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News | March 8, 2024

Internationally recognized norms lead to safety and security in the space domain

U.S. Space Command

U.S. Space Command’s Staff Judge Advocate hosted its fourth Annual Legal Conference March 5-7, 2024, at the United States Air Force Academy.

The conference brought together approximately 300 participants, both in-person and online, from across the interagency, academia, cadets, industry, and international partners. The forum, which included a classified day, fostered discussions on space cooperation and this year’s theme of “Space Futures: The Legal Implications of Space Operations in GEO and Beyond.”

“As we continue to work with stakeholders and normalize responsible behavior in space, it’s essential that we do so with a firm legal basis, consistent with relevant international and national laws,” said Gen. Stephen Whiting, USSPACECOM commander.

The adoption of internationally recognized norms for space activities helps ensure all spacefaring nations are acting together and increasing transparency whenever possible to enhance the safety, security and sustainability of the domain.

The Hon. Caroline Krass, General Counsel of the U.S. Department of Defense, opened the conference with remarks on the National Security Strategy’s four-part framework “for safeguarding U.S. interests while avoiding destabilizing arms races and responsibly taking care of the space environment.”

“The law is an integral part of achieving the strategic objectives set forth in the National Security Strategy,” Krass said. “Working with Allies and partners is essential in demonstrating our shared values and commitment to the rule of law. These values-based alliances and partnerships are an advantage that our strategic competitors completely lack.”

Krass welcomed conference attendees from the 10 nations that form the Combined Space Operations (CSpO) Initiative, a multinational partnership with a mission to generate and improve cooperation, coordination and interoperability to sustain freedom of action in space, optimize resources, enhance mission assurance and resilience, and deter conflict. CSpO partners from Australia, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, New Zealand, Norway, the U.K., and the U.S. attended the conference.

USSPACECOM supports a variety of missions as directed by the President of the United States through its execution of national defense strategies. In addition to its Title 10 combatant command obligations, its Unified Command Plan responsibilities include five unique to USSPACECOM: space operations, global sensor manager, global satellite communications operations manager, trans-regional missile defense; and space Joint Force provider.

Space capabilities complement terrestrial forces on the land and sea, and in the air, and provide combatant commanders critical space effects in their area of responsibility. They also provide USSPACECOM with the ability to protect and defend the space domain.   

“We are supported by other combatant commands, we deliver effects for others, and we fight to keep doing so against all threats,” Whiting said.

As the space environment continues to evolve, it’s important to understand established international treaties, bolster the already established rules-based international order, and work together across nations, public and private industry, the interagency, and civil and military sectors to explore the space domain in a safe, secure and sustainable way.

“Leading in space means acting responsibly and consistently within the unique international legal regime for space,” Whiting said.

Enacted in 1967 amid a heated space race, the United Nations’ Outer Space Treaty provides a basic framework on international space law, and has 114 state parties, including the U.S., Russia and China. More recently in 2020, the U.S. created the Artemis Accords, which builds on the more than 50-year-old Outer Space Treaty through a non-binding set of principles designed to guide civil space exploration. The United Nations has also established numerous working groups and committees to further define the future of space exploration.

During the conference, panelists addressed the nuances of the language in the Outer Space Treaty – including how nations interpret specific words differently. They also talked about how nations can use non-legally binding mechanisms to shape future legally binding mechanisms.

One example of a non-legally binding mechanism cited during The Future of Normative International Law and Space Governance panel, was the U.S. commitment not to conduct destructive direct-ascent anti-satellite missile testing, announced in April 2022. This commitment, spearheaded by the U.S., became a UN resolution in December 2022, by a recorded vote of 155 in favor to 9 against. Since then, 37 nations have made the commitment to not conduct destructive direct-ascent missile tests.

“That is pretty successful,” said Almudena Azcárate Ortega, a space security and weapons of mass destruction researcher at the UN Institute for Disarmament Research. “That is setting sort of the normative framework, that consensus or the common understanding that is needed for legally binding mechanisms to actually be effective.”

While panelists recognized the potential for variation between nations’ interpretations of definitions, language and the semantics of the Outer Space Treaty, Gabriel Swiney, director of the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Office of Space Commerce’s Policy, Advocacy, and International Division, reminded participants that nobody benefits from a “chaotic and unpredictable” space environment, including China and Russia.

“The Chinese, they don't actually publicly disagree with the norms,” Swiney said. “It's difficult to operate in an … era of strategic competition. And, yes, you can't necessarily trust everything everyone says. But as other countries become increasingly active in outer space, they do have self-interest that oftentimes aligns with our own.”

USSPACECOM collaborates with Allies and Partners, the commercial industry and academia, to foster deep relationships and space cooperation. Currently, USSPACECOM has 185 Space Situational Awareness Data Sharing Agreements that include 34 nations and inter-governmental organizations, seven academic institutions, and over 140 commercial satellite owners/operators and service providers.

Conference panelists and speakers explored legal issues surrounding military use of commercial space capabilities and services, preparing to solve legal challenges that may arise as the U.S. and its allies and partners move forward in improving mission assurance and increasing space infrastructure resilience through increased commercial integration.

“Our national security and defense strategies are built on a foundation of cooperation,” Whiting said. “The National Security Strategy asserts that the U.S. will ensure the space domain’s sustainability, safety, stability and security by working alongside our mission partners.”

The Tenets of Responsible Behaviors in Space, signed in 2021 by Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin, intended to acknowledge the DOD’s guidelines for responsible U.S. military behaviors in space, and also directed the commander of USSPACECOM to expound upon the tenets. In 2023, Secretary Austin approved USSPACECOM’s eight proposed specific behaviors for operations in the space area of responsibility that further establish a level of transparency with the goal of reducing the risk of misunderstanding and miscalculation.

“USSPACECOM will use our role as the DOD leader in the space (area of responsibility) to emphasize our commitment to preserving the space domain through responsible norms of behavior in space, and to partner with all our stakeholders to promote a safe, secure and sustainable space AOR to assure U.S. and Allies freedom of action in space,” Whiting said.