Insight - Takeaways from the UN Open-Ended Working Group on Reducing Space Threats

Thursday, October 12, 2023

By Director of Program Planning Brian Weeden

Over the last several decades, observers and participants in multilateral discussions on space security have had little to cheer about. Since the Prevention of an Arms Race in Outer Space (PAROS) agenda item first began within the Conference on Disarmament (CD) in the 1980s, little progress has been made. The root cause was opposing views between the major players on what the biggest threat was to space security and stability and how to address it. Russia and China argued that it was weapons placed in outer space and proposed a new treaty banning them. The United States and its allies strongly opposed the draft treaty on the grounds that it was unverifiable and that there was no weaponization of space taking place. 

This split within the CD spilled over into the broader discussions on space security within the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA). There, as well as within the CD, most developing countries tended to side with the Russian and Chinese position that weapons in space were the biggest issue, a treaty was the best way to counter the threat, and the United States was the main protagonist for the weaponization of outer space. Russia and China had the diplomatic upper hand, as they had proffered a draft treaty and could portray themselves as at least attempting to help, whereas the United States’ position was to oppose the draft Russia-China treaty without offering any alternatives. Annual votes on PAROS-related UNGA resolutions often ended in similar divides and little meaningful gain.

The only “success” was the 2011 Group of Governmental Experts (GGE) on Transparency and Confidence-building Measures (TCBMs) in Outer Space Activities, which brought together 15 international experts nominated by Member States to discuss ways forward on space security issues. The GGE’s consensus final report to the UN Secretary General in July 2013 was the first time the United States, Russia, and China all agreed to a UN report on space security. However, many of the GGE’s recommendations ended up not being implemented, which muted its impact.

Yet a subtle change took place over the last several years that opened up new prospects for progress. The United States and its allies changed tack and began talking about space security not in terms of how to classify space objects as weapons but in terms of identifying behaviors deemed responsible (or not). That new approach helped lead to the creation of a new Open-Ended Working Group (OEWG) within the UN to discuss potential norms, principles, and rules of behavior to reduce space threats.

The OEWG on Reducing Space Threats met over four week-long sessions in 2022 and 2023. And while the group was unable to reach consensus on the final report, largely due to intransigence by the Russian delegation, the process had significant success. It socialized the idea of focusing on behavior. It brought many more countries into the discussion, with widespread participation from more than seventy nations. The OEWG popularized the role of non-legally binding instruments as one tool in an overall toolkit to bulwark space security. And for the United States, it showed the value of participating in these discussions and putting legitimate proposals on the table, instead of just saying no to proposals it could not support.

In addition, a new initiative has further changed the debate. In April 2022, the United States announced a voluntary commitment not to conduct destructive direct-ascent anti-satellite (DA-ASAT) missile tests. Since then, 34 additional countries have joined in this voluntary commitment, and it has gained widespread international support. In December 2022, the United States led a UN General Assembly resolution (Res 77/41) calling upon States to commit not to conduct destructive DA-ASAT missile tests, which overwhelmingly passed by a vote of 155 in favor, 9 against, and 9 abstentions.  

Russia and China were among the nine States that voted against this resolution based on their long-standing position that the biggest threat to space security is the placement of weapons in space and their draft PPWT treaty is the best way to deal with this. However, the combination of this UN vote and the strong participation by 70+ countries in the OEWG shows that many more countries are now engaging in the space security dialogues and that they do see discussions around norms as a pragmatic way to break out of the long-standing impasse in multilateral discussions on space security.

This growing global focus on destructive DA-ASAT testing is in large part due to the long-lasting threat orbital debris from such tests pose to satellites operated by all nations. In SWF’s annual Global Counterspace Capabilities, we document the more than 6,850 pieces of orbital debris created by destructive ASAT testing in space over the last 60 years, of which more than 3,400 pieces are still in orbit and pose daily risks to critical satellites and human spaceflight. These tests have also created thousands of additional pieces of debris too small to be tracked that still could damage other spacecraft.

As a result of both the OEWG on Reducing Space Threats and the DA-ASAT test moratorium initiative, the diplomatic community has the first positive signs of life on space security in decades. The key now is to sustain the momentum both at the multilateral level within the United Nations and without, and to work on enabling more progress. In addition to broadening the number of countries joining the DA-ASAT test moratorium, the global community needs to examine pathways to move from voluntary pledges to legally-binding agreements that solidify these commitments. We also need to find ways to make progress on other key space security issues, such as uncoordinated close approaches of space objects, that could lead to meaningful reduction in the risk of conflict extending into outer space and helping secure space for all actors.

Last updated on October 12, 2023