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Outer space comes closer to a regime

Gp Capt Ajey Lele (Retd.) is a Consultant at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile.
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  • May 20, 2013

    The Group of Governmental Experts (GGE) on Transparency and Confidence-Building Measures (TCBMs) in Outer Space Activities is an important United Nations (UN) platform for space security. The UN had established the present GGE in 2011 and during July 2013 this group is expected to furnish their final findings.1 Till date two meetings of the GGE have been held.

    The last two decades have witnessed rapid developments in the field of space. And in the last few years, states like Iran, North Korea and South Korea have all joined the coveted club of space-faring nations. On 29 April 2013, a suborbital air-launched space plane (Space Ship Two), being designed and developed for space tourism by a private company, successfully performed its first test flight. While on 7 May 2013 with a launch of the satellite ESTCube-1, Estonia became the 41st nation in the world to own a man-made object orbiting in space. On the other hand, there are concerns over issues associated with the possibility of weaponisation of space. All this clearly imply that there is an urgent need to develop a mechanism to oversee responsible behaviour in space.

    Over the years various efforts have been made to device a mutually agreeable space regime without much success. There has been a deadlock in the CD (Conference on Disarmament) for more than 15 years on space related matters. Also, the UN efforts like the Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPOUS) and the Prevention of an Arms Race in Outer Space (PAROS) have remained non-starters. Presently, two complimentary efforts are underway to develop a space mechanism: one, the International Space Code of Conduct which continues to remain under deliberations and two, the GGE.

    The present GGE constitutes a group of members nominated by 15 states. The permanent five (P-5) of the UN Security Council and Brazil, Chile, Italy, Kazakhstan, Nigeria, Romania, South Africa, South Korea, Sri Lanka, and Ukraine are the other members of GGE. Apart from P-5 states, which incidentally are also space-faring states, only two other members from this grouping have only recently become space-faring states, namely Ukraine and South Korea. In fact, South Korea became a space-faring state just three months back, after the GGE was constituted. In order to have a fair geographic representation, the UN appears to have compromised inducting the actual stakeholders.

    Absence of a consensus has resulted in failure to establish any form of space regime. Urgency has arisen to start an initiative, fundamental in nature, with broad-based consensus. In the light of this, a great deal of thinking has gone into developing the TCBMs, which are voluntary in nature. The critical question, however, is whether it is ‘worth while to accept the lowest common dominator just because no consensuses are likely to emerge?’ The purpose is not to argue either in favour of or against the concept of voluntary declarations but to check the efficacy of developing a long-term and sustainable mechanism factoring in the geopolitical variables.

    The purpose should be to develop a structure that is transparent and accountable as well as to strike a right balance between the legitimate concerns of the states vis-à-vis transparency-related goals. It is important that such instruments should not be formulated just to accommodate the interests of the big players. In the past various UN regimes, particularly related to weapons, have been manipulated by the major powers, for example nuclear, chemical and biological weapons and also missiles. However, ‘weapon’ is only a minuscule aspect for any space regime. Broadly, the mechanism for space needs to be developed for the purposes of space sustainability.

    Sustainable space development is thus critical as various satellite technologies are playing a cutting-edge role in the overall global development. Over the years the dependence of humans on space systems has increased significantly in various areas from communication to entertainment and from weather to warfare. Space debris, space weather and radio frequency interference are generally viewed as important elements of space sustainability.

    Space debris is presently the biggest threat for various space assets. Space Situational Awareness (SSA), a mechanism for monitoring space debris, is essential to avoid accidents in space. Presently, an US agency is on an advanced path and willing to share information about possible debris positions.2 However, there are certain limits. In the future, space traffic is expected to increase significantly. Hence, it would be important to monitor almost all objects and activity in space for advance warning. This is possible only if states and non-state actors make such information available. SSA is sustainable and useful only if timely information is available to avoid accidents in space. It is important for the GGE to keep this as a priority for developing TCBMs.

    Currently, there are some opaque areas in regards to developments in space. The US has apprehensions because its missile defence plans gets eclipsed if any ‘just’ space regime gets involved. It is also not forthright in furnishing critical information in respect to its present activities in space, for example, the unmanned vehicles X-37B which are in operation. China has also conducted its first anti-satellite (ASAT) test in 2007 but is not enthusiastic to disclose its policies. Russia-China together has put forward their views of a space regime but on close scrutiny these proposals do not take into account ground based weapons for space targets. Also, little clarity exists regarding investments by major powers in satellite jamming technologies, spy satellites, etc. It has also been observed that some states are investing in rocket development and launch of satellites probably to demonstrate their missile development capabilities.

    There have also been some unconfirmed reports regarding various levels of experiments in the ionosphere, which could have an adverse impact on communications. Programmes like the High frequency Active Auroral Research Program (HAARP) on the study of upper atmospheric and solar-terrestrial physics and Radio Science has raised concerns.3 Recent meteorite showers in Russia, emphasis the need for continuous monitoring of the space atmosphere and space weather. Hence, there is a need for data-sharing on real-time basis.

    The days of space supremacy in the hands of a limited few are over. The Cold War era mindset needs to change. Today, even non-state players are investing in space and have achieved considerable success with their various porgrammes. Full-fledged space tourism is expected to become a reality soon. Low earth orbit traffic is likely to increase exponentially and there are prospects that various near-space systems could also be put in space in the future. Earth-Moon-Mars economy is expected to change the character of the space industry. Hence, under this evolving scenario it is essential to have transparent mechanism to monitor and control various activities in space.

    The GGE needs to take into consideration complex and inter-related concerns before formulating the TCBMs. The need of the hour is to have an effective mechanism and not an accommodative one.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India.

    • 1. Information on issues related to GGE is available on, accessed on 10 May 2013
    • 2. In 2009, as part of an overall effort to consolidate SSA efforts in the U.S. government, U.S. Strategic Command (STRATCOM) assumed responsibility for the programme, it is known as SSA Sharing Programmme. Under STRATCOM, the Joint Functional Component Command for Space (JFCC-SPACE) performs the SSA mission.
    • 3., accessed on 12 May 2013. It is important to mention that there are various conspiracy theories on this subject. The purpose here is only to highlight the issue.