Promoting the Long-Term Sustainability and Security of the Space Environment

Remarks by Frank A. Rose
Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Arms Control, Verification and Compliance
3rd ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) Workshop on Space Security

Beijing, China
November 30, 2015

Good morning.

I am very pleased to be here today in Beijing to discuss space security in one of the most dynamic regions of the world. I would like to thank my fellow co-hosts, the Governments of China, Laos, and Russia, for all of their hard work and cooperation in organizing this important conference. I would also like to extend a warm welcome to everyone in the room for choosing to participate in the third ASEAN Regional Forum Workshop on Space Security. As many here may know, the first ARF Workshop on Space Security was held in Hoi An, Vietnam in December 2012, and the second Workshop was held in Tokyo last year. With each successive Workshop, we have made progress in our understanding of the many issues affecting space security, and I hope we can build upon the success of these previous Workshops over the coming days.

Specifically, during the course of this Workshop I propose that we focus our attention on the following key areas: one, the urgent challenge of space debris to the long-term sustainability and security of the space environment; two, the usefulness of pragmatic and near-term measures in addressing the challenge of debris; and three, opportunities for enhancing regional cooperation on space security.

The Urgent Challenge of Space Debris

Today, approximately 60 nations and government consortia, as well as numerous commercial and academic satellite entities, operate satellites. This has led to tremendous advancements and benefits for people on Earth. The cooperation between countries and companies on these space systems and their associated services and applications are vital to peoples’ daily lives across the Asia-Pacific and the world, enhancing economic growth and development as well as security. However, there has been a downside to these systems: decades of space activity have littered Earth’s orbit with defunct satellites and pieces of debris, and as we continue to increase activities in space, the chance for a collision increases correspondingly.

The United States is currently tracking tens of thousands of pieces of space debris 10 centimeters or larger in various Earth orbits. Experts warn that the current quantity and density of man-made debris significantly increases the odds of future damaging collisions. As our NASA colleague will brief, because of the high speeds in which these objects travel in space, even a sub-millimeter piece of debris could cause a problem for human or robotic missions. This serious problem is continuing to grow as more debris is generated by routine operations as well as by accidents, mishaps, and irresponsible actions.

Pragmatic Measures for Enhancing the Security and Sustainability of the Space Environment

If the urgent problem of debris is not addressed, access to some space services could someday be seriously degraded or even lost. To preserve the right of all nations to explore and use space for peaceful purposes, and for the benefit of all humanity, international – and regional – cooperation is necessary.

Over the next two days, Workshop participants will hear several ideas on possible solutions for addressing the debris challenge. I expect that many speakers will mention the role that pragmatic and near-term transparency and confidence-building measures, or TCBMs, can play in addressing these challenges, and I propose that we focus our energy and attention on this area because these are solutions that we can develop quickly and that can have a real impact. Specifically, we should focus on TCBMs that encourage responsible actions in, and the peaceful use of, outer space. This approach aligns with the ARF’s objectives to 1) foster constructive dialogue and consultation on political and security issues of common interest and concern; and 2) make significant contributions to efforts towards confidence-building and preventive diplomacy in the Asia-Pacific region.

Many of the TCBMs that would help address the urgent problem of space debris already exist and could be implemented quickly. One very promising area is the important work being done in the United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space, or UNCOPUOS, on the development of new international long-term sustainability, or LTS, guidelines. For over five decades, COPUOS has played a unique role in advancing technical collaboration while avoiding unnecessary politicization. In this regard, the agreed workplan for the COPUOS working group on LTS is near completion, and we look forward to joining other COPUOS delegations to reach consensus on a clear and practical set of guidelines in 2016.

Another promising area on space TCBMs is the continued implementation of the recommendations of the UN Group of Governmental Experts, or GGE, study of TCBMs. The 2013 GGE report, which was later endorsed by consensus by the UN General Assembly, highlighted the importance of voluntary, non-legally binding TCBMs to strengthen stability in space. For example, the GGE study noted that, “Outreach measures can improve understanding between States as well as regional, multilateral, non-governmental and private sector cooperation. This can help to promote the security of all States by fostering mutual trust through the implementation of political and diplomatic outreach measures relating to outer space activities. Specific measures may include States’ participation in thematic workshops and conferences on space security issues.” They also can include adoption of consensus LTS guidelines in COPUOS, which can serve as a foundation for other TCBMs.

Opportunities for Regional Cooperation

We should look for more opportunities for the region to work together on ensuring the long-term sustainability and security of the space environment in the face of pressing challenges such as space debris.

As more and more Asia-Pacific nations develop space capabilities, cooperation among Asia-Pacific governments will be essential to preserving the space environment for all, and all Asia-Pacific countries should take an active role in crafting TCBMs that encourage responsible behavior in outer space. I propose that we use this Workshop as an opportunity for regional consideration of which TCBMs could be developed and implemented in order to that encourage responsible behavior by all countries in outer space.

Closing Thoughts

In the short space of time that people have been able to use space for our benefit, our countries have become more reliant on space than ever before, and therefore ensuring the long-term sustainability and security of the space environment is in the vital interest of all ARF participants and the entire international community. However, the long-term sustainability of the space environment is at serious risk from the growing problem of space debris and irresponsible actions. Therefore, we must work together to address this urgent problem in a spirit of pragmatic cooperation. I believe that TCBMs are the correct place to start.

Thank you very much, and I look forward to our discussions.

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