The UN First Committee, responsible for international security, today approved a new working group to develop rules of the road for military activities in space, and possibly even lay the groundwork for a new treaty.

The vote, while a baby step, is an indication of growing political concurrence that action, not just political posturing, is required to mitigate the ratcheting risks of conflict as nations pursue technologies to best each other in the military space domain.

“This may actually accomplish something,” said Victoria Samson, head of Secure World Foundation’s Washington office. “As we see different actors coming up with a lot of the same ideas of responsible/irresponsible behavior, we actually stand the chance of getting some progress in multilateral fora about this instead of having the same tired circular arguments that have been held for decades.”

The plan for the Open-Ended Working Group (OEWG), which would meet twice in 2022 and 2023 and work on a basis of consensus, was pushed by the United Kingdom and co-sponsored by a number of Western countries including the United States. It passed First Committee with 163 “Yes” to eight “No” votes, and nine abstentions — 13 more votes than last year’s UK-sponsored resolution passed last year by the UN General Assembly soliciting national views on military space threats and how to ameliorate them.

In order to become a reality, the full UN General Assembly now needs to approve the OEWG plan during their session in December, but given the First Committee vote, this is pretty much a foregone conclusion.

“The prevention of an arms race in outer space is a UK priority. There is no doubt that there is a growing range of threats to space systems, and a risk that those threats could lead to miscalculation and, in turn, escalation and conflict. Only together can we find solutions to keep space peaceful, sustainable and open to all,” said James Cleverly, the UK minister responsible for space security in a statement following the vote in New York.

Samson noted that the UK efforts also track with the first-ever Defense Department proclamation on norms issued by Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin this summer.

“As the current National Space Policy states, ‘The Secretary of State, in coordination with the heads of agencies, shall…Lead the consideration of proposals and concepts for arms control measures if they are equitable, effectively verifiable, and enhance the national security of the United States and its allies’,” a State Department spokesperson said in an email to Breaking Defense. “Additionally, the President’s Interim National Security Strategic Guidance instructs that we will lead in promoting shared norms on space.”

James Cleverly, UK Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office

Political Compromise Raises Hopes For ‘Real’ Outcome

The fact that language of the resolution (A/C.1/76/L.52) allows for consideration by the new OEWG of legally binding (i.e. treaty-based) measures, as well as voluntary rules that would constrain certain military actions agreed as threatening, is a surprise. The issue of any new treaty to prevent an arms race in outer space — a long-time UN concern, known as PAROS in diplomatic circles — consistently has been politically divisive, with factions led on one side by the United States and on the other by China and Russia.

The UK language, sources involved in the debate said, represents a compromise. Washington now has accepted the possibility the OEWG might recommend legally codified norms of behavior. In exchange, while Beijing and Moscow voted “No” on the OEWG’s formation, they at the same time refrained from pushing a competing UN venue for discussions based on their long-proposed treaty barring the placement of weapons in space, known as the PPWT.

“The work on responsible space behaviors currently runs in parallel to the treaty-based approach,” explained one government official intimately involved with crafting the language. The resolution raises the “hope that the two strands of work can co-exist at some point in the future.”

Samson said it is significant that “two of the biggest hold-outs to thinking about space security as behavior-related instead of technology-related, Russia and China, both are starting to use behavior language when discussing multilateral initiatives for space.

“I think that they are recognizing that this is where the winds are blowing on this and thus they don’t want to be left behind. That also gives me some small hope for the progress of the OEWG,” she added.

Jessica West of the Canadian non-governmental organization Project Ploughshares told Breaking Defense that “being more open to a potentially legally-binding agreement is important, because this what the majority of states prefer.

“It also provides an alternative focus for such an agreement, other than the PPWT,” she said in an email. She added that another plus in the language is that “it makes reference to VERIFICATION, which has been a persistent complaint of the PPWT draft,” that simply hand-waves the issue for future discussion — a key objection raised often by the US.

The resolution approved today states: “Reaffirming that verification is one of the essential components of legally binding arms control instruments, and encouraging further consideration of effective verification regarding space systems.”

Kinetic ASATs could create enormous amounts of dangerous space debris. National Space and Intelligence Center image

Possible Future Legal Measures, A Ban On Debris-Creating ASATs?

The government official said that it is possible that “in the future, elements of the behaviors approach may feed in to discussions on a legally-binding treaty,” but noted that “we are nowhere near that yet, and we do not know which elements might feed in to treaty discussions.”

The official further explained that the outcomes of the OEWG might range from specific recommendations to simply identifying what the resolution refers to as, “actions, activities and omissions” by governments and militaries.

“In some cases, the OEWG might recommend specific items that could be delivered, like a ban on kinetic DA-ASAT [direct-ascent anti-satellite weapons] tests that create long-lived debris,” the official told Breaking Defense. “In other cases it will probably talk about areas where responsible space behaviors might reduce the risk of miscalculation, such as if a nation lasers a satellite while it is imaging ballistic missile silos (the image builds trust, the lasing is not responsible).”

Canadian diplomats raised the idea of a ban on debris-creating ASATs during the First Committee discussions this year. Such a ban further has been championed by hundreds of former UN and government officials from around the world, including Chris Hadfield, the wildly popular former Canadian astronaut, as well as academic experts and scientists in a Sept. 2 letter sponsored by the Outer Space Institute based at the University of British Columbia.

The UK resolution itself, however, stops short of advocating for such a ban, instead it simply stresses “that the creation of long-lived orbital debris arising from the deliberate destruction of space systems increases the risk of in-orbit collisions and the potential for misunderstanding and miscalculations that could lead to conflict.”


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