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Arms Control and International Security: Strengthening International Cooperation in Space Situational Awareness

As prepared 

Thank you for your kind introduction and the opportunity to speak to you today. It’s a pleasure to be back in beautiful Maui, for the third time at this conference. I'd like to express my gratitude to the Maui Economic Development Board for the opportunity to talk with you again about the accomplishments and challenges on space issues that the Obama Administration has made over the past eight years.

Since the focus of today’s conference presentations is on relevant international cooperation, I thought I would focus on three areas:

  • First, I want to briefly reiterate the importance of and threats to the space environment;
  • Next, I will talk about our diplomatic efforts to strengthen cooperation with allies and partners; and
  • Finally, I will talk about developments in improving space situational awareness (SSA) information sharing and the State Department’s interest in SSA.

Threats to the Space Environment

So let me start with the outer space environment. As this audience well knows, the outer space environment is very complex and is changing very rapidly. This is reflected in the advances in innovation and new technologies to increasing global access to space-enabled applications, such as imaging, maritime automatic identification systems, weather, and the Internet. The Space Foundation’s latest annual report stated that the global “space economy” in 2015 was $323 billion, of which over 75 percent was commercial space products and services, infrastructure, and support industries. This is an amazing amount of international investment and growth.

Advances in the use of outer space also present challenges the space environment, including increased congestion both in terms of the number of systems on orbit or related to spectrum allocation. And added to that is the growth in threats to our use of military, civil, and commercial space systems. The Cold War restraint on the development of anti-satellite weapons is eroding. The U.S. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper testified to this fact last February stating, “Russia and China continue to pursue weapons systems capable of destroying satellites on orbit, placing U.S. satellites at greater risk in the next few years.” These systems will present a threat, not just to the United States, but to the safe operation of satellites by all countries.

Strengthening Cooperation with Allies and Partners

In order to ensure the free access to outer space that is the legal right of all mankind, we must work together to respond to these threats. And when I say we, that encompasses everyone in this audience. The U.S. Government certainly can’t do it alone. We need to work with our allies and partners, with industry, and with non-governmental organizations.

That is why the United States has increased our diplomatic engagement around the world. Our goal is to ensure the long-term sustainability, stability, safety, and security of the outer space environment. One important part of our comprehensive strategy seeks to strengthen our cooperation with allies and partners to respond to these threats, including through improving our ability to share space situational awareness information and to promote rules for responsible behavior in outer space.

The United States has a tremendous advantage in its strong alliance partnerships, and one we need to continue to leverage when working to ensure that potential adversaries cannot achieve their goals when it comes to a conflict in outer space.

Strengthening our space cooperation begins with bilateral diplomatic, civil, and military-to-military dialogues. To date, the State Department has established formal space security dialogues with 15 countries such as traditional allies like the United Kingdom, Japan and the Republic of Korea, and also with other space-faring nations like India and the United Arab Emirates.

These dialogues are an important opportunity to have a productive exchange of ideas on way to work more closely together. They allow us to have a common understanding regarding threats and ways to address them. We are able to talk about changes in national policies, legislation, and regulations. This is also where we expand our bilateral cooperation in space situational awareness or maritime domain awareness or global navigation satellite systems. And we also use it to review efforts to create guidelines on norms in fora such as the United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS).

Let me take a moment here to talk about our engagements with China. When I was last here I talked about our agreement at the June 2015 U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue to establish both a U.S.-China Civil Space Dialogue and a separate Space Security Exchange.

I chaired the first U.S.-China Space Security Exchange with my Chinese counterpart from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs this past May in Washington. At this meeting, we had a frank exchange of views on a variety of issues, including options to mitigate debris and prevent collisions in outer space. As always, I was blunt about our concerns regarding China’s anti-satellite weapons. I will say, I thought we had a very good dialogue. Chinese participants included the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Ministry of Defense and the China National Space Agency. China’s participants were well prepared and we had a real discussion rather than just an exchange of talking points.

It was clear that China is concerned about the threat from debris and that they take it very seriously. Our efforts in this dialogue were acknowledged at the Obama-Xi bilateral meeting in China on September 2 – here, I’d like to quote from the U.S. Fact Sheet:

“The United States and China recognized that space debris can be catastrophic to satellite and human spaceflight, and that, due to the global dependence on space-based capabilities, the creation of space debris can seriously affect all nations. Therefore, … the United States and China committed to intensify cooperation to address the common challenge of the creation of space debris and to promote cooperation on this issue in the international community.”

Given the importance of dialogue with China on these issues, we have agreed to hold a second Space Security Exchange this fall.

Developments in Improving Space Situational Awareness (SSA) Information Sharing

Turning now to improving space situational awareness sharing, I think all in this room agree that this data is fundamental to both maintaining the outer space environment, but also for preventing miscalculations in space. To put it simply, we are trying to shine a light into the darkness of space by providing greater situational awareness for all space operators. Our Joint Space Operations Center provides a global public good by helping warn of potential collisions.

The growth in space situational awareness will also hopefully lead to greater attribution for any harmful actions in space. But transparency and situational awareness, or knowing who is doing what, will only help us if we develop norms and guidelines (so we know when someone is acting irresponsibly or even maliciously and even deter bad behavior from happening in the first place). If there is attributable, irresponsible behavior, we will better know whom to address with our concerns, and even how to hold that space actor accountable.

This is an effort that requires a whole-of-government approach to integrate information from a variety of sources to develop accurate and timely SSA. In turn, such accurate and timely SSA will enable us to “rapidly detect, warn, characterize, and attri­bute natural and man-made disturbances to space systems of U.S. interest.” Given the global investment in space capabilities, international cooperation on SSA is necessary, as international partnerships bring resources, capabilities, and geographical advantages.

To date, the United States has signed 13 SSA sharing agreements and arrangements with national governments and international intergovernmental organizations, and over 50 with commercial entities. The United States is also collaborating with our partners and allies in Europe as they continue developing their own SSA capabilities. The Department of State, in collaboration with the Department of Defense, has engaged in technical exchanges with experts from the European Space Agency, the European Union, and individual Member States to ensure that our existing and planned SSA systems contribute to a more comprehensive situational awareness picture.

Additionally, we continue to engage in the Working Group on the Long-term Sustainability of Outer Space Activities (LTS) of the UN COPUOS. In this venue we are working on SSA-related guidelines that call for promoting techniques, and investigation of new methods, to improve the accuracy of orbital data for spaceflight safety; performing conjunction assessment during orbital phases of controlled flight; and promoting the use of common, internationally recognized standards when sharing orbital information on space objects.


So let me conclude by making the following points. If conflict extends into space, the right to explore and use space for peaceful purposes would be threatened.

The goal of our diplomatic efforts is to prevent conflict from extending into space in the first place. Working with our allies, industry partners and non-governmental experts is essential to our diplomatic goals. Moreover, space situational awareness is a critical foundational capability to help us achieve this goal and we need to do more of it.

Thank you for your time and attention.

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