By Jessica West
A conversation with Victoria Samson
Jessica West: Victoria, you and I have worked together on outer space issues for quite a few years now. For most of those years you’ve been with Secure World Foundation. Please tell us a bit about the work and mandate of SWF.
Victoria Samson: SWF aims to work with all space stakeholders as we promote best practices and norms of behaviour in an effort to ensure the secure, sustainable, and peaceful use of outer space by everyone.
JW: Your own work is focused on military- and security-related issues. How does security relate to sustainability?
VS: Activities that make space less secure and that threaten peace can also negatively impact space sustainability. For example, the conducting of anti-satellite (ASAT) tests threatens the preservation of space as a peaceful environment to be used by all. Such tests also produce debris, which can make the space environment more hazardous and costly to operate in, and so less sustainable.
JW: You edit an annual SWF report on global capabilities that disrupt, deny, degrade, or destroy space systems, which are referred to as counterspace capabilities. Which trends worry you most?
VS: When we started the Global Counterspace Capabilities Report in 2018, we covered six countries: the United States, Russia, China, India, Iran, and North Korea. In 2020, we added France and Japan; in 2022, Australia, South Korea, and the United Kingdom. We’ve essentially doubled the number of countries we cover – with a few that we’re keeping an eye on for possible future inclusion.
We’re seeing a proliferation of interest in counterspace research and development (R&D), which is tied to the increasing importance of space for national security missions. And major powers now have their own space and counterspace capabilities. While the countries in our assessment are making significant investments in counterspace R&D, only non-destructive counterspace capabilities are currently being used in active conflicts. That could change and be tremendously destabilizing.
JW: The United States has long resisted discussion of formal arms control in outer space, but in 2020 you and Brian Weeden, also at SWF, published an opinion piece that called for legally binding measures. Why that moment in time?
VS: For many years, the United States resisted any limits to its freedom of action in space, and so it had nothing to counter Russia and China’s draft treaty to prevent the placement of weapons in outer space (PPWT), except to rightfully criticize its weaknesses.
However, the United States has realized that there was a net national security benefit to its agreeing to limit what it could possibly do in space if that meant others would do the same. As well, an increase in the space capacity of other countries seems to have inspired the United States to reconsider what best serves its security needs. By 2020, Brian and I felt that the powers-that-be might be receptive to arguments about limiting certain kinds of behaviour and even codifying it.
The U.S. Department of Defense has become one of the big supporters of establishing norms of behaviour in outer space, appearing to realize the importance of stabilizing an increasingly uncertain environment. And in April 2022, the United States announced that it was committing not to conduct destructive ASAT missile tests, and State Department officials indicated that they could even see a treaty on this matter further down the road.
JW: Like Project Ploughshares, SWF supports the growing moratorium on destructive tests of anti-satellite missiles in outer space. How do you respond to critics who claim that this initiative is only about the environment and not arms control?
VS: Well, there are obvious environmental benefits to limiting the creation of debris. But I would argue that any move that acknowledges the benefits of giving up certain activities in exchange for the knowledge that others are not undertaking those activities IS arms control. This approach can achieve the goal of arms control: to hinder the spread of activities that weaken or harm stability and security. Also, if you look at the U.S. National Space Policy through the decades and across all kinds of administrations, you can see that space arms control is supported if it is equitable, effectively verifiable, and enhances the national security interests of the United States. I would argue that the moratorium meets those criteria.
JW: You and I have been participating in the United Nations (UN) Open-Ended Working Group to Reduce Space Threats (OEWG) since it began. Why do you think this process is valuable?
VS: For years, discussions on space security at the UN Conference on Disarmament have been stifled because there has been no agreement on what the biggest threat was and how to handle it. Was it specifically designed weapons placed in orbit that should be mitigated via a treaty? Traffic congestion or bad behaviour that should be mitigated via non-legally binding approaches?
Given the dual-purpose nature of space technology, an increasing number of countries believe that focusing on space technology is not the best approach. Rather, the focus should be on the intention and behaviour of the space actors who own and use the technology. That is the focus of this OEWG. Concentration on norms, rules, and principles of behaviour promotes a focus on actions and activities that make space a more stable, predictable, and secure domain for all without restricting access to space-related capabilities.
JW: Diversity and inclusion are big concerns of global governance initiatives. Does it appear to you that countries with nascent space capabilities are engaged in these discussions? Are their interests being addressed?
VS: I think that, historically, many countries saw space security issues as only relevant to the geopolitical superpowers. But now space data plays a prominent role in everyone’s lives, and more and more countries are aware of the importance of predictable, reliable access to space.
There has been a lot of representation of the Global South and their particular concerns in OEWG discussions. One example: the Philippines was the country that expanded discussion of threat to include those on the ground who are subjected to debris from space launches.
JW: Do you see any obstacles to achieving the desired outcome from this OEWG process?
VS: The goal is a report from the working group chair that is passed by consensus, with recommendations for norms, rules, and principles to reduce security threats. Now, I’m not sure that the whole report will be passed by consensus, but it is my understanding that the chair can identify when there is consensus on some parts and lack of consensus on others.
I’ve long argued that there are two ways of identifying success here: success of process and success of ideas. Nothing prevents countries or regional blocs from using what they have learned in these meetings at the national or regional level to make space more predictable or stable. The ideas can succeed even if the process stalls.
The biggest obstacle to success with the process is the perception by some countries that the biggest current threat to space security is the potential for weapons to be placed in orbit, and that this threat can only be countered with a legally binding treaty. A report focused on behaviour and non-legally binding approaches is not going to fully address this concern. This could mean that some participants may not fully endorse the report.
JW: It is true that some countries want a process that results in a treaty. Do you believe that the current OEWG moves that process along in any way?
VS: Over the three sessions of the OEWG so far, I’ve seen a growing understanding that the path to progress isn’t either/or – norms OR legally binding agreements. As you know, Jessica, treaties generally emerge from norms or non-legally binding efforts like resolutions from the UN General Assembly. So, a non-legally binding commitment not to conduct destructive ASAT missile tests could be the first step on a path that eventually leads to a legal ban of such tests. Clearly, not all the recommendations for responsible behaviour have the potential to lead to treaties but not all are necessary to achieve a positive impact on space security and stability.
JW: Secure World Foundation and Project Ploughshares have both attended OEWG sessions and participated in informal meetings. How would you evaluate the effectiveness of civil society actors on the OEWG?
VS: At the first two sessions, civil society experts were tapped to bring information to the member states. Both our organizations have taken advantage of available opportunities to submit working papers to the OEWG secretariat and make statements on the floor. So, we have had the chance to inject our perspectives into the discussions, which speaks to the inclusive nature of an OEWG.
Civil society can offer more flexible and less political viewpoints; we are not, and should not be, constrained by national considerations. And we can communicate the value of the process to our constituents and a broader public, at home and around the globe.
My bottom line: These OEWG discussions at the UN are the best way we have to make sure that space is accessible to and usable for everyone over the long term. □
More information on, and analysis of, the OEWG can be found on the Secure World Foundation and Project Ploughshares websites. The SWF Global Counterspace Report is available here.