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Remarks by Ambassador Wood for the Session on the Prevention of an Arms Race in Outer Space
June 1, 2021

Remarks by Ambassador Robert Wood for the
Session on the Prevention of an Arms Race in Outer Space 

Conference on Disarmament
Tuesday, June 1, 2021
As Delivered

Thank you Mr. President.  I also wish to thank the panelists for their very informative presentations.

Mr. President, colleagues,

It’s a pleasure to have the opportunity to speak once again on this important topic.

All countries have a shared stake in addressing threats and preventing conflict from extending into outer space, as space-based capabilities are essential to our respective countries’ economies and societies.  Whether it is weather reports for our farmers, communications for staying in touch with loved ones around the world or helping us navigate the world in which we live, space is an integral part of our daily lives.

Since the 1980s, this body has had on its agenda the “prevention of an arms race in outer space,” or PAROS.  And since that time, the U.S. approach to the PAROS topic has been consistent: we will consider proposals for space arms control if they are equitable, effectively verifiable, and enhance the national security of the United States and our allies.  While no proposals meeting such criteria have been introduced into this body thus far, we nevertheless remain open to their consideration.

The two iterations of the Treaty on the Prevention of the Placement of Weapons in Outer Space or PPWT that have been tabled in this body most certainly do not meet such criteria.  As we have explained in detail many, many times, the draft still retains fundamental flaws, including a lack of clear definitions and effective verification mechanisms, which have not been remedied and which are significant challenges for any space arms control proposal.  For countries that are interested in further examining the flaws of the PPWT proposals, we are happy to provide copies of the analyses we have submitted over the years.

Given that dismal track record and the fact that any negotiations on a legally binding instrument would be protracted and outpaced by technological advances, we believe it would be more productive for the international community to develop norms of responsible behavior to address the increasing threats which all of our governments now face in the outer space domain.

As our national submission to the Secretary-General in response to UN General Assembly Resolution 75/36 noted, space is a not only naturally hazardous environment, but has become increasingly congested, contested, and competitive.  Space assets face many threats, both natural and human-made.  Natural threats to satellites include solar activity, radiation, and natural orbital debris, while human-made threats include debris from satellite operations, 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.  The United States has significant concerns about the serious danger posed by any destructive anti-satellite test that creates persistent debris, a threat which we discuss in our national submission.  Such an action would be extremely irresponsible and should draw condemnation from the entire international community.

Some of these threats are unfortunately not hypothetical.  Indeed, the two countries that authored the PPWT have turned space into a warfighting domain.  The People’s Republic of China continues to field new destructive and nondestructive ground- and space-based anti-satellite weapons.

In fact, the People’s Republic of China 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 low Earth orbit satellites.

Russia, for its part, continues to field 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 low Earth orbit satellites.  Russia tested one of its ground-based ASAT missiles in December of last year.  It is notable that Russia’s submission to the UN Secretary General states that Member States should commit themselves “not to destroy, damage, disturb the normal functioning or change the flight trajectory of space objects of other States.”

Mr. President, the rapid evolution of such threats requires urgent and pragmatic steps if we are to maintain the safety, security, and stability of the outer space environment.

For the United States, such pragmatic steps will be guided by our National Space Policy, which directs us to “lead 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 fully in keeping with President Biden’s Interim National Security Strategic Guidance, which affirms that the United States “will lead in promoting shared norms and forge new agreements,” including with respect to outer space.

It is in that light that we note our support for proposals such as the UN General Assembly Resolution 75/36 on Reducing space threats through norms, rules and principles of responsible behavior, which the United States co-sponsored.  This resolution is focused on pragmatic, implementable ways to enhance responsible behavior in outer space.  This 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 later this year.

For those who have not already seen the U.S. national submission, my team would be happy to provide your government with a copy.  In short, the U.S. national submission provided:

  • A thorough overview of existing and potential threats and security risks to space systems;
  • Information on categories of behaviors, efforts, or measures that could be considered during further development and implementation of norms, rules and principles of responsible behaviors; and
  • Thoughts on norms, rules, and principles of responsible behaviors with respect to outer space.

With regard to the last point, it is our position that norms, rules, and principles of responsible behavior with respect to outer space can reduce risks to international peace, security, and stability, including by playing an important role in increasing predictability, enhancing operational safety, and reducing the risks of misperceptions, thus contributing to the prevention of conflict.

A focus on voluntary, non-legally-binding norms of responsible behavior has multiple advantages, including the ability to adapt quickly to changing circumstances or technologies – and to avoid the problem of spending years negotiating legally-binding instruments that may be outpaced by technological developments – to explore new and novel uses of space, and to include the perspectives of the civil and commercial operators who are increasingly present and active in the space domain.

Member States’ ongoing initiatives to seek mutual understanding of what constitutes threats in space, paired with concepts for responsible behavior, are an important first step in addressing potential mistrust and misunderstandings arising among states.  Indeed, coming to such a common understanding with respect to outer space is a foundational effort, which could support and complement future legally-binding efforts that command support from all Member States.

The United States seeks to partner in an inclusive manner with all Member States on such efforts, and we believe that all Member States have a stake – and should have a voice – in the development of such norms.

Thank you Mr. President.