Aidan Liddle

Aidan Liddle

UK Ambassador and Permanent Representative to the Conference on Disarmament

Part of Conference on Disarmament

27th August 2020 Geneva, Switzerland

Disarmament blog: a new initiative on outer space security

When we think about security in outer space, it’s tempting to fall back on tropes from science fiction or the movies – dramatic battles between space-suited soldiers in Moonraker, or powerful weapons threatening planets in Star Wars. In reality, there are threats to security and stability on Earth involving outer space, but they don’t include Death Stars.

The vast potential of space has been widely recognised since the dawn of the space age. Already in 1959 the UN set up a Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS), in Vienna, which agreed a series of important conventions in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and last year adopted 21 guidelines for the long-term sustainability of outer space activities. The potential military uses of space featured in the 1963 Partial Test Ban Treaty, which prohibited nuclear tests in space, and the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, which banned the placement of weapons of mass destruction in orbit or on celestial bodies. In the mid-1980s, the Conference on Disarmament and the UN General Assembly’s First Committee started discussions on ‘Preventing an Arms Race in Outer Space’ (PAROS), motivated by the prospect of conventional weapons being deployed in space. But because of the difficulty of effectively verifying the capabilities of objects in orbit, and because the discussions quickly became entangled in wider issues around ballistic missile defence, they have not made much progress.

As so often, developments have rather outpaced the UN process. The US and USSR were the only serious space powers in the 1970s. Today, up to 30 countries are active in space; many more have realistic ambitions to become space faring nations; and almost every country depends on space-based systems for communications and position, navigation and timing services such as the Global Positioning System. Importantly, those services are crucial for civilian life, as much as military operations, and it is civilian commercial operators, not states and militaries, who are the main drivers of the huge expansion in space activity. In an increasingly congested, contested and competed-in arena, the risk of misunderstanding or miscalculation between space actors is growing.

It’s apparent, then, that we need a new approach to space security: one that looks at the behaviours that might exacerbate tensions and drive competition, not just at military hardware. The UK will therefore table a draft resolution at this year’s UNGA First Committee launching a new discussion on reducing space threats through responsible behaviours, which I had the honour to present to the UN membership yesterday (26 August) here in Geneva. The draft resolution builds on discussions we’ve had with a wide range of countries, including through a series of regional conferences organised by Wilton Park, and proposes an open, inclusive, bottom-up approach to identifying responsible behaviour in outer space that would contribute to a lessening of tensions and a reduction of the incentives for arms racing. In our view, such an organic process, without a pre-determined solution, is the most realistic prospect for making progress, though of course it does not exclude any other existing or new proposals that others may have.

Proposing a new UNGA resolution in the current circumstances, with little prospect of being able to conduct the usual face-to-face negotiations in New York and no clear idea of how First Committee will work, is somewhat daunting. But I’ve been encouraged by the reaction so far, which shows that there is a growing understanding of the complexity of the security situation in space and a determination to find a way through the current deadlock. There’s a lot of work still to do, though – and passing the resolution will just be the beginning of what we hope will be a productive new process.

8 comments on “Disarmament blog: a new initiative on outer space security

  1. Excellent update, thank you Mr Liddle. May I echo Ms Kennedy’s request to see the resolution if at all possible?

    Also, I am very interested in the definition of “weapons” in space. As you say, any object can be kinetically deployed offensively, and should we not therefore have increasing concern about the chaff – most accidental, arguably some deliberate – that has been (and will continue to be) released into our new space junk ring around earth? This seems to be an easily camouflaged way of causing damage to satellites or other military-related hardware in space.

    Finally, what is current status of the project to divert earth-bound asteroids using nuclear weapons or other tools? Seems this might be fraught with security issues too.

    1. Thank you! The draft resolution is still being processed by the UN Secretariat but it’ll be posted here shortly:

      The question of space debris or junk is a very pressing one, not least as it its potentially catastrophic to human crewed space vehicles as well as uncrewed objects, and could render large slices of the most heavily used orbits unusable if left unchecked. Our resolution talks about the problems arising from the intentional creation of orbital debris, and it’s certainly something that needs further work from the security perspective as well as the civilian. I’m not up to speed on the asteroid impact avoidance projects, but it’s a good example of the dual use conundrum!

  2. I believe that this is a very important initiative – who knows what final agreements will be made, but monitoring and enforcement will likely be very challenging.

    1. Thanks Gordon. Yes, monitoring and enforcement is extremely challenging when it comes to outer space. That’s part of the reason why we think a focus on behaviours – which can be observed from earth – might be more fruitful than the traditional focus on objects, the features and capabilities of which are obviously much more difficult to verify once they’re in orbit (and states will be very reluctant to allow routine inspections of payloads before launch).

  3. I think that before we can have an “open, inclusive, bottom-up approach to identifying responsible behaviour in outer space that would contribute to a lessening of tensions and a reduction of the incentives for arms racing,” we need to have an open, inclusive, bottom-up approach to identifying those tensions and incentives. And before we can have that, we need an open, inclusive, bottom-up approach to identifying open, inclusive, bottom-up approaches to identifying what an open, inclusive, bottom-up approach is. Because above all, what we don’t want to do is propose any actual arms control!

    1. Well, I agree with your first sentence! The trouble with trying to apply traditional arms control approaches in outer space is that it’s almost impossible to agree on the limits or definitions of what to control: any object in space can be used as a kinetic weapon, given the environment, and there are all sorts of dual use technologies and assets that could be used to interfere with space objects but could also be for entirely benign and legitimate purposes. The usual approach of defining, verifying and accounting for bits of kit simply doesn’t work. Hence this new approach, focused on behaviours, which can be observed, characterised and discussed from Earth.

      1. Excellent blog explaining this important issue. Can you share a copy of your draft resolution please? Thank you.

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About Aidan Liddle

Aidan Liddle has been the UK's Permanent Representative to the Conference on Disarmament since July 2018, handling questions of nuclear, biological and conventional disarmament, arms control and non-proliferation. He joined…

Aidan Liddle has been the UK's Permanent Representative to the Conference on Disarmament since July 2018, handling questions of nuclear, biological and conventional disarmament, arms control and non-proliferation.

He joined the FCO in 2003 and has served at the UK Representation to the EU in Brussels, at the British High Commission in Islamabad, and the British Embassy in Stockholm, as well as in various roles at the FCO in London.

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