A "Space Code" of Conduct Vital to National Security
Asked to identify this year’s Super Bowl champions, most Americans would readily exclaim the Denver Broncos. Ask nearly anyone the maker of the iPhone and you would be hard pressed to get an answer other than Apple. But ask anyone how their smartphones, and lives in general, are tied to space systems and you would likely garner a blank stare.
The Global Positioning System, (GPS) fielded, operated and maintained by our Air Force, is but one example of how our lives are dependent upon space systems. The “little blue dot” on smartphones, dependent upon GPS, allows us to immediately identify our location and navigate to work, Starbucks, or back home. More importantly, it allows for successful search and rescue operations, and timing signals that time stamp our financial transactions, ensuring banking fairness. Business owners can track “just in time” transactions to swiftly deliver products to consumers.
Another vital space system, Earth-monitoring satellites aid in predicting weather, forecast crop yields, allocate disaster relief and monitor climate changes. The result is the most productive agricultural system in the world.
But what if our access to these space systems were denied? The loss of the “blue dots” on our smart phones would become a minor inconvenience relative to the profound impacts on agriculture, climatology and weather tracking, not to mention our military’s ability to conduct operations.
Near-peer rivals like China have demonstrated satellite strike capabilities that threaten our space systems. The impacts would be vast and include our national defense, economic security, infrastructure nodes, agricultural productivity, logistical networks, and transportation systems, creating chaos in the United States.
Securing and protecting our space systems is becoming increasingly vital to our national security. Providing this protection will require concerted actions in the near and long term. As the commander of U.S. Air Force Space Command, General John Hyten, warned at a Mitchell Institute-Air Force Association seminar last December, space is becoming ever more contested. The irresponsible approach by some countries to develop and test satellite counter-force capabilities only serves to create more hostility, further threatening our space systems.
China’s anti-satellite demonstration in 2007 spawned 150,000 centimeter-sized “space debris” objects increasing the amount space debris and endangering our space systems. U.S. Air Force space operators must still—nearly nine years later—maneuver around the resulting cloud of debris. An Iridium satellite collided with an inactive Russian military satellite, in 2009, that neither deorbited nor safely parked, creating a persistent debris cloud.
In the face of these threats, our critical reliance on space demands three strong counter-efforts.
First, we need a strong national policy that insures predictable funding allocations to the space and ground segments of all space systems. Securing these systems from physical, cyber, and other threats, needs to be built in from step one of defining requirements and systems design.
Second, we need to demand good “space behavior” through strong diplomatic efforts with every nation that operate in space. Debating acceptable deployments of space systems should be an imperative. Ensuring that activities, such as anti-satellite weapons tests, by other nations must not create even more space debris interfering with the remaining, peaceful, space systems. Those not in compliance must be held accountable.
Third, as industry launches even smaller satellites into space, a code of behavior must be established, and these satellites must visible to radar to create a safe operating environment.
We all have a responsibility to make space a safe and secure domain, by developing an international consensus on understandable and useful “rules of the road,” or “Space Code” be adopted by sovereign nations and industry.
Depending on how a “Space Code” is adopted and implemented, it is very important that we avoid any unilateral constraints that could be placed on the United States that are not shared internationally, a point made by former Marshall Institute President Jeff Keuter several years ago. And to the extent such an agreement is binding, it deserves a full vetting by Congress before any deal is concluded.
A vigorous defense of our interests in space will be critical for the United States to protect our military and commercial space assets, and ensure access to space for our country. Our national, military and economic security depends on it.