Waste of Space

135 million pieces of junk are orbiting Earth at 18,000 mph -- and U.S. space dominance is in danger of being ripped to shreds.

By the time the film Gravity won seven Academy Awards in March, casual viewers probably knew it as much for its arresting visual imagery as for its lengthy list of technical errors. Amplified by the Twitter feed of celeb astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, space watchers identified problems with Sandra Bullock's hair (why wouldn't if float in a zero-G environment), and why would the Hubble telescope and International Space Station have the same sight lines (given they are over 100 miles apart). However, the one tweet from deGrasse Tyson that got overlooked was that the movie was plausible: "The film #Gravity depicts a scenario of catastrophic satellite destruction that can actually happen."

The problem of orbital space debris is one that I focused on for a new Council on Foreign Relations report on "Dangerous Space Incidents." Over the past nine months, I had the opportunity to speak with many U.S. government officials and staffers, and non-governmental experts, who work on national security space issues. One repeated concern was that the sort of space debris that threatened George Clooney and Sandra Bullock in Gravity was among the most underappreciated global commons challenges facing the world. Moreover, because the United States remains the predominant actor in space -- with 43 percent of active satellites and 75 percent of global space funding -- it has the most to lose from a space domain further littered with space debris.

There are some pertinent facts about space debris that demonstrate the pressing danger. Roughly three-quarters of all space debris -- 23,000 items over 10 centimeters across, 300,000 measuring between 1 and 10 centimeters, and over 135,000,000 fragments less than 1 centimeter -- is presently found in low earth orbit (LEO), the area extending from 99 to 1,200 miles above the Earth. Traveling at an average speed of 18,000 miles per hour, even small pieces of debris can damage or destroy satellites and spacecraft. At that speed, even a half-inch piece of debris would have the kinetic force of a bowling ball thrown 300 miles per hour, as NASA describes it. (This is one thing Gravity gets very wrong: the actors would not have been able to see the debris moving toward them.)

The problem is that space debris tends to hang around. At lower altitudes, it can be pulled by the Earth's gravity within years and burn-up upon re-entering the atmosphere. Higher up, it can remain for decades or centuries and collide with other pieces of debris or spacecraft, thus exponentially creating more debris in a process known as the Kessler Syndrome. In 2011, the National Research Council estimated that portions of the space debris environment had already reached this "tipping point," with enough in orbit to continually collide and create even more debris.

Debris poses the most acute threat to critical U.S. space assets that reside in LEO, where, not coincidently, half of the world's 1,100 active satellites reside, including many essential for U.S. government and military missions. Satellites where the greatest amount of LEO space debris exists (at an altitude of 370-620 miles about the Earth), include: The Air Force's ORS-1, used for reconnaissance of Afghanistan and Central Asia; the Missile Defense Agency's NFIRED, which gathers high resolution data to help validate boost phase intercept simulations; dozens of remote-sensing satellites operated by U.S. intelligence agencies; and the Iridium constellations of 66 communications satellites that provide global data transfer and encrypted voice communications for U.S. military and intelligence agencies.

Historically, space debris had been produced in small amounts from human activity, including the upper stages of launch vehicles, disabled spacecraft, dead batteries, solid rocket motor waste, and refuse from human missions. But while it took 40 years to produce the first 10,000 pieces of softball-sized debris, it required less than a decade for the next 13,000. This recent increase was due in part to two worrying incidents in particular, which, according to NASA, combined to increase the number of total space objects by over 60 percent.

The first resulted from human error or negligence. In February 2009, an active U.S. Iridium communication satellite and a defunct Russian satellite, which were predicted to pass each other 1,900 feet apart, unexpectedly collided 500 miles above Siberia. This event unintentionally caused two objects in space to break up into 2,100 pieces, each larger than 10 centimeters.

The second was an act of human malevolence. In January 2007, China conducted a direct ascent anti-satellite test (ASAT) against its defunct Fengyun-1C weather satellite, which instantly created 4,500 pieces of space debris, some 3,000 of which remain in orbit. There is disagreement about why China might have done this, and who authorized it, given that it was a self-inflicted harm, since 65 percent of China's 107 functioning satellites reside in LEO.

In his memoir, former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates wrote of the test: "We would later conclude that this action had been taken by the People's Liberation Army (PLA) without the knowledge of the civilian leadership in Beijing." Meanwhile, Gregory Kulacki and Foreign Policy contributor Jeffrey Lewis had earlier determined: "Multiple sources confirm these [PLA] managers did not make the decision to test by themselves. The decision was carefully vetted.... An internal report laying out the pros and cons worked its way up the bureaucracy for review and comment before finally being put before the ultimate decision makers." The lack of transparency into who authorized the test, and whether they knew that it would create such debris, raises the troubling prospect of what might precipitate similar space events conducted by China.

When U.S. intelligence agencies picked up evidence of the 2007 test and notified the Bush administration, the White House considered asking China to refrain, but ultimately chose to do nothing, fully expecting that the intercept attempt would fail -- as previous tests had in 2005 and 2006. According the diplomatic cables leaked by Wikileaks, soon after the debris-causing 2007 test, Chinese officials assured their American counterparts that they would conduct no additional ASAT tests. However, China did conduct similar intercept tests in 2010 and 2013, under the guise of hit-to-kill mid-course missile defense tests. More ominously, former Air Force officer and space expert Brian Weeden determined that, in May 2013, China tested the rocket component of a new direct ascent ASAT weapons system derived from a road-mobile ballistic missile -- representing a significant development in China's capabilities.

The reason that U.S. officials are particularly worried about the methodical and incremental escalation of China's potentially debris-creating ASAT capabilities is that it bears similarities to the timeline of U.S. and Soviet ASAT weapons testing that dates back to the 1960s. Indeed, this makes it difficult for Washington to tell Beijing to refrain from an activity that it conducted extensively in the past, particularly given the immense secrecy that shrouds U.S. military space activities. However, should China -- or other space-faring countries, such as North Korea, Iran, or India -- conduct one or more mass-debris creating ASAT tests, certain high-demand portions of LEO could be nearly uninhabitable.

One of those activities is well known, and serves to mitigate the global commons challenge of space debris. The U.S. Strategic Command's Joint Space Operations Center (JSpOC), which tracks space objects over 10 centimeters, has formal agreements with 41 commercial space operators and five countries (France, Italy, Japan, Australia, and Canada) to provide conjunction assessment notifications when it is predicted that one of their space systems could collide with existing debris. JSpOC also has a little-known informal mechanism, via the State Department, by which Russia and China are provided conjunction notifications. China, for example, has been warned hundreds of times in advance of when its satellites are predicted to collide with other satellites or space debris, including the orbiting junk created by its own ASAT test in 2007.

JSpOC provides over 10,000 such warnings of potential collisions each year, at no charge. In an April House hearing, Rep. Jim Cooper (D-Tenn.) asked the interesting question of: "Is it appropriate -- possible to even charge for those calls on a subscription basis, because that's an incredibly valuable service we're offering to the world for free?" Putting tight Pentagon budgets aside, Lt. Gen. John Raymond answered: "It's in our best interest as well for a safe, secure operating environment, and we do that for the world and for ourselves at the same time."

The bad news is that while JSpOC can predict, with good accuracy, when softball-sized debris will collide with something else, there remains no practical or cost-effective way to remove debris from orbit. Under the current space regime as defined by the Outer Space Treaty of 1967, "States shall be responsible for their national activities in outer space, whether carried on by governmental or non-governmental entities." Launching states own and are liable for whatever they place in space. While outer space is a domain open to all countries, no country or international institution possesses the sovereign authority or responsibility for regulating space. Therefore, any efforts to remove space debris must be agreed upon by the international community.

There are steps the United States can take to prevent and mitigate the consequences of debris-causing incidents in space. In fact, the United States has a unique obligation to do so as it relies heavily on space and has unmatched space situational awareness. Specifically, the Obama administration should upgrade the JSpOC space fence or radars and sensors to better predict debris collisions, expand the scope and number of data-sharing agreements with countries and commercial space operators, test and develop space debris removal techniques through collaboration with other spacefaring nations, and work with Congress to repeal the 2011 provision that prevents Chinese officials or experts from visiting NASA's facilities in order to allow for bilateral civilian cooperation on space. To better ensure Washington's continued access to space as China, North Korea, Iran, and others, advance their capabilities, the United States must intensify its efforts to prevent dangerous incidents, or else forsake its role in shaping rules of the road for space.


Democracy Lab

War and Purgatory

What Syria can learn from Bosnia and its post-war mistakes.

Bosnia and Syria are often mentioned in the same breath -- and in particular by Sarajevans, who see in horrors such as the siege of Aleppo a re-enactment of their memories of the city-siege in the 1990s. Who can read headlines of post-2011 Syria -- rape as a weapon war, the targeting of civilians, fracturing peace talks -- and not recall late 20th-century Bosnian stories? Worse, Bosnia's post-war atrophy in the absence of meaningful justice provides an alarming example of what Syria might look like in 20 years, even if fighting were to stop today.

The millions of Syrians displaced and traumatized by the three-year conflict would likely accept any peace agreement if it meant fighting would end immediately. (In the photo above, emergency responders rescue a boy after a barrel bomb attack in Aleppo.) But it is for this reason that Bosnia -- as a lived reality for Bosnians in the last two decades, not merely as totemic buzzword for diplomats -- must be kept as a touchstone, a reminder that a successful peace process entails moving beyond a militaristic conception of peace as the absence of war. And that meaningful peace needs peace-work and civil society at its heart.

Even as Syria's Geneva II peace talks foundered earlier this year, Bosnia's citizens, who have a "peace agreement" for a constitution, were protesting on their cities' streets. Throughout February and March, Bosnia and Herzegovina has seen the largest demonstrations and unrest in almost 20 years, briefly making international headlines on Feb. 7, as protesters burned government buildings.

The recent Bosnian protests began in the northern industrial city of Tuzla as a worker's strike following an ongoing dispute with four companies that filed for bankruptcy shortly after they were sold off by the state to private contractors, one of the country's many recent botched and un-transparent privatization processes. As the protests spread to other cities in both of the country's two federal "entities," the protesting workers -- and other Bosnian citizens who soon joined them in protest -- began articulating more fundamental civic concerns about Bosnia's post-war stagnation. Frustrated at their national elites and politicians, who are among the highest paid in Europe, protesters viewed the recent privatization move as a symptom of endemic political and administrative corruption.

Despite early attempts by ethno-nationalists to brand the Bosnian protesters "terrorists" or co-opt their demands, the demonstrators of what began to be called "Bosnia's Spring" were adamant that the movement was a call for social justice and against corruption and the ethno-nationalism that has dominated the brittle post-war period. Bosnians have begun to articulate widespread frustration at the post-war set-up in the movement's weekly "plenums" -- direct-democracy citizens' meetings that have taken place in all of Bosnia's main cities, from Muslim-Croat Mostar to Republika Sprska's Banja Luka.

The demands articulated by the plenums remind us, almost two decades since the international media shifted their focus away from the country, of the reality that the 1995 Dayton Accords have brought to Bosnia. That the voices of Bosnians themselves are occasionally peeking through into global newsprint now is also a timely reminder of what these voices can teach Syrians about how to rebuild. For if Rwanda 20 years after is seen by some to offer signs today of how a nation can hope to heal from mass atrocity, Bosnia sadly serves to remind Syria that war is not always followed by peace. Sometimes it is followed by purgatory.

Almost a whole generation has grown up in Bosnia's post-war period with no direct memories of conflict, but with their landscape still covered in landmines, with segregated schools teaching three exclusivist nationalist narratives of their parents' war, with a 50 percent youth unemployment rate, and with the humiliation of visa restrictions that were unthinkable even in socialist Yugoslavia. Next door to an EU-aceeded Croatia, the new Bosnia has ethno-nationalist politicians and a political framework that rewards them for stirring up tensions over providing essential services for its citizens.

Bosnia's peace was always a failure in any meaningful sense, due to four main factors: an unjust and unworkable constitution; a stark lack of women and civil society representatives in the peace process; no regional-level transitional justice; and no post-war social justice. If Syria is to have any hope of a lasting peace after the fighting stops, it must avoid the pitfalls that led Bosnia into this twenty-year purgatory.

The signatories of the Dayton constitution -- war leaders Franjo Tudjman, Alija Itzetbegovic, and, to seal the deal, Slobodan Milosevic as Radovan Karadzic's representation -- were a shameful start to a new state. Although much has been written on why the compromises of the Dayton constitution were necessary to stop the war as it reached its genocidal height in 1995, this does not negate the fact it froze Bosnia in an "ethnopolis" with an unworkable structure of government, a triumvirate presidency, a physically severed territory, and a political structure that privileges ethno-nationalist discourse.

Any future Syrian peace process must also learn from who was not at the table at peace talks and post-war constitution drafting sessions: In Bosnia's case, as noted by Madeleine Rees, the most painful absence is women. The widespread use of rape as a weapon of war documented by the Women Under Siege project shows that, as in Bosnia, the brutalities of Syria's war have played out on gendered lines as exclusivist wartime identities have entrenched patriarchal norms. (Although there are important differences, the use of sexual violence against men is under-documented and under-reported due to the specific stigmas that come from wartime cultural constructions of masculinity.)

This tragedy would have a second tragic echo if Syria repeats Bosnia's failure to include women in its peace process after brutalizing them throughout the war. Research by Valerie Hudson, professor of political science at Texas A&M University, on gender and peace has shown how the involvement of women is the single most significant predictor of a country's post-conflict stability and success. Although Bosnian and Syrian women activists have conferred "under the radar" in the past year on how to push for a place at the peace-process table, the Geneva II talks mirrored the 1995 Dayton talks' alarming exclusion of women and civil society voices.

Egypt's unsteady course since 2011, with its two constitutions in two years, shows that inclusive constitution drafting is central to securing legitimacy. Dayton Bosnia, too, is an insistent reminder that who is at the table of the talks dictates the course of your peace. The imported, top-down peace of Dayton, and the post-war limbo it entrenched, created two conditions that ultimately fueled this year's popular protests: the lack of transitional justice, and the failure to provide for social justice. With incomplete lustration and judicial vetting processes on the ground in post-war Bosnia, the International Criminal Tribunal of the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) at The Hague became the focus of post-war justice rather than initiatives within the country. This failed on two grounds, one structural and one situational.

The fact that the ICTY's remit focused on high-level war-time leaders meant that the "everyday" war criminals were often left untouched and at large, brushing past their victims in the street. Situationally, as documented by Slavenka Drakulic in her 2004 work They Would Never Harm A Fly, the construction of a narrative by post-war nationalist leaders in Croatia, Serbia, and Bosnia in which the ICTY was "alien," imposed, and inevitably "biased," led to the popular imagining of defiance of the ICTY as an act of patriotism.

For its part, for all the inevitable difficulties of their task, the ICTY committed inexcusable mistakes, such as losing key evidence and the personal belongings of genocide victims, and in the eyes of many Bosnian Muslims, allowed Karadzic (finally caught in 2008) to use the tribunal hearings as a grotesque theater. Mass graves are still being uncovered in rural Bosnia today, and many hundreds of victims are yet to be buried -- also a reminder that it will take a generation for Syria to process its dead even after the fighting stops.

The work of Natasa Kandic heading the RECOM initiative to bring about a "truth and reconciliation" process since the late 2000s -- an initiative that would speak to the transitional justice needs of those who suffered during the war -- is a poignant indicator that civil society of the former Yugoslavia sought justice and reconciliation, even as their ethno-nationalist leaders continued to stir resentments and frame all war-justice processes as a zero sum game between ethnic groups.

As explored in Ed Vulliamy's 2012 work, The War Is Dead, Long Live The War, the absence of transitional justice led the "peace of daily life" to swell and curdle in Bosnia. The international aid that came in the country was not regulated, and was ultimately unable to better the inherently unjust postwar structure -- both the political institutions and the political rhetoric the institutions foster -- as it manifested in, for instance, the ethnically-segregated Dayton education system.

A generation of Syrian children, in Zaatari, in Lebanon, in Turkey, and in Syria itself, are growing up not only deeply traumatized but are also missing years of education. The impact of Bosnia's "lost generation" -- those who missed years of school and suffered the impact of war -- is still felt today by millions of former Yugoslavians. It was compounded by the failure to establish adequate post-war education. The segregated education system in Bosnia, initially supported by the OSCE, instills the exclusivist narratives of war in a new generation of children. It is all the more alarming when considered in light of the fact that before the war, around one in three Bosnian families were "mixed" or multi-confessional, if such identity-lines even had any salience.

The absence of transitional justice and the unworkable Dayton constitution encouraged Bosnian politicians to focus their energies on gaining votes of "their" ethnic blocks rather than focusing on civic initiatives such as improving healthcare facilities, clearing landmines, and stabilizing the economy. No transitional justice means no social justice, and eventually that will lead to popular unrest and a generation quietly growing up in the shadow of war without reconciliation, as we are seeing in Bosnia today.

If Syria today is its own specific kind of hell, and the urgent goal is to stop armed conflict as quickly and effectively as possible, those concerned should take from Bosnia -- with its famous wartime graffiti "Welcome to Hell" -- the warning that a country can be frozen in a rotten post-war limbo, even a generation after the fighting has stopped.