Q&A: A modern-day Phileas Fogg

June 12, 2024

A conversation with Jessica West

By Wendy Stocker

Published in The Ploughshares Monitor Summer 2024

Between the end of January and the end of April, Jessica participated in five major events on three continents. What does this flurry of activity tell us about the nature of Jessica’s work and its significance in today’s security environment?  Let’s find out.

Wendy Stocker: Jessica, why all this travel? How does it advance your work and Ploughshares’s mission?

Jessica West: Our research/policy staff travel quite a bit. Engagement with new audiences expands the reach of our research and ideas, while also providing new perspectives that help to advance our own thinking. And when it comes to impact on governance processes (as at the United Nations), being there is key to both the credibility and uptake of our input. It also helps us to bring transparency and accountability to global discussions, which are too often lacking.

WS: I can see that travel can be valuable, but it’s so expensive!

JW: Yes, indeed. Cost imposes a hard limit on this kind of engagement; I’ve turned down at least one invitation for every event that I have attended this year. Fortunately, most of our travel is funded by generous host organizations that appreciate the credibility and value that someone from Ploughshares brings to discussions. When we do draw on our own resources for travel, we prioritize direct engagement in governance processes, such as at the UN.

WS: What do you personally value most about your professional travel?  

JW: My favourite part is the opportunity to reconnect with colleagues, develop new personal and institutional relationships, meet people who inspire me, and expand my thinking. Introducing our work to new audiences and engaging with other perspectives is the best way to energize my work.

WS: Let’s talk about the specific trips you have made so far this year. In late January, you travelled to Wilton Park in southeastern England to attend a by-invitation-only gathering of experts who explored possible future threats to and from space.  

JW: Wilton Park is the leading organization of the government of the United Kingdom for convening international policy dialogue that is intended to shape British foreign policy. The confidential discussions I participated in included government, military, commercial, and civil society experts from around the world. We hashed out where we see the greatest threats and what we can do to mitigate or change those threats.

WS: According to a description of the event on the Wilton Park website, “strategic competition [in outer space] is intensifying.” What is the nature of this strategic competition?

JW: It’s both industry- and state-based. Commercial actors nurture and expand state-based capabilities, objectives, and power. There is nothing inherently bad about such competition. But when it comes to peace and arms control efforts, this military/industry integration means that identifying and differentiating harmful  from benign activities is more difficult; civilian uses and users of space are increasingly entangled in the effects of warfighting or other coercive activities.

WS: How will technology shape future space threats? Was this discussed?

JW: Yes. New technology is opening up vast new possibilities for human activities in outer space: satellite servicing, the removal and mitigation of space debris, faster communications from space, deep space exploration, and even a long-term human presence. But each possibility also introduces new threats or new vulnerabilities.

The discussion at Wilton Park focused on the cumulative effects that emerging technologies will have on strategic competition involving the Moon. My own personal concerns include the impacts that artificial intelligence and quantum encryption (and dis-encryption) will have on the robustness of existing security measures in outer space and on the speed of threat detection, responses, and crisis escalation, as well as the safety, security, and sustainability implications of nuclear power in space.

WS: I understand that threats were also a subject for discussion at the end of February, when you attended what was billed as “a two-day open-ended intersessional informal consultative meeting … at United Nations Headquarters in New York.” This meeting related to the work of the Group of Governmental Experts on Further Practical Measures for the Prevention of an Arms Race in Outer Space (PAROS).

Tell us a little about the GGE and the role that Ploughshares played at this informal meeting.

JW: The GGE is a closed process with 25 state participants, including the five permanent members of the UN Security Council and 20 based on geographic representation. This intersessional meeting was a chance for non-participants to be briefed by the Chair and other GGE members on discussions so far and to communicate our priorities. Both my colleague Victoria Samson from Secure World Foundation and I presented civil society statements (the only ones). I had earlier provided a working paper on avenues for transparency and confidence-building measures.

WS: Did industry take part in this session?

JW: Industry had an opportunity to be in the room with civil society and academics, but the structure of UN discussions is not often best suited for such participation. Those few businesses that send representatives have staff who are familiar with and already engaged in global space governance processes. Civil society can help to bridge the gap between the space industry and governance bodies.

WS: Notes that you posted on the event indicate a heightened concern about the possible use of nuclear weapons in space. Why such a concern now?

JW: The meeting took place just a week after a leak of U.S. intelligence raised concerns that Russia might be developing a nuclear-powered anti-satellite capability in space. We have since learned that the United States believes that the device would be capable of detonating a nuclear explosion in orbit. But this assessment is not based on public information.

The Outer Space Treaty, which governs human activities in space, bans such capabilities and actions. This ban stems from firsthand experience with the wide devastation that nuclear detonations inflict on satellites and the long-lasting radiation that contaminates the space environment. The perceived threat of such action necessitates a rallying of the international community to reinforce and recommit to this prohibition. This is what we saw unfold at the GGE meeting.

WS: You covered all the sessions of the UN Open-Ended Working Group on reducing space threats. Will you follow similar upcoming UN discussions?

JW: Not one but TWO Open-Ended Working Groups will begin discussions in 2025. One will continue the work on norms of responsible behaviour, while the other will focus on a prohibition of weapons and the use of force in outer space, building on this year’s GGE discussions.

It’s expensive to participate in these events, but I hope I can continue my engagement in the process on norms, offering expertise and promoting transparency and accountability in the discussions. The OEWG that is focused on weapons and the use of force is sponsored by Russia; civil society organizations do not seem to be included in the description of “inclusive” participation, so I may have to settle for glimpses online.

WS: After the New York event, you raced home to collect your 12-year-old son, Ben, and then headed for Tokyo, Japan to participate in a panel at the 9th National Space Policy Secretariat Symposium on Ensuring the Safe and Sustainable Use of Outer Space. The panel’s title was “Understanding impacts of emerging commercial capabilities for space security and future trends.”

Senior Researcher Jessica West and her 12-year-old son Ben pictured in Tokyo in March.

Before we discuss the panel, tell us why Ben wanted to go with you to Tokyo.

JW: Ben has a longstanding fascination with Japan and Japanese culture; years ago he made me promise to bring him with me if I ever had the chance to visit, so I did.

Ben also has a keen interest in outer space and followed the symposium discussions closely. However, his favourite activity was a visit to the military base where Japan’s Space Operations Group is located; while symposium participants engaged in an information exchange and dialogue, he got a tour. Watching him have such mind-opening experiences was priceless.

WS: What a great opportunity for both of you!

To return to the symposium: why the focus on commercial capabilities in outer space? How does it relate to your interests in governance and security?

JW: Like other countries – including the United States and Canada – Japan relies heavily on commercial capabilities for its national space activities. My panel focused on the trajectory and governance implications of this trend in the context of security and arms control. Key concerns include the blurring of military and non-military capabilities, so that commercial activities raise geopolitical tensions among states and civilian assets in space become the targets of military responses. This is why the development of norms of behaviour as well as transparency and communication practices are so important. Japan is at the forefront of these efforts.

WS: Next, on April 3, you were in Cambridge, Massachusetts, a member of the panel “AI for Peace and Security in Space” at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s day-long conference, SpaceTech 2024: AI, Machine Learning, and Autonomy in Space.

JW: SpaceTech 2024 was a student-led event that attracted mostly students and faculty, with some invited participants – like me. My panel included long-time colleague Brian Weeden (then with Secure World Foundation, now the Aerospace Corporation) and Kaitlyn Johnson from the U.S. Space Force. My panel was organized by newly minted PhD Thomas Robert Gates, who combines work in space engineering and AI algorithms with space policy. He is familiar with Project Ploughshares.

WS: What did you learn by attending SpaceTech 2024? What do you hope that your audience learned?

JW: My key takeaway is that the intersection of AI and space technology is falling between the cracks in space policy and governance discussions, and there is very little expertise on the topic.

The audience was mostly engineering, math, and science students. It is essential that they think about law, policy, governance, and ethics. Their applied research and future work will affect how these social mechanisms evolve, whether they realize it or not.

WS: Finally, on April 30, you were at Western University in London, Ontario, to present the keynote address, “Putting people into space: Making peace and security more inclusive,” at Space Day 2024: Space Security & Disarmament.  Western is only about an hour’s drive from our offices. Have you collaborated with Western’s Institute for Earth & Space Exploration previously?

JW: I’ve had opportunities to engage with people from the Institute, but this was my first visit there. I’m applying to become an affiliate, so it won’t be my last!

WS: Why did you focus on inclusivity in your address?  

JW: Usually, inclusivity refers to meeting the critical need for appropriate representation and engagement in policy and decision-making. For that to happen, a broad range of people must see themselves as stakeholders. My objective was to convince this university audience that they were just as much stakeholders as the diplomats and military personnel. They deserved a place at tables relating to peace, security, and arms control in outer space. We ALL have a stake and so we all need to have a voice.

WS: What did you take away?

JW: The panel that followed my lecture had a phenomenal mix of people discussing cyber security, nuclear safety, space situational awareness and satellite tracking, as well as planetary defence. They knew that space security is tied to safety, sustainability, and science. No siloed discussions.

WS: A focus on space threats – both threats to space and from space – seems to link all these events. A reflection of the current zeitgeist?

JW: After decades of flying over the radar (!), outer space is now recognized as the linchpin to the resolution of almost every peace and security concern on Earth, from warfighting to climate change and sustainable development. It grounds technology developments such as artificial intelligence, quantum computing, and cyberspace.

The revival of fears that nuclear weapons could be placed in orbit for use against satellites has catapulted the need to maintain peace, security, and sustainability in outer space all the way to the agenda of the UN Security Council.

Everyone is now interested in space. But the complexity of space governance means that nuanced expertise is essential.

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