Ambassador Wood Remarks at UNODA on Existing and Potential Threats and Security Risks to Space Systems

Remarks by Ambassador Robert Wood for the
Webinar series co-organized by the United Nations Office for Disarmament Affairs and the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs

“Existing and potential threats and security risks to space systems, including those arising from actions, activities or systems in outer space or on Earth”  

Friday, May 21, 2021  
As Delivered

Before beginning, I’d like to take a brief moment to thank the UN Office for Disarmament Affairs and the UN Office for Outer Space Affairs for organizing this event and for their impartiality.  I’d also like to thank my friend Mr. Markram for moderating this panel.

As participants at this week’s events are no doubt aware, the security situation in the outer space environment is an increasingly dangerous one.

As our national submission to the Secretary-General noted, space is a naturally hazardous environment and has become increasingly congested, contested, and competitive. Space assets face many threats, both natural and man-made.  Natural threats to satellites include solar activity, radiation, and natural orbital debris, whereas examples of man-made threats include satellite launch debris, radiofrequency interference, malicious cyber activity, and anti-satellite or ASAT weapons such as directed energy systems, or direct-ascent missiles.  Some states are developing, operationalizing, and stockpiling a variety of ASAT weapons that could be used to, or have the potential to, deny, disrupt, degrade, or destroy civil, commercial, or national security space capabilities and services.  Some of these ASAT weapons could be used to deny or disrupt space services temporarily, while others are designed to permanently degrade or destroy satellites.  These threats against satellites and their supporting systems can generally be divided into four

categories: 1) ground-space; 2) space-space; 3) ground-ground; and 4) space-ground.

Some of these threats are unfortunately not hypothetical.   Indeed, two countries represented virtually here today, while professing strong opposition to the placement of weapons in space, have nevertheless turned space into a warfighting domain.  The PRC continues to field new destructive and nondestructive ground- and space-based antisatellite, or ASAT, weapons.  In fact, the PRC has already fielded ground-based ASAT missiles intended to destroy satellites in low Earth orbit and ground-based ASAT lasers probably intended to blind or damage sensitive space-based optical sensors on lower Earth orbit satellites.  Russia, for its part, continues to field ground-based ASAT missiles intended to destroy satellites in lower Earth Orbit and ground-based ASAT lasers probably intended to blind or damage sensitive space-based optical sensors on lower Earth orbit satellites.

So perhaps it should come as no surprise that the initiatives championed by these same countries in space security have proven to be a diplomatic dead end for over a decade.  We’ve raised our concerns in detail many times over the years about fatally flawed initiatives such as the Treaty on the Prevention of the Placement of Weapons in Outer Space, the Threat or Use of Force against Outer Space Objects (PPWT).  I will not recap those flaws today given our limited time; rather, I will simply point out that rather than focusing our efforts on such flawed proposals, the United States is focused on a more pragmatic and productive way ahead for contributing to the safety, security, and stability of the space environment.

Such efforts are in keeping with the current U.S. National Space Policy, which directs us to “[l]ead the enhancement of safety, stability, security, and long-term sustainability in space by promoting a framework for responsible behavior in outer space, including the pursuit and effective implementation of best practices, standards, and norms of behavior.”  These efforts are also in keeping with the Interim National Security Strategic Guidance, issued by President Biden in March 2021, which affirms that the United States “will lead in promoting shared norms and forge new agreements” on outer space.

Accordingly, we welcomed the UK’s resolution, which is focused on pragmatic ways to enhance responsible behavior in outer space.  We are gratified that this approach has already in a short time garnered significant support from across the world.  The resolution encouraged Member States to study existing and potential threats and security risks to space systems; characterize actions and activities that could be considered responsible, irresponsible, or threatening; and share their ideas on the further development and implementation of norms, rules, and principles of responsible behaviors and on the reduction of the risks of misunderstanding and miscalculations with respect to outer space.  I understand that dozens of submissions were received from Member States along with other entities, and I am looking forward to reviewing the report from the Secretary General.

We should all continue to examine and develop ideas for responsible behavior that would maintain outer space as a safe, stable, secure, and sustainable environment.  The United States seeks to partner in an inclusive manner with all Member States on such efforts.

A focus on responsible behavior has a number of advantages, including the ability to adapt quickly to changing circumstances or technologies, and to include a voice from the civil and commercial operators who are increasingly present and active in the space domain.  Taken progressively, these norms could be a first step in addressing potential mistrust and misunderstandings arising among states.

With that, I’ll stop here.  Thank you for your time, and I look forward to today’s panel.