Why Norms Matter More than Ever for Space Deterrence and Defense
Diplomacy and defense have always gone hand-in-hand, and space is no exception. Space has become a fundamental part of daily life and of U.S. national security, ranging from command and control to intelligence and navigation. As the uses of space grow in significance, so too has the question of how to keep space systems safe and secure, and one of the potential answers to that question is to fill in gaps in norms of responsible behavior for space. What may seem like a relatively niche topic actually supports a broad swath of U.S. strategic objectives and has become a central line of effort in protecting national security interests in the space domain. America’s space norm efforts have moved beyond broad public statements and into national defense policies and strategies.
In response, some commentators have questioned the value of space norms for defense and deterrence. After all, a norm cannot prevent a determined adversary from taking aggressive actions, nor can it intercept a missile or shield a satellite from attack. Criticisms include allegations that nonbinding norms are relatively toothless, that they can unnecessarily constrain U.S. behavior, or that bad actors will simply ignore norms and do what they want anyway. There is some validity in each of these critiques. Yet, norms do play a crucial role in space security, as they have in other domains for centuries.
Very few norms have been fully developed yet from a space security perspective, and further developing norms of behavior for space is an important project for defense and deterrence in the domain. While norms constrain some freedom of action, they can also play a key role in: dispelling confusion; facilitating coordination among allies and partners during crisis or conflict; and identifying and responding to aggression. These impacts can help achieve the ultimate space security goals of preventing conflict in space, persevering through conflict should it occur, and protecting the use of space for future generations in the United States and around the world.
While many of these dynamics have not been truly tested in space due to (thankfully) the lack of open warfare in the domain to date, similar norms have performed these roles in other domains for decades or centuries. Norm development is one of many tools that can and should be applied strategically to preserve stability and promote U.S. interests in space. While there are many potential norms that could be considered as components of a norm-enabled space security strategy, of particular value could be norms such as identifying “threatening” on-orbit behaviors, establishing lines of communication between satellite operators, developing standards for interoperability of systems and data, and promoting information sharing and resource provision to potentially vulnerable space actors. The benefits of space norms to deterrence and defense appear to outweigh the costs, and those benefits should not be ignored just because their effects are often subtle.
What’s in a Norm?
One of the greatest challenges in debating the value of norms for space is that there is no commonly accepted definition for what a norm is. Sometimes the term “norm” is used to refer only to nonbinding guidelines for behavior, while in other cases it is used most broadly. There can also be confusion over whether “norm” means “normal” (as in something that is commonly done) or rather “normative,” referring to a value judgement that some behaviors are good and others are bad. One definition adapted from academic literature gives a productive lens for thinking about norms in the space context as generally accepted standards of appropriate behavior.
Generally accepted standards of appropriate behavior can take on many different forms and can be established in many different ways, but the “generally accepted” part is key. Thus far, norms of behavior in space have been limited to broad legal principles such as avoiding “harmful contamination” of space, unwritten agreements such as respecting the right of satellites to “fly” over the territory of different countries on Earth, and nonbinding guidelines for limiting orbital debris and operating sustainably. As such, some senior leaders in the United States have characterized space as the “Wild, Wild West.” While space is not entirely a legal or diplomatic vacuum as that description implies, there are significant gaps, overlaps, and ambiguities leaving lots of room to grow in terms of building common expectations on what behaviors are acceptable or not.
The current space security norm development efforts pursued by the United States include a wide range of approaches. U.S. Space Command has publicized specific responsible behaviors that it models in operations, the United States has announced a unilateral commitment to not conduct destructive direct-ascent anti-satellite missile tests that has been mirrored by other countries and a widely supported U.N. resolution, and discussions in a U.N. open-ended working group have tried to build common understanding among countries on potential space security norms.
Cutting Through Confusion
Norms can help prevent crises based on miscommunication or misperception from escalating into conflict. Many tragedies and violent incidents have occurred due to failures of communication. For example, several commercial airliners have been shot down because they were misidentified as a military aircraft. In some cases, the pilot didn’t receive warnings to change course or was completely unaware that a military saw them as a threat and was about to shoot. There are already early signs of similar issues in space, such as China claiming SpaceX doesn’t answer messages when Starlink satellites get close to China’s crewed space station. Limits on space situational awareness — and a lack of clear and consistent means to contact relevant satellite operators in a crisis — create a dangerous foundation for perceived threats to spiral into hostile actions in space.
Norms help avoid or defuse these crises by ensuring that all space actors know which behaviors might be seen as threatening so benign actors can avoid them. Lines of communication and standards for space situational awareness can help operators resolve disputes and get a common picture of the situation. These kinds of norms provide off-ramps to avoid escalation when possible by providing alternatives to risk postures of shooting at potential threats first and asking questions later. Issues of defense and deterrence are difficult enough without the fog and friction of conflict: Norms can help cut through this fog, which may someday make the difference between peace and an unintended war.
Coordinating with Allies and Partners
Another important and often overlooked role for norms in defense is in coordinating actions among partners and allies. Friction between allies who are not on the same page operationally can be a major obstacle to acting as partners. In an infamous tale of the Napoleonic Wars, the Austrian army got encircled and defeated in 1805 reportedly because their allies, the Russians, were using a different calendar that put them twelve days behind. Today, coalitions are growing ever more complex, with operations often including participants from different services, countries, and commercial actors as well as militaries. The war in Ukraine has demonstrated the particular diversity of space actors who may participate in a conflict and indicates the difficulty of anticipating all potential partners. Norms help ensure diverse actors are already following similar standards for things like information sharing and system interoperability, removing potential challenges to coalition formation faster than having to resolve such issues bilaterally. In this broad sense, there are already numerous norms for describing activity in space, including for fundamental things like how to specify orbital parameters for satellites and debris objects.
Norms also help to mitigate the risk of technical or organizational “weak links” within a coalition. When there is no single leader to set rules and control quality for an entire group, norms can incentivize raising technologies and practices up to an acceptable minimal level across the team. This is particularly relevant as the Department of Defense partners with an increasingly diverse range of companies and especially non-traditional providers, some of which have fewer resources and less experience than others. For example, common cybersecurity standards for commercial space operators could minimize the possibility of “weak links” that could become targets of cyberattacks. Therefore, norms can help to make the interconnected space enterprise more resilient.
Identifying and Responding to Aggression
Perhaps most importantly, norms can help identify, deter, or respond to hostile behaviors. As senior national security space official Audrey Schaffer put it, norms “can play a critical role in detecting and responding to threats.” Violation of an internationally recognized norm may provide a signal of hostile intent or potential future escalation, enabling those threatened to monitor, prepare, and mobilize others for action. Norms also strengthen the application of rules of engagement by clarifying the definition of hostile or threatening acts and enabling decisions on self-defense. The existence of a norm alone is unlikely to stop a determined nation from hostile action, but clear norms accepted by multiple nations that have access to their diplomatic, military, and economic elements of national power can reduce the barriers to international responses to aggressive behaviors in space, thus making deterrence more credible and effective. The norm effect can range from generating political or economic support for a unilateral response to triggering an international coalition to punish or roll back the norm violator. When Russia broke norms of territorial integrity and began committing war crimes in Ukraine, the United States was able to help rally an international response including unprecedented sanctions on Russia, massive security assistance to Ukraine, and votes by 141 countries in the United Nations to condemn the invasion.
Even if the mere existence of a norm does not prevent bad actors from violating it, the use of norms to identify and organize collective responses to hostile behaviors helps to disincentivize violations. The measure of the strength of a norm is not whether it remains unviolated forever, but in the breadth and intensity of the response to a violation. As such, a well-developed norm will convey not only which behaviors are acceptable or unacceptable, but also demonstrate incentives and disincentives to motivate actors to follow the norm and impose consequences on those who do not. The pairing of incentives with specific behaviors is at the heart of norm development, even when the incentives are not explicit, and taking a strategic approach to appropriately pairing behaviors and incentives could greatly increase the comprehensiveness and effectiveness of norms for space.
This dynamic speaks to the larger relationship between diplomacy and war. Norms of behavior are means to achieve political ends, and they are a potential tool just like military weapons or fortifications. The pursuit of norms of behavior is not mutually exclusive with the development of military plans and capabilities, and the strategic use of both these tools in tandem can accomplish more in space defense and deterrence than either can apart. As Gen. Chance Saltzman, chief of space operations for the U.S. Space Force, put it: “We have the ability to live well within the responsible behaviors. We wrote the responsible behaviors around how we think business should be done. These are not handcuffs that prevent us from doing anything that we want to do.” Space security experts and decision-makers would do well to think of norms and defense not as in competition with each other, but as complementary parts of a strategic whole.
Because of the pace of progress in space today, if the United States does not play a leading role in supporting the development of norms of behavior for space, norms will develop without U.S. input. This raises the risk that the U.S. national security space enterprise would then be put in the position of choosing between complying with norms counter to U.S. interests or violating the norms and becoming subject to pressure, responses, and censure by the international community. Norms, when done right, can be helpful for defense and deterrence, but it still takes effort and cooperation to strike the right balance. Forfeiting a role in that discussion could also mean forfeiting the benefits of a strategically, environmentally, and politically sound norm regime.
Such a norm regime could be incredibly complex and feature a diverse range of norms. To address problems of confusion and unintended escalation during a crisis, key norms could include clarifying which behaviors in space would be seen as threatening and promoting the use of lines of communication and points of contact between operators. The norms on threatening behaviors can also contribute to the planning and coordination of responses to those threats. Standards for interoperability, norms for information sharing and threat education, and other norms for standards and resources to help vulnerable space actors protect themselves in space and cyberspace can make the whole of U.S. industry and allied coalitions more resilient.
Norms do not solve all problems of space security. They can, however, provide more stable and predictable paths to peace in a crisis, support coalitions and coordination, and enhance responses to threats. Current efforts to build norms are a vital component in a comprehensive U.S. strategy to ensure security and stability in space.
Robin Dickey is a member of the technical staff at The Aerospace Corporation’s Center for Space Policy and Strategy. She focuses on space policy and strategy issues related to national security, geopolitics, and international relations.