Why Outer Space Matters for National and International Security

During my time as the Acting Executive Director of the Center for Ethics and the Rule of Law (CERL), at the University of Pennsylvania Law School, I was honoured to be able to organise and facilitate a high level conference on “The Weaponization of Outer Space: Ethical and Legal Boundaries”.  I moderated a public event, the recording of which can be seen here, with our keynote speakers Lieutenant General David Thompson, who had just the day before been sworn in as Vice Commander of the U.S. Air Force Space Command, and has more recently become Vice Commander of Space Force; Dr. Laura Grego, Senior Scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists; and former astronaut Stephen Oswald. The three perspectives intersected in a fascinating way; although Dr. Grego’s work in peace advocacy might seem at odds with the U.S. military stance that space is a “warfighting domain”, and although a former astronaut’s experience of human spaceflight might be different from the technological concerns of Dr. Grego and Gen. Thompson, in fact there was a consensus among them that we need to ensure stability and security in outer space for all.

The rest of the conference, over two days, consisted of an invite-only expert roundtable, with true international expertise from Canada, Europe and the U.S., tackling some of the most difficult issues of the potential weaponization of outer space, and how to ensure we maintain the status quo of space as a peaceful domain. Details of the conference can be found here. It was an engaging, inspiring and challenging two days of discussions, from which many participants said they acquired a greater depth of understanding of the multi-disciplinary and international perspectives on the issues discussed, and formed new contacts for their work. The conference discussions were captured in an anonymized summary report, which can be read here.

The Director of CERL asked me to write a background paper, to outline the key issues of space security, and inform an interested public about the challenges, points of contention, and points of agreement that came out of the conference. In the paper I produced, titled “Why Outer Space Matters for National and International Security”, I provide a descriptive overview of the key issues, and I argue that, just as our keynote speakers and the range of participants at our expert roundtable found, there is a consensus that stability, security and long-terms sustainability of the space domain are critical interests for all actors in space or dependent on space. Increased transparency is one key way that national and international space governance can serve these goals.As I conclude in the paper:

One of the dilemmas faced by leading space powers is the desire to maintain secrecy as to one’s own capabilities, while at the same time understanding that lack of transparency is a key factor in the escalatory cycle towards weaponization of space and potential aggressive actions. That lack of transparency is one of the main causes for escalation during war games or role-play vignettes. While it may appear counter-intuitive to support increased co-operation and collaboration, right now the U.S. and its allies may not be the lead players in the space domain, and it may be prudent to consider policies which support increased international scientific collaboration, and other transparency and confidence building measures