Norms Must Be Established In Space
by Todd Lopez, DOD News
December 18, 2022
The United Nations approved a resolution
calling on nations not to conduct destructive, direct-ascent
antisatellite missile tests. The United States agreed to the
resolution, while China and Russia were among just nine countries
that voted against it.
Refraining from conducting those kinds
of tests in space, in part, prevents the creation of new and
dangerous space debris.
John F. Plumb, the assistant secretary of
defense for space policy, said the agreement not to conduct such
tests is just one of many norms that will need to be established in
space to make that domain safe for everybody who wants to operate
"Voting against it ... could be for all
sorts of reasons ... I'm not giving them [Russia and China] an
excuse, [but] you don't have to vote for it to comply with it. You
don't have to vote for it to have some version of it that you might
enforce." Plumb said during a discussion at the Center for Strategic
and International Studies on December 14, 2022.
Norms in space, he said, can be established
without a vote.
An artist's rendering shows an unidentified spacecraft with
solar panels displayed above an earth like planet with a
NASA space shuttle with its bay doors open in the background. (Illustration provided by NASA)
As the U.S. and other nations move into
space, there will need to be norms established just as there are
norms in place for operations on land, in the air, at sea, and even
under the sea, Plumb said.
"We have established, over long
periods of time, norms at sea to avoid collision [and] norms in the
air to avoid collisions. Norms undersea. All sorts of places—ground,
surface, air, subsurface— [in] any operational domain," Plumb said.
Those established behaviors, he said, do
more than just avoid collisions. They also provide a way for
everybody operating in a domain to know when another actor’s
intentions are hostile.
"[They] give you an understanding of
if someone is accidentally or, frankly, intentionally violating
those norms," Plumb said. "It gives that trigger ... to let you know
something is amiss here; we need to be on guard and be careful of
Norms on the sea have existed for
generations, Plumb said. In the air, for a little over 100 years.
But in space, they must be established, because it is a relatively
new domain for many of the nations and businesses operating there
"There are all sorts of commercial companies operating
all sorts of craft ... the number is going up," he said. "I think
the more we can develop norms that make sense for protection of a
safe, secure, stable space environment, the better it is for all
spacefaring nations. It lowers the risk of miscalculation and
potential escalation, accidental escalation."
With so many
entities operating in space — many in the U.S. and many that are
partners or aspiring partners of the federal government, Plumb said
an issue his office is tackling is the over classification of
information in the space domain.
Over classification of
information — where information is marked at a higher classification
than it might need to be — makes it more difficult to share
information with mission partners, including partner nations, other
federal partners, and commercial entities.
"I think there's
clearly industry ramifications," he said. "Especially companies that
might have to build entire architectures of classified information
handling that can't talk to other parts of their company. We have to
solve these problems so we can have our industrial base be able to
An artist's rendering shows an unidentified spacecraft above earth with a
NASA space shuttle below it. (Illustration provided by NASA)
Addressing the issue of over classification is
one of the priorities of the department, Plumb said.
"I ran a
... summit for internal DOD [Defense Department] space stakeholders
and [intelligence community] stakeholders focused on what are those
things that are limiting our ability to do deeper operational
cooperation with our spacefaring allies," Plumb said. "And it turned
out that most of the problems there are related to
over classification because ... some things are classified in a way
that I cannot share them with allies, even if they're highly
Plumb said his office is working with the
intelligence community on reducing some of the classification issues
so information can be better shared with operational partners.
"That is a huge, huge problem for us where we're really starting
to dig into," he said. "And when I talk about that DOD/IC
[intelligence community] cooperation, this is one of those things
that is ... it's the right time, it's the right place, it's the
right window of opportunity to fix it."
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