UNITED24 - Make a charitable donation in support of Ukraine!


US Department of State

Briefing With Assistant Secretary for International Security and Nonproliferation Dr. Christopher A. Ford On the U.S.-Russia Space Security Exchange

Special Briefing
Dr. Christopher Ashley Ford, Assistant Secretary
Bureau of International Security and Nonproliferation
Via Teleconference
July 24, 2020

MR BROWN: Hey, good afternoon, everyone. It's been a busy week, but I'm happy we were able to schedule some time for this on-the-record briefing by our Assistant Secretary for International Security and Nonproliferation Dr. Christopher Ford, who is also performing the duties of the under secretary for arms control and international security.

We wanted to be sure Dr. Ford had the opportunity to speak with you to discuss the U.S.-Russia Space Security Exchange, which is set to take place in Vienna on July 27th. This will be the first formal bilateral engagement with Russia on space security since 2013. Assistant Secretary Ford will provide some brief opening remarks and then he'll take your questions. As a reminder, the content of this briefing is embargoed until the end of the call.

Dr. Ford, go ahead.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY FORD: Thanks very much, Cale. It's a pleasure to talk to you all. Thanks for all of you who are listening for being here to talk about what I think will be a very hopefully interesting and productive meeting in Vienna next week.

As some of you may recall, when I met with Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov last January in Vienna for our Strategic Security Dialogue with Russia, the two sides agreed to establish a U.S.-Russian dialogue on space security. It took a little longer to get those pieces put together and actually schedule the meeting because, of course, the pandemic intervened, but I'm pleased to say that, as you just heard, we will have an interagency delegation of U.S. officials sitting down at the beginning of next week with their Russian counterparts in Vienna to conduct the U.S.-Russia Space Security Exchange, which we're calling the SSE.

Our hope is that this meeting will allow us to explore ways to increase stability and security in outer space, as well as to advance the cause of developing norms of responsible behavior in that vital domain. We hope that this resumed channel for diplomatic engagement with Russia will complement the SSE that we are also – we also have underway with the People's Republic of China, which is a bilateral dialogue in which we have already met three times.

Our team in Vienna for this space dialogue will be led by a senior official from the Arms Control, Verification, and Compliance Bureau here at the State Department, and it includes participants not only from State but also from the Departments of Defense and Energy and the National Security Council staff, as well as the commander of the Space Operations Command at the new U.S. Space Force. The Russian side will include representatives from the ministry of foreign affairs, the ministry of defense, and the Russian space agency, Roscosmos.

Now, there is a lot for our teams to discuss on this space dialogue, of course. While our efforts are aimed at finding constructive paths forward for space security, we will certainly emphasize our great concern with ongoing Russian – as well as Chinese – efforts to weaponize the space domain. To be clear, Moscow and Beijing have already turned space into a warfighting domain, as I'm sure you've been following, especially in light of the U.S. Space Command's announcement yesterday about Russia having conducted another on-orbit weapons test on the 15th of July.

So even while both Russia and China engage in diplomatic gamesmanship over what they claim is "space arms control," in other words, both are fielding new anti-satellite weapons in order to hold U.S. and allied space services at risk. As SPACECOM's most recent announcement makes doubly clear, Russia, in what I would say is an amazingly hypocritical repudiation of its own diplomacy against the deployment of "weapons in outer space," Russia has already tested projectile-firing satellite weapons in orbit not just once, but now twice.

The U.S. considers unfettered access to and freedom to operate in space to be a vital interest, and we are committed to defending such space access and deterring any harmful interference with or attacks upon critical components of our space architecture. But I should emphasize that diplomacy is also important to us, and thus we hope that this space dialogue coming up next week in Vienna will be an opportunity for the U.S. and Russia to strengthen bilateral understanding of each other's policies and activities in outer space, and to advance the development of norms of responsible behavior there in order to avoid miscalculations or misperceptions that could lead to inadvertent escalation.

We've got a truly excellent space delegation that will be there on the ground. We are pleased to be having this dialogue with the Russians. And we hope it will be a productive meeting.

And with that, I look forward to your questions.

MR BROWN: Great. If you'd like to ask a question, dial 1 and 0. And for our first question, let's go to the line of Michael Gordon from The Wall Street Journal.

QUESTION: Chris, I have two questions for you. You emphasize that the goal next week is to develop norms for activity in space. Could you please give us a couple of examples, specific – of specific things that you would like to see worked out for – in this area? And also, you mentioned that discussions had previously been held with the Chinese. Could you please tell us when the last meeting was and what was achieved in those discussions? Thank you.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY FORD: Thanks for the question. The last bit is the simplest, and that is that the last SSE that we had with the Chinese was in the summer of 2019.

And as for your question about possible norms and approaches, we've suggested a number of things publicly and would be interested in hearing what our Russian counterparts think about such things. One of the things that I have talked about, for example, is whether it might not be possible to articulate norms of responsible behavior for outer space that are in some ways at least analogous to or perhaps inspired by some of the work that has been done by the international community already in connection with cyberspace.

That is to say perhaps we can look into making it clear that outer space is not a lawless and ungoverned territory, but in fact is – is one in which in wartime, for example, all the usual international humanitarian law or Law of Armed Conflict rules will apply there as well –principles of necessity and proportionality and distinction and humanity, for example; that space is not exempt from all of those elementary considerations in time of war. That is something that we've been very successful in articulating across the international community in connection with cyberspace, and it has yet to happen in connection with outer space, but I think that is both true and a sensible thing to emphasize and articulate. So that's something to be talking about, potentially, for example.

And it's also worth pointing out that although there are other means of operator-to-operator engagement across a range of military domains, and we've had a lot of experience over the years in working with folks such as our sort of Soviet counterparts back in the Cold War on how to have understandings of how to manage incidents that may occur and communications channels about – through which to talk about potential problems that may arise in the operational space, there isn't yet that kind of communications channel linkage or practice, if you will, in the space arena, and perhaps it's something to look into there as well.

So I say these a little – in a bit of a speculative way because, of course, we have yet to sit down with our Russian counterparts to talk about this, but we do think it's important to be exploring these kinds of ways to increase stability and predictability and crisis management mechanisms, if you will, in the space domain, and look forward to seeing what can be done in moving that forward.

MR BROWN: Great. So for our next question, let's go to the line of Arshad Mohammed from Reuters.

QUESTION: Thank you. Two things: One, are you yourself leading the U.S. team? And two, will there be any discussions between you and Sergey Ryabkov or between other U.S. officials and Ryabkov on broader arms control matters, including New START, next week in Vienna?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY FORD: Okay. Well, on the – on the first part of your question, I will not be myself going. This is being conducted at a slightly lower level. The head of the U.S. space delegation will be an official from the Arms Control, Verification, and Compliance Bureau here at the Department of State, and I will not myself be going.

As to engagements with Deputy Foreign Minister Ryabkov, I have invited him to participate in another Strategic Security Dialogue of the sort that we did back in January. We haven't worked out those details yet, but that is an outstanding invitation from the U.S. side to the Russian side, and hopefully we can be working something of that sort in place soon.

But I would be clear also that the – on the U.S. side, things have changed a little bit since January when we had the last engagement. At that time, we talked about a range of issues with our Russian counterparts, including the future – the potential future for arms control engagement between our two parties, and potentially China. Since that time, we have in the U.S. system a new special presidential envoy who has been appointed to take on the trilateral arms control negotiation portfolio, and there is a separate channel that has already begun to meet with the Russians, and with a bit of luck we'll also be meeting with the Chinese on moving the arms control agenda forward.

And so I will not be engaged in those engagements, but to the degree that I am still in the position that I am now, I will – I anticipate being involved in the next strategic security engagement, which will not cover those arms control issues. So we're developing two parallel tracks, at least for the moment, and that's the state of play as they are right now.

MR BROWN: Next, let's go to the line of David Sanger, New York Times.

QUESTION: Thanks very much and thanks, Chris, for doing this. Two related questions to this: So is this a situation, like the one with New START, where it doesn't make any sense to have an agreement just with the Russians if the Chinese don't play? In other words, can you imagine a bilateral rules of the road of the kind you described rather than a trilateral one?

And secondly, I was a little bit confused by your cyber analogy here because the cyber rules of the road haven't been all that well established, and there's a lot of differentiation between what the Russians and the Chinese believe is an acceptable form of behavior, acceptable targets and what the U.S. position is. So if I was wondering if you could just play that analogy out for a moment, because I was having a hard time understanding what it was you are hoping they would replicate.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY FORD: Well, in the cyber context, I would point you to a number of Group of Governmental Expert – GGE – engagements that have been taking place under UN auspices, adopting consensus reports, and I believe in all these cases both Russian and Chinese participants have been part of the GGEs in – on cyberspace security. And over the course of the last – certainly maybe in the – within the last decade – I've forgotten exactly when they started, but 2011, '13, '15, something like that – there have been a number of I think very productive articulations of the idea that law of armed conflict principles, for example, would apply in a cyber war, that there's nothing sort of special and uniquely exempted from law of war considerations about cyberspace.

And my suggestion was merely that we may be able to think and say similar things about outer space in ways that would add to our – to stability and appropriately rule-governed behavior, or at least encourage appropriately rule-governed behavior in outer space as well. So it's – there will be perhaps different specific ways in which those principles might apply in outer space. They always apply slightly differently from one domain to the next. That's true across the range of military operational law, but I think there's still probably a good deal we can do to try to think through what might be possible in the space arena.

As for the question of China's involvement, obviously, as the – as I think that GGE example suggests, developing norms for responsible behavior certainly should be more than just a bilateral thing, but I think it should be more than just a trilateral thing as well. What we have had success with in other arenas, as I indicated, is getting quite a few countries together from a variety of different perspectives to ensure that when one articulates a norm of responsible behavior, it has a bit – it has the kind of heft and credibility that you would want it to do. And so what we would presumably be doing at some point is working with as many essentially like-minded parties as possible to build a growing consensus around appropriate norms of what is and what is not responsible behavior.

There's no reason that cannot begin bilaterally, and – so there's no reason there could not be all sorts of bilateral and various plurilateral engagements to move these forward over time. But this has to start someplace, and we figure it – presumably a good place to start is with the most prominent space mischief-maker right now, and we can talk perhaps in a moment about the various strange and disturbing things that Russia has been doing on orbit and – that I alluded to before, but there's no reason not to start in talking with our Russian colleagues about this.

And I would also say that – well, that's probably plenty for now, but I mentioned communications channels, and of course one doesn't have to have a massively multilateral communications channel. It's probably much more feasible to start with various bilateral linkages, and to the degree that Russia is doing some of these strange and dangerous things on orbit almost as we speak – in the last couple of weeks, for example – being able for our operators to talk to their operators as potential problems arise and potential misunderstandings might develop – that would be extremely valuable on a bilateral basis, and perhaps that's something we can also talk about next week in Vienna.

MR BROWN: Next let's go to the line of Jennifer Hansler, CNN.

QUESTION: Hi, thank you for doing this. I wonder if there's been any discussion or if there will be any discussion of specific costs if Russia does continue these provocative actions in the space sphere. Thank you.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY FORD: Well, you won't be surprised that I won't be telegraphing any such things in advance. That's usually not thought to be a wise way to do it in its specifics, but we have been and will continue to be very clear that we do consider access to space to be in our vital national interest. It is something that we've been very clear about for a long time. It's spelled out in the National Security Strategy. We've re-emphasized it across a range of policy pronouncements, including the National Security Space Strategy. It is in our interest and it is our policy to deter and to prevent and, if necessary, to respond appropriately to threats against our space assets or critical components of our overall space architecture, and we've tried to communicate that very, very clearly to all concerned. So I think it's safe to say that in the event that such attacks or threats were to happen, we – we'll certainly reserve the right to respond in a time, place, and manner of our choosing, but we will respond and we think that these things must be taken extremely importantly. And deterrence across all of its potential domains of conflict is an important part of U.S. policy.

MR BROWN: Great. For our next question, let's go to the line of Dmitry Kirsanov from TASS.

QUESTION: Hello. Can you hear me?

MR BROWN: We can hear you. Go ahead.

QUESTION: Thank you so much for doing the call. Mr. Secretary, I wanted to ask about a potential legally binding ban or treaty on space. As far as I remember – and I'm not an expert on that by any stretch of imagination – but as far as I remember, the Russians and the Chinese suggested this, offered this idea like a number of times in the past, and those attempts were rebuffed time and time again by the United States. So how do you square this with the talk about a necessity to do something about this, if – I mean, if the attempts were made to sort of create this mechanism to prevent deployment of weapons in space and everything?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY FORD: Well, it is certainly the case that Russian and Chinese diplomats have been very creative in coming up with bad ideas about space arms control. Our hope is to pursue good ideas about how to find a better way to make space a more predictable and stable and safe environment, and to preserve access to it.

The problem with some of the things that have been promoted by Moscow and Beijing in this respect – there are multiple problems, I guess, but one of them is that they attempt to approach the space domain in a sort of traditional and reflexive arms control sort of way of defining a space weapon then purporting to ban it. That sounds nice on paper until you think about it too much, and the challenge of course is that it is virtually impossible adequately to define what a space weapon is in the first place. And even if you could, it's almost impossible to verify that anyone would be complying with such a rule if you put it in place.

So for that reason alone, space arms control as conceived in that way seems clearly to be at best a nonstarter and at worst a very dangerous proposition because it would purport to offer controls and a solution to the problem without actually doing so. Another problem of this, of course, is that the proposals that they have made so far seem to fail to address those very sorts of terrestrially based – that is to say earth-based – anti-satellite weapons that both Russia and China have already built and tested and deployed. And so the – from our perspective, promoting bad and unworkable arms control ideas that, oh, by the way, exempt counter-space capabilities that you already have is actually a sign of unseriousness about space arms control.

And so what we are hoping is that we can persuade both Moscow and Beijing, and frankly a great many other countries, all of the spacefaring nations, to come together and recognize the futility of those kinds of silly games, but also come together in a really productive way to articulate standards of behavior that will help make space a safer place and assure access to all, as we in theory all believe and have signed up to, committed – committed ourselves to supporting under, for example, the Outer Space Treaty and the principle that space should be freely accessible to all. So we think there's a better way to do this, and we are firmly committed to resisting bad and dangerous and disingenuous efforts in arms control in space.

MR BROWN: We have one more person in our queue, so if you want to ask a question, dial 1 then 0. For now, let's go to the line of Kristina Anderson.

QUESTION: Thank you for doing the call. My question was answered earlier. Thank you.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY FORD: If I could just add, as a footnote to my previous comment, I mean, the problem here is not just the introduction of sort of mischievous ideas that don't actually address to problem. I mean, the problem here is also very fundamentally the full-bore, full-throttle development of very dangerous capabilities that both Russia and China have been doing. I mean, the militarization of the space domain, the weaponization of space, is unfortunately well-advanced, and we find ourselves in the position of trying to figure out what to do in response to that weaponization. And just since I've come back into the Executive Branch, for example, there have been a number of instances which – really quite dramatic, particularly with Russia, that have – that I think ought to alarm anyone around the world who is concerned about ensuring that mankind still continues to have access to space in all the ways that have become so important for our economic prosperity and communications with each other and all sorts of important things.

Back in 2017, when I had just come back into the Executive Branch, for example, at that point Russian military officials openly admitted that they were working on missiles to destroy satellites. We saw a concrete example of that more – relatively recently in April of this year with the test of the – of a direct-ascent anti-satellite system by the Russian Federation. We also heard them earlier this year say publicly that their new S-500 air defense system can also be used as an anti-satellite weapon. We have – we've seen them talking – President Putin has said that anti-satellite weapons, in his words, are – I've forgotten exactly the phrasing, but he's made it very clear that he regards them to be acceptable in the political and military respect. And they are clearly developing anti-satellite systems of – at a very fast pace.

Most dramatically, as the Space – U.S. Space Command's recent announcement underlines, there have been actual on-orbit tests of projectile-firing satellite weapons by the Russian Federation within the last year or so, back – or I've said – last couple of years. Back in late 2017, there was an example in which Kosmos 2521 fired a projectile through space in ways that were very clearly a weapons test. And – but just a couple of weeks – just recently on July 15th, Kosmos 2543 also fired a projectile through space. So these are clearly on-orbit weapons tests of precisely the sort that Russia and China claim that it is the objective of their diplomacy to prevent, and yet – yet clearly the Russians are doing this already in orbit. So I want to make sure that we don't forget the context here of a space domain that is being furiously weaponized by both Moscow and Beijing, going back to China's 2007 ASAT test which created all sorts of dangerous space debris that still make the low orbit – lower orbit area a much more dangerous place than would otherwise have been the case.

That's the context in which we all need to remember the importance of articulating norms of responsible behavior, because it should be very clear that what I am describing they are doing is in no way responsible behavior. And so hopefully with a bit of engagement, we can begin to get a handle upon articulating better ways forward and to find ways to communicate with them about problems that may arise to keep those problems from being any worse than they have to be. But one should not forget the context of modern – of weaponization of space that is already well advanced thanks to the choices being made in the Kremlin and in Zhongnanhai in Beijing.

MR BROWN: Great. We have had some others join the queue, so if we could go to the line of Julian Borger from The Guardian.

QUESTION: Hi. Thanks very much. You said earlier you might be able to provide some more details of these two incidents, 2017 and July 15th. Can you say anything about what is known about these projectile launches, anything about technology? We understand that this was a satellite launch late last year that then burst another satellite and then fired a projectile. Is there anything you can say about the details?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY FORD: Well, probably not too much more than I have. I would refer you to the Space Command for what details are available. In effect, both are very similar sort of types of activity where you have sort of one satellite – I think there's sort of the mother satellite, and then there's a daughter satellite that then fires a projectile. In the first instance back in '17, I believe it was Kosmos 2519 that deployed a subsatellite that was Kosmos 2521, and 2521 maneuvered around a bit as I recall. And then it fired another object. I think it was declared at the time as 2523, but think of it as the projectile for simplicity's sake. So the – so 2521 showed its ability to essentially fire some loose outer space analogy to a bullet, and then you saw a very similar sort of thing going on very recently, as Space Command has declared, and which I believe is verifiable if you look at the Space-Track.org website, since many of these orbital trajectories are closely tracked by hobbyists as well as government and you can actually verify a lot of these movements if you know what you're doing by looking at that publicly accessible website.

But the most recent one on July 15th, according to the Space Command, was another on-orbit weapons test and it involved the satellite 2543, Kosmos 2543, also firing a projectile. I don't know that I can tell you much more than that about them, but clearly anyone who is a – if you're familiar with the space domain, you'll know that these are – any satellite is intrinsically a very, very delicate bit of machinery operating in a zero gravity or near zero gravity environment and zooming around at extraordinary orbital velocities. In that context, it doesn't take much of a collision to cause absolutely catastrophic damage. I like to say there's no such thing a fender bender up there. And so the idea of a projectile-firing weapon, it – the kinetic energies involved are potentially just catastrophic.

And this is a very clear signal that the Russians have made, and you might ask yourself why they are choosing to make this signal. It is not as if this all occurs in secret. Lots of people can watch the orbital domain. So what they're doing is signaling to the world that they are able to destroy satellites in orbit with other satellites, it would appear. That is a very disturbing, provocative, dangerous, and ill-advised thing for them to be doing. And we hope that we can convey that message to them and work on a better way for countries to show appropriate restraint and responsible behavior in orbit, because this is a sort of thing that could get out of hand and go very badly rather quickly in the future.

MR BROWN: Okay, we may have time for one or two more. Next question will go to David Wainer, Bloomberg.

QUESTION: Thank you. You mentioned that one of the goals of these talks would be to improve communication even, even just having the operators on both sides being able to talk. Can you just elaborate a little bit on what sort of communications you'd be able to have and what the chances of miscalculation could be without these sort of communications? Thank you.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY FORD: Well, I'm not sure I'm in a position to speculate about particular ways of doing it. I mean, fundamentally these are things that parties need to negotiate between themselves, and it needs to plug into each side in a way that is most useful for that side as part of a communications channel. So I think if we were to develop any such thing with the Russians or the Chinese or anyone else, the details would have to be subject to much negotiation. And for these purposes, I think it's probably not possible a priori to say what the right answer is.

But I would point out that leaders in Washington and Moscow have had the ability to, in the nuclear arena, to talk to each other at the most senior levels via the famous hotline, for example, since as early as 1963. We've also had since 1987 a series of treaty data exchange mechanisms – nuclear risk reduction centers, for example, that have been used for a variety of purposes, often very, very usefully indeed, even in crisis and not just for routine exchanges. So there are also precedents for operational deconfliction in various theaters around the world – I think of Syria, example – and a long tradition of explicit agreement, for example, between the U.S. and the Soviet Union during the Cold War going back to the Incidents at Sea agreement, where there were actual methodologies developed between the two sides about how to – what to do and how to handle things in the event that operational forces came into contact in a sort of problematic way in the maritime domain.

So there are lots of precedents going back many years that one could draw upon or be inspired by. I think how it works in the space arena will probably have to be pretty space-unique, but the principle I think is quite sound, and this is something that I think it will be very useful for us to be discussing with our spacefaring counterparts, and particularly with Russia given all the strange and dangerous things that it is doing in orbit these days.

MR BROWN: Okay. Last question, bringing it full circle, Mike Gordon just queued back up, so let's go to his line.

QUESTION: Chris, I'd just like to ask you a follow-up question from your – one of your previous points. While it might be difficult to define a space object or a space weapon, you don't seem to have – the U.S. Government doesn't seem to have any problems identifying when an ASAT test has taken place. You've given some examples, and the SPACECOM website has press releases detailing Russian direct-ascent ASAT tests and on-orbit ASAT tests. Why don't you seek to negotiate an agreement that would ban ASAT tests, since they're such a concern? From a security standpoint, you seem to be seeking a voluntary arrangement in which parties would refrain from doing that. Why not seek a legal arrangement?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY FORD: Well, to some degree, ASAT tests – I mean, it's – I see this a little bit like the old Potter Stewart comment about how you can't define it very well, but you know it when you see it. If Russia, as they did in April, fires a missile from a cosmodrome that flies straight up in the air and smashes a satellite to smithereens, or if China did the same thing in 2007 for example, it's pretty clear what that is. But being able to identify that as an ASAT test is not the same thing as being able to define the outer boundaries for purposes of the prohibition as to what an ASAT test is.

One of the problems in space is that if it can move in or through space at all, it is potentially an ASAT. And I would – if you have a space launch capability, in effect you have to some degree a space kill capability. And how it is that you apply a weapon-style prohibition in a technological arena in which anybody who can put a satellite into space can send that satellite smashing into another satellite, I – it doesn't seem like that is likely to be anything other than a fool's errand from a definitional and prohibitory perspective, even though it is always very clear – or it is often very clear in particular cases that an ASAT test has occurred.

So we think that that is actually a great way to spin wheels and not get much accomplished for a long time, or not answer the problem you think you have. And so the better way to approach this, certainly for the moment, is to come at it from the perspective of norms of responsible behavior, because I think we probably can find really useful things to say – for example, this issue of satellites maneuvering up next to each other in a context in which they can apparently fire projectiles, or just the intrinsic difficulty – unless you're very good at your job – of doing close proximity on-orbit maneuvering, for example.

There was an episode I think late last year where a couple of Russian satellites were maneuvering very close to each other, after which a bunch of other objects appeared. I don't know exactly what it was, but it gives every appearance of being debris potentially from a collision. If – there are – in that context, perhaps we can say useful things about how it is not responsible behavior to maneuver your satellite in certain ways in connection with or around others. I don't know exactly what those ways would be; that would have to be worked out between operators who know much more about the space domain in its fine-grained details than I do. But there may be things we can usefully say about what the right sorts of behaviors are that would allow us both to encourage those behaviors and to have a baseline against which to measure things that people do in order to judge them to be irresponsible behaviors. Massive debris-producing tests might well be a really big problem. We've decried that in the past from China, for example.

And there are probably lots of useful things we can say, but I wouldn't want to try to get stuck in the kind of definitional conundra that I fear even something as seemingly simple as an ASAT test might get us stuck.

MR BROWN: All right. Thanks, Dr. Ford, for your time today and for briefing everyone. Thanks to those who joined from the press corps. And this concludes the call, so the embargo on the contents is lifted. Thanks, and have a great rest of your afternoon and great weekend.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY FORD: Thanks very much, everybody.

Join the GlobalSecurity.org mailing list