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U.S. Remarks for Conference on Disarmament Subsidiary Body 3 – Prevention of An Arms Race in Outer Space
March 22, 2022

United States Remarks for Conference on Disarmament Subsidiary Body 3 – Prevention of An Arms Race in Outer Space

As Delivered by Advisor Michael Aho

March 22, 2022

Thank you, Ambassador. My delegation extends its congratulations to you for being selected and assuming the important Coordinator role for Subsidiary Body Three. You and the whole Chilean Delegation can expect the full cooperation of the U.S. Delegation in your work ahead. We also would like to thank UNIDIR for the presentation this afternoon and Hellmut Lagos for providing an update as the Chair of the Open-Ended Working Group (OEWG) on Reducing Space Threats.

While it is difficult to not consider Russia’s unprovoked and unjustified invasion of Ukraine in the course of our work today, we all must continue the important work of the Conference on Disarmament (CD) related to the agenda item on the Prevention of an Arms Race in Outer Space (PAROS). It is in the context of Russia’s unrelenting and coldblooded bombardment of Ukraine, including by hitting civilian infrastructure, however, that we are reminded that the world is increasingly reliant on space assets for prosperity and security, and things can certainly change very quickly.

Today, I want to do four things: first, review the approach the United States takes to the PAROS agenda item; second, discuss why we think this subsidiary body must discuss how Transparency and Confidence Building Measures (or TCBMs) can help address issues related to a prevention of an arms race in outer space; third, explain why we are focused on approaches that are effective, observable, and verifiable; and fourth, address one very concerning action that gives us concern and that needs addressed in this subsidiary body’s proposals.

First and foremost, the United States believes that there is a common interest in maintaining peace and security in outer space for the benefit of all. President Biden’s Interim National Security Strategic Guidance clearly states that the United States will explore and use outer space to the benefit of humanity, and ensure the safety, stability, and security of outer space activities.

As such, we once again reaffirm the applicability of international law to space activities, including the Outer Space Treaty and the UN Charter, which continue to serve as an essential framework to help ensure that the exploration and use of outer space is for the benefit of all nations.

At the same time, we are also reminded of the desire of all countries to maintain space as a peaceful and sustainable environment, while reducing threats to space systems and space operations, and preventing conflict from occurring in outer space. However, we recognize that space remains a domain of competition, but confrontation or conflict is not inevitable. We must take steps to reduce uncertainty and manage the risk that competition will lead to conflict.

Mr. Coordinator, since 1981, the CD has struggled to develop an effective response to the issues related to the prevention of an arms race in outer space. We heard about this from UNIDIR

earlier this afternoon. The original Ad Hoc Committee on PAROS, which finished its work in 1994, recognized the need for a wide-ranging review of all issues related to the prevention of an arms race in outer space, including examining existing international law, ideas for TCBMs, and for legally-binding measures.

The United States supports the continuation of such a broad-based approach for the discussions in this subsidiary body. To make progress on this important issue, the CD cannot be singularly focused on flawed, legally-binding arms control agreements focused solely on the placement of weapons in outer space.

We must expand our approach to take into account additional potential threats to international peace and security, including from ground-based systems – such as ground-based anti-satellite systems – that are tested in a dangerous and irresponsible manner that threaten satellites and other space objects that are vital to all nations’ security, economic, and scientific interests for decades to come.

The U.S. Space Priorities Framework notes that as space activities evolve, the norms, rules, and principles that guide outer space activities also must evolve. We believe that this subsidiary body must discuss how TCBMs and the promotion of shared norms can help address issues related to the prevention of an arms race in outer space. As the 2018 report of the previous subsidiary body on PAROS noted, “TCBMs have been generally considered as relevant and necessary for PAROS.” This is my second point today.

Mr. Coordinator, this is why the United States has supported the process to identify responsible behaviors to manage perceived threats and risks to space systems. It is through that process that we will begin building the shared understanding between States necessary for a foundation of trust and co-operation between operators in the space environment, and reduce the risk of operating in space or the risk of conflict extending into outer space.

We therefore hope all members of the CD, and all UN member states, will participate in the work of the OEWG set to begin its formal work in May. However, our work here in the CD on PAROS or at the UN Disarmament Commission need not stop because of the OEWG’s work; rather, our work should continue in parallel.

The United States continues to seek to advance multilateral measures that are voluntary, pragmatic, transparent, build confidence, and are consistent with the criteria recommended by the 2013 “Report of the Group of Governmental Experts on Transparency and Confidence-Building Measures in Outer Space Activities.” Instead of focusing on ill-defined and unverifiable proposals, our approach is anchored by the proposition that we should examine and develop ideas around observable behaviors relating to national security space activities to maintain outer space as a safe, stable, secure, and sustainable environment.

We should recognize that military satellites in some orbits, even if they do not have weapons on them, may interact more with other military, civilian, and private sector space activities. Some interactions will be beneficial, while other interactions could be viewed as potentially threatening. The international community must work together to address these issues, rather than ignore them because they do not fit some States’ definition of “preventing an arms race in outer space.”

Mr. Coordinator, the United States recognizes that legally-binding measures can play an important role in addressing issues related to the prevention of an arms race in outer space. In this regard, and my third point today, the United States continues to be guided by the provisions of UN General Assembly Resolution 36/97 which calls for negotiating an “effective and verifiable agreement”.

We have said before and I want to reiterate today: the key words there are effective and verifiable. There are no proposals before the CD at this time that we consider effective – meaning they would adequately address existing threats – nor verifiable.

As discussed during our work in 2018, verification remains both a key element as well as a key challenge to addressing issues related to an arms race in outer space. If it were easy and possible to turn those concepts into an effectively verifiable multilateral agreement dealing with space, it would have already happened. But it is not that easy.

Let me address one specific multilateral initiative that has been before us.

For four successive U.S. Administrations, our primary concerns regarding the draft “Prevention of the Placement of Weapons in Outer Space Treaty” (or the PPWT) from the Russian Federation and the People’s Republic of China (PRC) have remained consistent. We view this draft as fundamentally flawed for four key reasons that I want to address here, so they can be heard in the context of our discussions on the current status of PAROS:

  • First, the draft PPWT, or frankly any other proposal like it, is inherently un-verifiable.
  • Second, given the dual-use nature of many space systems, it is impossible to define a “weapon in space,” which may lead to legal divergence and opening the door to the intentional evasion of legal obligations.
  • Third, it fails to address concerns about a potential stockpiling and breakout capabilities as well as potentially troubling behavior by Russian space objects operating in the vicinity of U.S. space objects.
  • And fourth, we simply cannot engage in negotiation of a treaty dealing with vital national security interests when verification of compliance by others cannot be achieved.

This complexity and our reasons for not supporting the PPWT are further demonstrated in the development of anti-satellite weapons by countries that seek to deny other countries the use and benefits of outer space through ground-based systems, which represent the most pressing threats to on orbit systems today.

Mr. Coordinator, if this body is going to agree on a way forward on the PAROS agenda item, we must acknowledge the realities in which we find ourselves. We certainly will talk more about this in our next meeting, but I wanted to highlight a major concern in the context of today’s discussion. This will be my final point today.

So, we should all remember that Russia, on November 15, 2021 – just a little over two weeks after the UN First Committee meeting voted on the space cluster of resolutions – conducted a destructive test of a direct-ascent anti-satellite (ASAT) missile against one of its own satellites, known as COSMOS-1408. This test generated more than 1,500 pieces of trackable orbital debris and an estimated hundreds of thousands of pieces of smaller orbital debris that cannot be tracked with current sensors. Due to the debris generated by the destructive Russian ASAT test, astronauts and cosmonauts on the International Space Station undertook emergency procedures to ensure their safety.

In previous discussions with our Russian counterparts, senior U.S. officials repeatedly raised concerns about the potential for ASAT testing to create significant amounts of long-lived debris. Russian leaders chose to move forward with this event anyway.

The events of November 15 clearly demonstrate that Russia, despite its claims of opposing the weaponization of outer space, is willing to jeopardize the long-term security and sustainability of outer space and imperil the peaceful exploration and use of outer space by all nations through its reckless and irresponsible behavior. Unfortunately, President Putin’s war of choice in Ukraine further demonstrates this willingness to jeopardize security and prosperity for all of us and it is already revealing the ripple effects such senseless actions can have around the world.

But it is not just Russia. The PRC has also put all of us at risk with its fielding of similar 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. Along with our Allies and partners, the United States will continue to deter threats from Russia, the PRC, and others that seek to threaten their neighbors and undermine the international system.

So Mr. Coordinator, it is because of these developments that the United States advocates that this subsidiary body must include substantive discussions on all issues related to the prevention of an arms race in outer space. If we truly seek progress on addressing this issue, then transparency and confidence building measures that address the wide range of threats to space systems must be addressed in our discussions.

Together, we can come together and agree on norms, rules, and principles of behavior in outer space which, if realized, will help us move closer to addressing issues related to the prevention of an arms race in outer space. Our hope is that in the meantime, States refrain from destructive behaviors that make it even harder to be on the same page.

I thank you, Mr. Coordinator for your patience as I outlined these points from the United States today. While a bit long, we thought it was important to provide these thoughts at the beginning of our process. Thanks again.