Canada Needs a Strategy for Outer Space Security

By Victoria Heath, M.A. Candidate, Munk School of Global Affairs.

Outer space is, for lack of a better phrase, the “new frontier.” Today, eleven countries including Canada have space launch capability and over sixty countries operate satellites in space. In 1966 the United Nations adopted the Outer Space Treaty, which first outlined international space law.  However since then, attempts to create a more stringent regulation of outer space have been impeded by disagreements regarding space security. The most recent, the International Space Code of Conduct (first introduced by the European Union in 2008) has faced several roadblocks, including the United States uneasiness to adhere to provisions about military use in space.

Canada has benefited economically from the satellite industry, and the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) in 2012 reported that 80% of its space sector revenues came from satellite communications. Canada will also increasingly rely on space for different military, environmental and civilian activities. Therefore the security of satellites in space and the security of space itself are increasingly important to Canada. According to NASA, a main concern is the amount of debris in space where at least 20,000 pieces are larger than a softball. This orbital debris poses a direct threat to satellites due to possible collisions. If the access to space is diminished due to these debris threats Canada’s national interest will be compromised. Despite this importance however a global strategy on how to tackle the debris and other security threats has not been reached and Canada itself does not have a published National Security Space Strategy. The United States on the other hand, does. As well as France, Italy, China, Russia and Japan.

Today, the US arguably dominates the realm of space by sheer volume. They have the largest institutional space budget, reaching about $39 billion in 2013 according to an OECD report. Far ahead of China, the second largest, which only spent $6 billion in 2013. They also have the largest space manufacturing industry, with an estimated 80,000 employees and generated $36 billion in revenue in 2013. Therefore US interests will undoubtedly influence any global policy regarding space. The US Department of Defense published its own National Security Space Strategy and at the forefront of the policy is the idea that space is becoming increasingly “congested, contested and competitive.” The US has developed a strategy to deal with these issues. It is also concerned with the ability to exercise self-defense in space, including the development of missile defenses or anti-satellite weapons. A fear instigated in 2007 following a Chinese test of an anti-satellite missile, which ended in the destruction of an ageing Chinese weather satellite. Canada does not seem to share the same concerns, yet.

The Canadian Space Agency has developed a Space Policy Framework but an emphasis on security is notably missing. Mirroring the US’ language, this framework does state that space is “congested, contested and competitive” and recognizes the threat of satellite collision, but glances over other aspects of space security and doesn’t outline a strategic plan to deal with these issues.

Canada for many years has felt, perhaps rightly so, a sort of exceptionalism from the insecurity that other nations face. It is widely known as a peacekeeping nation, uninhibited by the security issues its neighbors face. Perhaps however this is more a façade Canadians like to believe about their country than reality. Following the Ottawa shootings in particular, this mindset was challenged and appears to be changing. Bill-C51, a controversial anti-terrorist legislation, was shown by an initial poll conducted in February to be supported by 80% of Canadian respondents, although this statistic may certainly be different today. Christian Leuprecht argues in a recent article, the bill is merely the Canadian government’s attempt to “catch up” to the rest of the world in regards to anti-terrorist legislation. Canada cannot however fall behind international security trends when it comes to threats in space and it cannot simply follow the US’ lead; the stakes are too high. As argued in a report published by the Canadian Defense and Foreign Affairs Institute in 2007, there are three reasons Canada should be concerned with space security:[VH1]

1)   The Earth functions within space, therefore any activities within space should concern every nation. In particular, satellites routinely pass over Canadian soil; therefore they can be a direct threat to Canadian citizens if any accidents were to occur.

2)   Outer space can also be a dangerous tool utilized by other states to attack Canada and therefore it is also important for Canadian defense and intelligence systems.

3)   The growing market for satellites and space technologies are important for Canada’s economy, particularly with the development of Quantum Valley in Waterloo, which is working on quantum satellite technologies.

Although this report was published in 2007, these threats still exist today. The amount of debris in space, as mentioned previously, is a significant threat to Canadian satellites. There is another fear regarding the militarization of space that the report refers to. In 2013, Prime Minister Harper appointed Walt Natynczyk, a retired military chief as the president of the Canadian Space Agency. This sparked fears by space advocates, such as Steven Staples, that Canada might be increasing its military involvement in space. If this is true, it may only be a symbolic reaction to the increased militarization of space in other space-faring nations, but as of now there appears to be no efforts by the Canadian government to create weapons for use in space. Between China, Russia and the US however, a galactic “arms race” appears inevitable. However there should be skepticism regarding the threats that face Canada in regards to attacks from other states using weapons in space. As of now, the most dire security threat for Canada is the debris in space that can significantly damage its satellites.

So what can Canada do? The US is considered the most advanced and capable space faring nation, and therefore it is easy to argue that the US should be left to deal with any security issues regarding outer space. Canada however, has a vested national interest as well, and due to its economic and security interests in space, it must be concerned with decisions made regarding outer space. In order to protect its national interests, Canada should:

1)   Create a comprehensive national security space strategy that would be a part of its Defense and Security S&T Strategy. It should take into account all of the security threats Canada faces regarding outer space, specifically debris.  The strategy should outline partnerships with other security space strategies, such as the EU, US, etc. This should be a priority of the Canadian Armed Forces military space program and the Director General (DG) Space.

2)   Continue to build private partnerships within Canada that may help serve their national interests, due to funding cuts to the CSA by the federal government and their insistence that the CSA reduce spending by 10% within the next three years. An example of this would be to continue building partnerships with “Quantum Valley” in Waterloo in order to promote innovation in more enhanced technology that will serve Canada’s security and economic interests. They should also continue to maintain partnerships with allies in order to promote intelligence sharing and military capabilities to offset any potential security gaps in its program. Currently, there are several efforts by the Canadian Armed Forces to utilize satellite technology for surveillance and military operations. These types of operations and partnerships should continue with the CSA’s involvement when necessary.

3)   Increase advocacy for the International Space Code of Conduct. Originally created by the EU in 2008, and revised in 2010, the Code of Conduct would establish “policies and procedures to minimize the possibility of accidents…or any form of harmful interference with other States’ right to the peaceful exploration and use of outer space” enforced by all states. The US opposed the Code in 2014 due to its language regarding the use of weapons in space for self-defense purposes. The Canadian government has already endorsed the Code but they must continue to pressure the US by any means to accept the Code in order to protect its own national interests. They can do this through several avenues, including the Space Cooperation Forum.

In order to promote Canada’s national interests in outer space the Canadian government must create a comprehensive strategy. As of now, their policy towards this issue is a “security of space” (meaning securing the access to and use of space) instead of focusing on potential security threats that may come from space or inhibit their assets in space. Other nations with space programs such as the US, China and Russia, have created national security strategies for outer space, while Canada seems to be taking an “out of sight, out of mind” approach. If Canada does not develop its own security strategy however, then they allow their national interests to be dictated by other nations and risk becoming irrelevant in this “new frontier.”

[VH1]The following points were paraphrased from the report.

Creative Commons Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic License  Photo by NOAA Photo Library


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