Treaty (OST)—or, more formally, the Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, Including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies. But these agreements were developed in the 1960s and 1970s, and they are showing their age. Constructed under different geopolitical and technological circumstances, they are not well-suited for addressing contemporary challenges.
The OST and four subsidiary legal instruments—including the Rescue Agreement of 1968, the Space Liability Convention of 1972, the Registration Convention of 1976, and the Moon Agreement of 1979—have, to a large extent, maintained the sanctity of outer space. But they also suffer from problems: they are open to expansive legal interpretations, which prevent them from restricting the weaponization of outer space. Unless more effective rules are developed to more comprehensively address counter-space technologies and activities such as on-orbit satellite servicing or rendezvous proximity operations, continued access to and management of outer space will face increasing difficulties, to the detriment of all countries. While new international legally binding measures are the ideal proposal, the current political and security environment will likely make them difficult to achieve. An alternative could be to focus on developing norms of behavior in outer space, but norms alone are unlikely to be sufficient.
This dilemma was evident at the most recent UN Group of Governmental Experts (UNGGE) on the Prevention of an Arms Race in Outer Space, which met in Geneva in 2018–19. The UNGGE’s inability to reach a consensus and produce an outcome report in its final session testifies to the enormous difficulties in space governance and the lack of consensus among the major powers on the definition of vital space security concepts, including what a space weapon is, what constitutes an armed attack in outer space, and the application of the right to self-defense.