Editor’s note: In a city like Atlanta blessed with an abundance of universities, the global expertise contained within their halls can sometimes get overlooked.
That’s often the case at institutions like Georgia Tech and its Sam Nunn School of International Affairs, where world-renowned scholars are addressing issues vital to 21st-century global governance and national security — often behind closed doors or in esoteric journals.
The Atlanta Council on International Relations, which works closely with the school, has been drawing these experts out into the public realm with luncheons and breakfast events that give them a platform and conduit to the broader public.
The latest example was a Dec. 5 luncheon featuring Mariel Borowitz, who researches international space policy issues during an age when satellites have become integral not only to civilian and commercial communication but also to military readiness.
Unable to cover her lecture, Global Atlanta caught up with Dr. Borowitz via email to find out the current state of space policy and how prepared the U.S. is to address impending threats and potential opportunities. The following interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Global Atlanta: What are the most pressing challenges in international space policy for the U.S. right now, and what precipitated the Trump administration’s decision to launch a Space Force branch of the armed services by 2020? Is such a force needed, and if so, how should this force integrate with the rest of the military?
Mariel Borowitz: In the national security arena, one of the most pressing international space policy challenges is ensuring the sustainable use of outer space. The United States relies on space assets for civil and military communications, weather forecasts, military surveillance and reconnaissance, navigation and even international banking (which uses the timing signal of the GPS system).
There are currently more than 1,800 active satellites in orbit and more than 20,000 pieces of debris large enough to destroy a satellite in a collision. Furthermore, the United States, China, and Russia all have the capability to purposefully damage or destroy satellites in orbit. With such a large reliance on space, the U.S. has a large interest in ensuring that its assets are not subject to intentional or unintentional damage.
Space Policy Directive 3, signed by the president in June 2018, lays out some initial steps to address these issues. It encourages greater sharing of space situational awareness data — the information the United States and other groups collect to track where objects in space are and where they’re going. This can help to avoid accidental collisions and deter attacks. The United States is also looking to help shape the development of operational standards and best practices to promote responsible behavior in space among all space actors.
Given the growing importance of space assets in the U.S. economy and military, there has been discussion of re-organizing and elevating the position of space within the military for some time. (Much of this has been spearheaded by the House Armed Services Committee.)
The President’s directive to create a Space Force aligns with this discussion, although the debate about the most efficient form and timing for the re-organization continues. One challenge is that space assets are important to a large number of missions across the military. Therefore, there will need to be an effort to ensure that if the space mission is moved to a separate force, that space capabilities remain well integrated across the entire U.S. military.
Global Atlanta: How has the deterioration in the multilateral environment over trade and other issues spilled over into the space sector — or has it? What dangers does that present for the overall security situation, particularly when it comes to nonproliferation and nuclear issues? How important is collaboration in a frontier that no single country owns?
Dr. Borowitz: Although challenges in the multilateral environment inevitably affect other areas, international cooperation and discussion on space security issues has continued to move forward within the United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (UNCOPUOS).
Any nation that relies on space assets (including Russia and China) has an interest in minimizing the creation of debris and avoiding unintentional collisions in space, and discussions on best practices in these areas are ongoing.
Global Atlanta: China says its Beidou satellite system is operational, cutting its reliance on the U.S.-led GPS system. Was this inevitable, and is this table stakes in becoming a super power? What challenges will this present for the U.S. military’s deterrence capabilities, given that many weapons systems use GPS for guidance/precision? Is there any worry that China will begin to rival the U.S. in arms sales eventually because of this?
Dr. Borowitz: The United States, Europe, Russia, and China all operate full position, navigation, and timing satellite systems. While this does decrease reliance on the United States, it also creates redundancy, particularly for civil and commercial applications.
Many chip developers are already making their systems compatible with signals from multiple constellations. Although the United States takes steps to protect the military GPS signal from jamming, this type of interference with satellite systems continues to be a concern.
Global Atlanta: Beyond space tourism operators like Virgin Galactic, private companies like SpaceX are playing more of a role in the practical matters of reaching space, supplying the International Space Station, etc. Private satellite and rocket companies from Silicon Valley to India are using space for economic activities. Is global governance keeping up, and what are the threats/opportunities incumbent in giving the private sector a stronger role?
Dr. Borowitz: The Outer Space Treaty (1967) established the principle that states are responsible for all actions taken in space, meaning that nations must regulate commercial space activity within their country.
The United States and others are constantly trying to find the right balance between promoting commercial activity in space and ensuring safety, security and responsible action. There have been some issues – such as in January 2018, when Swarm Technologies launched its satellites on an Indian rocket after being denied a required license by the Federal Communications Commission.
The company was fined nearly $1 million and its actions may have longer-term ramifications for the industry. There are also concerns about the potential for debris creation and accidental collisions related to the launch of planned “mega-constellations,” such as the communications satellite constellation envisioned by SpaceX’s Elon Musk, which would include 7,000 small satellites. The President’s Space Policy Directive 2 deals with the need to re-examine regulations related to commercial space activity to streamline them and update them to address new challenges.
Global Atlanta: Georgia has a nascent space industry. Where are the areas where we can make the most impact and get the best bang for the taxpayer’s buck? Does our existing aerospace industry give us an advantage in this regard?
Dr. Borowitz: Georgia ranks among the top of the country in aerospace manufacturing. While much of this is focused on the aviation sector, there is a growing space sector, as well. Georgia has many strengths, including its existing industry, skilled workforce (Georgia Tech has one of the top aerospace engineering schools in the nation), proximity to space activity in other Southeastern states and friendly environment for entrepreneurship and industry.