U.S. Advocates for Binding Rules on Behavior in Space

April 2021
By Nicholas Smith Adamopoulos

A U.S. space commander announced in February that officials from the State and Defense departments were in the process of drafting proposed language for a binding resolution regarding responsible behavior in space.​

“We’re going to prepare what we believe will be proposal language that will go to the UN and hopefully result in a binding resolution,” Maj. Gen. DeAnna Burt, commander of U.S. Space Command’s combined force space component, told Space News on Feb. 24. The United States is working with Australia, Canada, France, Germany, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom on the proposal, she said.

The language is being drafted in response to UN General Assembly Resolution 75/36, which was proposed by the UK and approved in December. The resolution seeks to define responsible behavior in space and produce mechanisms for holding parties accountable for their violations, including for space debris that may result from destruction of objects in space. The United Nations is gathering input from member states until May 3 for inclusion in a report to the General Assembly on the subject.

According to Burt, a successful international agreement would need to define hostile behavior and improve the transparency of future space missions, particularly for dual-use technologies. The United States is not seeking to ban specific weapons, she said.

“The Chinese and the Russians have already put weapons in space. So, I think we’re way past having a conversation about regulating them per se, which is why we focus on norms of behavior,” said Burt.

Moscow and Beijing proposed in 2008 and again in 2014 a draft treaty on the prohibition of weapons in outer space.
The United States has repeatedly refused to engage on the proposal, in part because the Russian-Chinese proposal would not specifically limit terrestrially based anti-satellite (ASAT) systems. (See ACT, May 2020.)

The 1967 Outer Space Treaty bans the stationing of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in outer space, prohibits military activities on celestial bodies, and details legally binding rules governing the peaceful exploration and use of space. That treaty does not address other types of weapons that might be used to destroy space objects, including orbiting satellites.

Over the past year, U.S. Space Command has become increasingly concerned by ASAT weapons tests it asserts were conducted by Russia. Moscow, the command says, held tests in May and December 2020, as well as an alleged test of a different type of space-based weapon in July. (See ACT, May and September 2020.)