Canada and space security diplomacy: getting back into the game

Hill Times | 26 November 2018

Despite the rapid expansion in the use of outer space and a disturbing deterioration in relations among major space powers, the Canadian government lacks a clear foreign policy for space security.

There was a time when Canada was known for its activism on space security issues in the international arena. As an early adopter of satellite technology, Canada appreciated the importance of preserving a safe and secure operating environment in outer space. This acknowledged interest was reflected in Canada’s diplomacy. Among the measures that prime minister Pierre Trudeau advocated during his Peace Initiative of 1983- 84 was a ban on high-altitude anti-satellite weapons recognizing the risk that the debris created by such weapons would pose for all space operations (a risk that has only increased significantly in the interim as use of space has grown exponentially with some 1800 satellites currently active).

In tandem with its diplomatic initiative, the Canadian government invested in a major study of the feasibility of utilizing satellites to verify future outer space arms control agreements. This study, known as PAXSAT, concluded that it would be feasible to provide such verification via space-based technology.

The organizing principle behind Canadian diplomacy of that era was support for the non-weaponization of outer space. The centrality of this objective is best understood against the backdrop of two realities affecting space security. One was the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, the crucial foundational treaty that provided a special status for outer space as a “global commons” to be used for “peaceful purposes” and which prohibited the stationing of weapons of mass destruction in orbit (but significantly was silent on how other forms of weaponry were to be treated).

The other was the strategic competition between the contending superpowers (U.S.S.R. and U.S.A.) that was fuelling R&D on ASAT and missile systems, most notably president Ronald Reagan’s “Strategic Defence Initiative” that envisioned placing hundreds of weapons into space. The government of prime minister Brian Mulroney declined to join the U.S. in this project. It was a polite rejection that was repeated a generation later in 2005 when the government of prime minister Paul Martin refused to join the ballistic missile defence system being pursued by the Bush administration. In both cases, concerns as to how the U.S. missile defence plans might compromise the non-weaponized status of outer space loomed large in the Canadian government’s decision to decline becoming a partner in this enterprise.

Canada in the 2000s was diplomatically active in pursuit of the goal of the non-weaponization of space. At the UN and the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva, Canada was a leader on issues of space security. Importantly, it was seen as trying to help bridge the gaps between the positions adopted by the major spacefaring states such as Russia, China and the U.S. In 2007, and, again in 2009, Canada submitted working papers setting out proposals for confidence building measures in support of preserving a peaceful operating environment in outer space. One proposal was for states to make a political commitment not to: (i) attack any object in space; (ii) deploy any weapon in space; and (iii) use a satellite to attack another space object. These three “pledges” represented a practical way forward at a time when the space security community was divided between proponents of a treaty prohibiting the placement of weapons in outer space (co-sponsored by Russia and China) and those favouring modest, safety-oriented measures as represented at the time by the EU’s proposed International Code of Conduct on outer space activities. Regrettably, these proposals seemed to have represented the apogee of Canada’s diplomatic engagement, which fell off sharply thereafter. With no effort to promote these proposals to other states or explore other approaches Canada’s engagement in space diplomacy declined.

This retreat from diplomatic activism was evident in other ways as well. At the beginning of the 2000s the Canadian Foreign Ministry had been an eager partner with the Vancouver-based Simons Foundation in funding two major projects relating to space security: an annual international symposium on space security held in Geneva and an annual publication entitled Space Security Index that provides a survey of developments in the use of outer space and their implications for space security. Under the previous government the contributions of the Foreign Ministry were reduced and soon terminated. These projects have had to progress with reduced resources and the lack of Canadian governmental engagement.

Despite the rapid expansion in the use of outer space and a disturbing deterioration in relations among major space powers, the Canadian government lacks a clear foreign policy for space security. The Defence Policy Review outcome of June 2017, which contains a forward-looking section on Canadian Forces engagement in space, also pledges DND’s active support for Global Affairs’ diplomatic efforts to preserve space for peaceful purposes. It remains to be seen whether Canada will resume past leadership by developing and implementing such a strategy.

_Paul Meyer is a former Canadian diplomat is affiliated with Simon Fraser University and The Simons Foundation. He is also a founding member of the Outer Space Institute (