How nation states can have good manners in space

When I use the term Space norms, what does that mean to you? Well as it turns out, defense norms have been a part of foreign policy for a while now. They out li...

When I use the term Space norms, what does that mean to you? Well as it turns out, defense norms have been a part of foreign policy for a while now. They out line what falls under the category of good manners when it comes to actions taken by nations. So what about space? How this concept be applied, or can it at all? These are the questions I posed to Robin Dickey, a space policy and strategy analyst at the Aerospace Corporation who wrote about this issue recently for the website War on the Rocks.

Why Norms Matter More than Ever for Space Deterrence and Defense

Interview Transcript: 

Robin Dickey Well, first of all, the space norms are defense norms, or many of them are. There’s a lot of challenges between the space community and other communities in national security, that space has a lot of aspects of it that are unique. There’s a lot of crazy physics going on. There are a lot of unique issues that have not yet come up yet or been fully explored in space just because of what kind of activities we have or have not done in space. And so all of this means is that the international community, space actors, defense and national security folks are all trying to figure out what behaviors should be considered acceptable or unacceptable in space. And although some of those behaviors are really more focused on safety and sustainability, things like trying to limit the amount of debris in space, because that can pose a lot of challenges for operating easily in the space domain. A lot of these norms really do relate to national security and notions of defense and deterrence, because norms in any domain, including space, are used to coordinate with partners and allies. They can be used to help prevent miscalculation and misperceptions, to help better understand each other’s intentions, and in turn, can help to recognize hostile or aggressive behavior before it escalates. So hopefully, that’s a good intro to you for what I was thinking of on this topic.

Eric White Yeah, absolutely. And I’m just curious, well, so starting from the bottom up where would building space norms start for U.S. policymakers and those defense officials when they are trying to consider what is a hostile act and you know what to do about it? How would they go about that?

Robin Dickey So identifying the content of norms can be a big challenge. And sometimes is in the eye of the beholder. But the Department of Defense has already kind of got the jump on thinking about what behaviors are responsible, irresponsible and threatening in space. The secretary of defense published five tenets of responsible behavior for space two years ago, and it since just this year, the US Space Command, which is the combatant command focused on the space area of operations, has helped to elaborate some of their own behaviors that they interpret as responsible. So somewhat the focus in those two efforts has been looking at what is responsible and what behaviors the DoD is already following to ensure that they’re being responsible in space. And then you can help to extrapolate and interpret from there what the inverse is and what might be irresponsible. There’s a lot of discussions going on in the United Nations trying to figure this out in between different country perspectives. But there’s a lot of different ways in which you can come up with the content based on operational experience. One thing that I do in my research is looking at analogies and comparisons to other domains. So I’ve looked at everything from anti-personnel land mines on the land domain to incidents at sea, to cases in which states shot down commercial aircraft, all to look at potential comparisons for behaviors that could be translated to space and therefore understood by DoD, by the international community, what to follow, what to do, what not to do. And then from there, the process of actually turning those ideas into norms is is quite complicated and could take many forms. Happy to dive into that if you would like, but I’ll pause there.

Eric White Absolutely. Yeah, we can get into that. But I did hear you say something that kind of segues into my next question, which is the obvious thing of it’s hard enough to know what’s going on out at sea or a battlefield. Is it tougher in space to try and figure those things out? I imagine it is. And so how would go applying the norms may be difficult just because you don’t have all the answers and it may take a while to even find out without looking at the piece of equipment that was sabotaged or whatever.

Robin Dickey Absolutely. In space, you can’t just look out the window of your satellite and see what’s going on, especially because the objects that might be most concerning to you could be at the moment on the opposite side of the world, just because of how orbits intersect with each other. Objects are traveling incredibly quickly. So there’s a lot of factors that make situational awareness really difficult for space. And so that means situational awareness requires a lot of advanced technology, and it also requires a degree of trust if you’re not the one operating the sensor, the technology that’s actually looking out there, which is a huge problem for norms in the international community. One example that I can demonstrate from space was that in December of 2021, China filed a formal complaint with the United Nations, saying that several StarLink satellites had made close approaches to their crewed space station that were close enough and in China’s opinion that they were risky and that they had to move out of the way. In the complaint also said that when China had tried to communicate with StarLink in the US that they hadn’t gotten a response. But the U.S. response that came after that was not only did they not receive those attempts to communicate, but they also, using their own sensors and analysis, had judged that those StarLink satellites were not close enough to the space station from China to be concerning or to require a maneuver. So there’s situational awareness problems. Each actor might have a different threshold for what they consider analytically to be risky or not, even if they have agreement on where things are or where they’re going. And then communication once you identify that there’s a problem is really challenging.

Eric White We’re speaking with Robin Dickey, who is a policy analyst at the Aerospace Corporation. And getting away from our near-peer competitors. What about allies? What kind of a role would space norms play in working with our allies in space? Which sounds kind of odd just because space is everybody’s. But what would it look like there?

Robin Dickey Well, when you’re working with partners and allies in any domain, but especially in space, interoperability and having common standards and definitions of different terms can be really important since there’s so many technical aspects to space. It’s really important that if you’re talking about a certain issue or a technical concept that the other side of your partnership is understanding what you’re talking about. But this can be even more literal in terms of interoperability. Things like for International Space Station and different crewed systems that might dock with the station to have the same hatches. So the Artemis Accords, which is an agreement between the U.S. and now I believe 27 total signatories to this agreement is trying to establish principles, including interoperability, to make sure that when we’re going to space with partners, that we’re actually doing so in a means that we can support and interact with each other. Because if you’re systems can’t talk to each other, if you’re not speaking the same language, just in a technical sense, it’s really hard to get anything done in space. And that’s where misperceptions or accidents could happen.

Eric White Yeah. With new technologies pretty much coming out on an almost daily basis, how hard would it be to drum up new norms any time there is a new way of getting into space or a faster way of communicating? Just the the changes that occur so fast, what would be needed to keep up with that? Would a whole international body just need to be created just for that purpose, maybe?

Robin Dickey So there are a lot of different ways to get to norms of behavior. I use such a broad definition, this idea of general agreement on what is acceptable or not, because that encompasses so many different options and depending on, say, how flexible or fast changing the technology is, depending on the level of political will to actually negotiate different kinds of agreements that will affect the approach that you could take for a norm and therefore what the timeline could look like. So when it comes to stuff like international treaties or organizations, that takes a ton of political will. It often takes a ton of resources and a really high level of trust and often the ability to verify or enforce behavior, all of which adds up to extremely long timelines. However, when it comes to norms that are perhaps non-binding, then that might take less time to negotiate in the United Nations in the Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space or COPUOS. They’ve negotiated a number of non-binding, voluntary guidelines for different kinds of space behaviors. Some of those still took years, even as much as a decade, to get guidelines for the long term sustainability of space. But others have gone quite quickly. The big one that I would point to is one year ago, just a little over that, the Vice President announced that the US was committing to not conduct destructive anti-satellite weapons tests. This is direct descent missiles that go up and blow up a satellite while it’s in orbit and the U.S. is committed not to do tests of that. And so this commitment was pretty quickly followed by other countries making very similar unilateral commitments. I think we have around 13 countries that have done so. And also within the year there was a U.N. resolution where over 150 countries voted in favor of this idea, which diplomatic timelines, that’s pretty darn fast.

Eric White And let’s finally talk about the folks that are a little bit more pessimistic about agreements like this. As in red lines are there to be crossed. How do you keep everybody in line and sticking to those agreed upon terms such as maybe I’ll secretly be making missiles that can take out satellites?

Robin Dickey Well, and so just to clarify, the norm that I was just talking about is only about testing. It’s about behavior. So that norm does not apply to the development of any specific kind of technology. It’s really hard to verify what the capability of any particular object is. So that’s why norms of behavior, which are a little more observable, more verifiable, potentially have been a focus. But one key thing to note about norms in general is that the strength of the norm is not measured by whether no one ever violates it. The strength of a norm is shown by the breadth and the intensity of the response when someone does break it. So that means that there need to be incentives, either implicit or explicit in the development of the norm to encourage the good behaviors and discourage the bad behaviors. This could be something as simple as many different countries and companies going public in condemning bad behavior when it happens, or it can come to the support for if you share information, then you get to participate in and receive information from different systems. You might get to benefit from more partnerships and support a lot of different incentives, and there’s no one size fits all solution. So ideally you’d be combining multiple options, looking at multiple different paths and incentives to get that support for implementation and to get folks on your side if there’s someone violating the norm that needs a response.

Eric White Yeah, and taking that approach could be even more effective in space because you’re all alone up there, so you really do need all the help you can get when it when you’re talking about space operations.

Robin Dickey Any one actor’s behavior in space could affect everyone because of debris, because of how interactive space objects can be just based off of orbits. So, yeah, absolutely. You really have to be able to pay attention across the whole international community. And that’s why norms are really valuable, because you can’t just go it alone and expect everything to work out.

Eric White Got it. And finishing up here, I’m just curious about you talk about having these general behavior norms that can apply to a wide array of behaviors. I’m curious about the interpretation aspect of it. China says that Starlink’s crafts are getting too close to their manned space station, and then the U.S. says, no, that’s not the case. How do you avoid those smudge ups where I think one thing and you feel the other way? Well, I guess that’s where we’ll leave it at.

Robin Dickey So there’s a spectrum of ways that you could respond to that. One possible norm would be if all operators agreed that they were going to set a certain level of risk. So one in a thousand, one, one 10,000 risk is what their threshold was for concerning in terms of probability of collision. But you could also just have a norm where every operator shares what their threshold is, so it doesn’t necessarily have to match up. But if you at least had a sharing of what your expectations were and what you would consider threatening, then others can adjust accordingly. That those who do not want to get into a tiff about this can make sure that they avoid that level of risk. And that, again, speaks to when we’re looking at deterrence and defense, using norms as a way to identify hostile intent, not just thinking about preventing behaviors. But if you know what the expectations are, then you can observe if someone is willingly breaking those expectations.

Eric White And talking about the environment itself, people obviously space is huge, but the area for operation is not as big as most people would think. So these ideas and these practices could become more and more important as more activity in space is increased.

Robin Dickey Yeah, the common term that people like to say is that space is getting contested, congested and competitive. Congested being the piece of that in which more and more satellites and also more and more debris are up in space in some of those key high traffic areas. So absolutely worth paying attention in the future. Space is infinite. But the space that we’re using for purposes on Earth is not necessarily that infinite. Just to highlight, of course, I’ve spent years thinking about this and can’t sum it all up in just 15 minutes. So if those are curious, there’s a number of papers that I’ve published. I am a big girl when it comes to puns. So the titles of my papers are called Normentum and they can be found on our website for the Center for Space Policy and Strategy.

Copyright © 2024 Federal News Network. All rights reserved. This website is not intended for users located within the European Economic Area.

Related Stories