A Security Regime for Outer Space: Lessons from Arms Control

October 5, 2022

Jessica West
Cover image of Security Regime report
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Outer space is a fragile environment that is subjected to an array of interrelated hazards and threats to its safety, sustainability, and secure use. Hazards include deadly orbital debris and a growing risk of accidental collisions from the rapidly growing population of satellites. Threats are also increasing, from emerging technologies such as cyber-enabled attacks to new anti-satellite and other weapons capabilities that would support armed conflict in space. While there has been some progress in developing rules to mitigate some of these hazards, more than 40 years of efforts on arms control and conflict prevention at the United Nations have largely failed.

Updated approaches to arms control in outer space are needed. But we will not have to start from scratch. The premise of this report is that we can borrow insights from other experiences of arms control.

Building on recently completed research on space norms, partners Project Ploughshares and Spectrum Space Security examine potential pathways to arms control and other military restraints in outer space. Norms are at the core of this process. But norms are not a standalone tool to ensure strategic stability and collective well-being in a domain subjected to intense power rivalry and warfighting activities. In other domains of military activity, arms control and other restraints have successfully enhanced the security of all parties. Although space is a unique environment, the actors and the interests that are associated with this domain are the same as those related to other strategic security and disarmament domains. Responding to Canada’s commitment in the Safe, Secure, Engaged defence policy to “provide leadership in shaping international norms for responsible behaviour in space,” this report examines best practices and lessons learned from these other domains and experiences to inform the creation of additional frameworks for security in outer space.

The scope of our work is broad to capture the many obstacles to arms control in outer space. It includes content analysis of existing arms control agreements; qualitative research drawn from bilateral, multilateral, and humanitarian agreements; and insights from global experts from both the arms control and space communities. This material is synthesized into a series of lessons that are organized under five themes:

  • Principles and objectives
  • Scope
  • Compliance, including implementation and verification
  • Tools, mechanisms, and institutions
  • Processes.

These lessons are presented in a comprehensive list on Page 7.

Because space is a unique environment, we recognize that no terrestrial solution will fully respond to the scope and challenges presented by arms control in this domain. We also recognize that arms control must be continuously adapted to respond to changing political and technical circumstances.

We approach arms control as a series of efforts to restrict the development, testing, production, stockpiling, and use of certain weapons, through mutual consent. The goal is to prevent or at least minimize conflict and to control or limit the use of the most egregious weapons that cause civilian and environmental harm.

Not a road map to arms control in outer space, the lessons are intended to inspire fruitful thinking on arms control efforts, facilitate new approaches, and identify opportunities for engagement and the pursuit of progress on mutual restraints at a time when the arms control agreements of past eras are under increasing strain.

The key takeaway from our research is that what is needed to make progress in arms control in outer space is a new perspective that sees arms control not as a discrete tool or agreement but as a broader regime of security governance comprised of principles and norms; restrictions and obligations; compliance and confidence-building measures; and tools, institutions, and mechanisms to facilitate ongoing political engagement, dialogue, and the implementation of measures that enhance collective security.

We conclude that arms control efforts for outer space should focus on finding opportunities to advance various elements of such a regime. What is required is an ongoing and iterative process to mitigate the risks that military competition and technology pose to the security and well-being of the space environment and its users.