Indo-U.S. Space Collaboration for Orbital Debris Remediation

 Jennifer McArdle and Patrick Cheetham

As India and the U.S. prepare for Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Washington at the end of the month, a reexamination of the Indo-U.S. strategic partnership goals are in order. India and the U.S. have outlined pillars to their strategic relationship—security, economics and technology, regional strategic and political issues, and global issues. Yet, there is a need for concrete initiatives to help bolster these cooperative goals. Space, particularly collaboration for orbital debris remediation, could provide India and the U.S. the mechanism to enhance cooperation, demonstrate leadership, and combat a persistent and indiscriminate threat to all space-faring nations.

The strategic importance of space is without question.  The National Space Policy of the United States asserts that space provides unique assets for the conduct of military operations, as well as an increasing array of objects that support life capabilities such as telecommunications and GPS.  As an emerging space power, India is keen to build its space capabilities.  India’s space program, the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO), is a source of great national pride. While, India and the U.S. have some prior space collaboration—mutually cooperating on the Chandrayaan I (India’s first unmanned lunar probe), providing assistance for India’s first human space flight, and just yesterday, announcing an Indo-U.S. Joint Mars Working Group—there is a need for more bilateral space synergy.

Orbital space debris poses an indiscriminate, constant, and ubiquitous threat to space traffic management.  According to NASA, hundreds of millions of space debris particles currently congest near Earth orbits; 21,000 that are over 10cm in diameter, and 500,000 of which are between 1 and 10cm.  Even the smallest orbital debris particles have the capacity to destroy functional satellites upon impact.  Space accessibility is threatened by the increasing amounts of debris in orbit and the potential for collision cascading. Space faring nations have attempted various debris-mitigating measures, but these remain unequal to the task. More must be done.

Scientists have proposed various remedies to address orbital debris removal (ODR). Yet, the proposal that has emerged as the most cutting-edge, efficient—both in terms of ODR feasibility and successfulness—and cost effective is a ground based laser system.  A ground based laser system “would engage an orbiting target and slow it down by ablating material from its surface, which leads to reentry into the atmosphere.”  There is the potential for the laser to prosecute a target and kill an objects orbit on one passing; thus maximizing the potential for mass debris removal in a given year. While laser ablation has substantive potential to address orbital debris, there are palpable risks associated with such a program.

Currently there is no meaningful governing body or regime in place that deals with ODR.  Likewise, there is no current international definition of space weapons.  Due to the ambiguous nature of space weapons definitions, present ODR techniques cannot be delineated: Approaches that eliminate space debris and non-functioning satellites can also harm a functioning one.  Thus if India and the U.S. were to collaborate on ODR, they would have to persuade the international community that they were in fact not developing a bilateral covert anti-satellite weapon (ASAT) capability.  Open dialogue and transparency of intent in an international forum may alleviate concerns.

International cooperation does not always yield cost-effective, technologically feasible, or politically viable results.  Orbital debris is a systemic problem for the space environment; yet, much like the multilateral response to climate change, an international response to orbital debris will most likely prove fruitless.  ODR requires strategic leadership and India and the US appear uniquely qualified to collaboratively meet this challenge.  As Obama and former Prime Minister Singh stated in 2010 “a natural partnership exists between India’s dynamic human enterprise and the U.S. storied history of space exploration.”  Prime Minister Modi and President Obama should explore Indo-U.S. collaboration in ODR for the benefit of the bilateral partnership and humanity.

Don’t Bring a Knife to a Gun Fight

by Mike Swetnam

We have the largest military in the entire world. In fact, if you add up all the next ten biggest, you will not get a military force as big as the one the USA controls.

That should mean that there is no war or military action on this earth that the USA cannot fully overwhelm, control, and win in short order. Why, then, have we been fighting nasty little wars in Afghanistan and Iraq for a decade? Why do we feel like we cannot do anything except provide some meager air support to the war against ISIL?

Is this the reality of the modern world? Or are we, the USA, severely underestimating and therefore underutilizing our own power? The answer should be obvious, but it seems to not be so.

When Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990, the US put together an army that included 500,000 US troops and about 220,000 allied troops, and 720,000 boots on the ground! General Colin Powell, the author of the military strategy of overwhelming force, called it shock and awe.  The result was that Iraq was pushed out of Kuwait and the allied forces marched all the way to Baghdad in less than 100 hours! Yes, four days.

Fifteen years later, we invaded Iraq with the intention of changing the leadership and eliminating weapons of mass destruction. It turns out that there were no weapons of mass destruction and a decade of fighting later, we left without ever really owning the country.

What was the difference? When we invaded Iraq in 2003, we went with less than 200,000 boots on the ground (148,000 US and 47,000 allied) instead of the 720,000 we used in 1990.

We also tried to liberate Afghanistan. We used only about 20,000 troops for most of this conflict with a surge to 63,000 by 2012.

We have been trying to stop an infestation of rats with a fly swatter! Colin Powell would have had us use a hand grenade!

The lesson is clear. If we need to take action and use military force, do so with overwhelming force. Make sure you win decisively and quickly. Demonstrate your resolve, your ability, and the swiftness of your resolve.

Acting meekly, with underwhelming force, only serves to make you look weak, ineffective, and malleable.

Our current fight is with ISIS, or ISIL. They cut people’s heads off and broadcast videos of that act. There are also hundreds of pictures on the web of pickup trucks full of heads they cut off of their prisoners and innocent victims.

We can not address this threat with flyswatters, other-people’s military forces, or insufficient numbers of troops. We need troops on the ground; several hundreds of thousands of troops on the ground.  That is the only way we will end this quickly, decisively, and permanently.

The Destiny of Leadership

by Mike Swetnam

Put two hundred people in a room and watch what happens over time. Groups and cliques will form. Bullies will emerge. Most will fade back and wait for someone to take charge and bring order.

When a leader emerges, most will automatically follow in the very human hope that the leader will bring security through direction and purpose.

Looking for, following, and needing a leader is a very human trait; most of us want someone to follow. We want a goal, direction, and a strong message.

Leaders provide that direction, unifying message, and ideology. Leaders help us find a sense of purpose, direction, and focus. Leaders and followers are as human as the DNA that defines who we are.

Without leaders, lawlessness, anarchy, and despair run rampant. These are conditions that define leaderless societies.

The world we live in is comprised of roughly 200 nations that reflect all of the human emotions, desires, failures, and hopes of the individuals that live in them. Nations look for and need leadership just as much as individuals do. The lack of world leadership results in the worst of human failings, amplified on the world stage.

Wars, oppression, genocide, crime, and terrorism all result from the lack of strong and enlightened world leadership.

Today more than ever, the world is crying out for leadership. Societies who have been failed by their governments often turn back to the fundamentals of religion, mysticism, and even the tribal and feudal ways of our past. When stability is needed today, people often look back to something that worked in the past as a solution.

Throughout nature and human history, the strongest was seen as the leader.  Peace and security can be secured through strength. Once again, it is human nature to look to the strong and the inspirational as the leader. To be followed and supported.

Since World War II, the strongest and most inspirational nation has been the United States. Not only did we win the World Wars, but we rebuilt all of Europe and Japan, and we maintained our military presence (boots on the ground) in their nations as a protecting force.  Even today, 60 years later, US forces are deployed to Japan and most European countries as a protecting force.

We, the US, also established regional leadership forums like NATO to ensure stability and security. We formed the UN and hosted it in the US as a sign of our commitment to world self governance. All of these actions are the expression of enlightened leadership.

We followed these accomplishments with noble adventures to go to the moon and back. We invented technology like modern communications, the Internet, and modern air transportation. These are all feats that define leadership.

It should be no surprise that the best and the brightest want to come here. Many aspire to US education, US jobs and association with US companies, affiliations with US organizations, and favorable trade and relations with the US.

We have been seen and appreciated by the entire world as the world’s leading superpower. Clearly for the last 25 years, since the collapse of the USSR, but in reality since the end of WWII.

In a room with two hundred in it, we are the strongest by far. We are the best educated. The one most countries and individuals want to be associated with. Like it or not, we are the world’s leader.

In this figural room, there are of course bad actors. Nations or groups who envy us. Ones who hate us, just as all leaders face a few adversaries who will always hate them for being the leader.

There are also bullies who will attempt to coerce others into subservience. There are fanatical extremists who will try to convince others that their radical approach to governance is correct. There are also many who just want the leader to help find peace, security, enlightenment, and freedom.

The leader can only fulfill his responsibilities as the leader if he ensures the security and freedoms of all the others. He must stop the bullies in their tracks. To do this, he must isolate and neutralize the extremist. In short, the leaders must lead not just with words, but with action.

Like it or not, the USA is the world’s leader. Lately, we have disappointed the many who want and need us to lead.

It is time we live up to our destiny.

Building a Coalition

by Mike Swetnam

In 1990 Iraq invaded Kuwait and the US assembled a global coalition of forces to repeal them.  The US committed to put 500,000 troops on the ground if the rest of the world would contribute.  Two dozen countries sent over 200,000 additional troops and the local governments paid for the entire war.

Today President Obama is asking the nations in the area of Iraq and around the world to send troops, boots on the ground, even as he says we will not send any.

There is a difference between leadership where one says come help me do this necessary deed and follower-ship where one says send your troops and I will support them with airpower.

We are once again leading from behind, or in other words trying to just be a follower.  Maybe we should ask Putin to take on ISIL?

Like it or not, we are the only superpower in the world today.  A sure way to change that is to act like we have no power or to abrogate the leadership role that the world expects from us. Asking others to send in troops when you are not willing to do so is doing something stupid.  If your policy is to not do stupid stuff, this should not be your plan or strategy!

There is no question that the world will follow our lead when we chose to act like a leader and show commitment (like sending 500,000 troops).  It should also not surprise us if the world ignores our call for a coalition when we will not commit our own forces to the cause.

Real Threats

by Mike Swetnam

I keep hearing from “experts” that ISIL is not a large current threat to our homeland.  One commentator on the Sunday talk shows, a former Deputy Secretary of State, stated that they were not really an Al Qaeda-type group, they were more a conventional force that did not really threaten our homeland.

This is total disillusionment at the extreme!  Not even before 9/11 did we so under estimate a severe and major threat to our homeland.  ISIL states publicly every opportunity they get that they will come the to west, the USA and Europe; that our streets will flow with blood.  Yet, in the past week the Secretary of Homeland Security and the Director of the National Counterterrorism Center both stated publically that ISIL poses only a limited threat to the homeland.

I remember all too well statements by almost all government officials prior to 9/11 that AQ posed no real threat to the US.  Yet, thousands died on 9/11!  I suspect thousands will again die before our ‘head-in-the-sand’ leaders get the true nature of this global threat.

When are we at risk?  When you combine leadership that believes there is a small threat with a dedicated and fanatical enemy focused on showing us to be weak and stupid.  All too often we play into the hands of these enemies by being stupid.

This may well be a war in the Middle East but don’t think we are not part of it.  Embarrassing the USA is the recruiting tool that builds these terrorist organizations.  Stupid commentators in the USA state that when we attack them we help their recruiting.  The opposite is true.  When we sit back and look weak their numbers skyrocket!  When we were attacking them all around the world their numbers shrank to almost zero.  Since we have been pulling back and letting them behead our citizens, their numbers have grown to historic highs.  The evidence is abundantly clear to all who choose to look and listen to what this enemy is doing.

ISIL is coming for us. It could be next year or the year after. Or it could be tomorrow! Since striking the US will empower them, I would look for them to hit us as soon as they can.

Isn’t it time our leaders started to actually listen to what the enemy is saying instead of pretending the world looks the way they wish it to be?


China’s Growing Space Power

by Patrick Cheetham

An aggressive and rapidly developing China challenges US dominance in space and will continue to do so without renewed American leadership and investment.

Mainstream narrative largely misses the significant dependence of the US on space for economic health and national security. Indeed, GPS, communications, broadband, financial transactions, and remote sensing and imaging all use space assets as indispensable sensors and relays. US intelligence and defense capabilities (such as C4ISR) are a cornerstone of national security today but are vulnerable because satellite positions are known, they are expensive to launch into orbit, and attribution of attacks are difficult. Americans also don’t know the fragile state of US technology leadership in space. As the front-runner in the cosmos for decades the emerging space power challenging America’s reign is China.

China has invested massively in R&D, space, and defense and has made great strides in these sectors. China has developed production of advanced rockets, survivable communications, satellites, manned missions, autonomous spacecraft, and persistent surveillance. Leadership in Beijing view space technologies as a crucial element of national power to include prestige of advanced S&T and economic benefits of these investments. The intent behind China’s space program, like many of its large S&T programs, is not so transparent. Chinese civil and military organizations for space are integrated. For instance, China’s navigation system, Beidou, can be used for civil purposes or for expanded operational capability needed in long-range strike. In a report to the US China Commission by Mark Stokes and Dean Chung it was highlighted that “R&D investments include foreign satellite communications monitoring systems, electronic countermeasure systems to disrupt an opponent’s use of space based systems, and developing the capability for physical destruction of satellites in orbit.” Electronic intelligence satellites and dual use synthetic aperture radar are also maturing, according to the report.

China has greatly progressed in ballistic missile technology that threatens assured access to space and has the potential to be used offensively. A much-cited 2007 test of a Chinese anti-satellite (ASAT) missile took place in 2007 and created thousands of pieces of debris. China’s missile tests in 2010 and 2013 are still debated by experts but in May 2013 strong evidence points to another successful ASAT test took place from a road-mobile ballistic missile. More recently, the US State Department accused China of conducting an ASAT test on July 23, 2014, calling “on China to refrain from destabilizing actions – such as the continued development and testing of destructive anti-satellite systems – that threaten the long term security and sustainability of the outer space environment, on which all nations depend.” China’s ASAT capabilities clearly pose a direct threat to US satellites, however, US policy and leadership remains complacent in light of these developments.

Other nations are ramping up investment with the goal of leveraging its unique strategic and tactical advantage. DNI James Clapper testified to the SSCI earlier this year, saying “Chinese and Russian military leaders understand the unique information advantages afforded by space systems and are developing capabilities to disrupt US use of space in a conflict. Chinese military writings highlight the need to interfere with, damage, and destroy reconnaissance, navigation, and communication satellites.” The US does not need a major military or surprise event to catalyze government change in favor of US space leadership. The ubiquity of space technologies, powerful new capabilities, and the potential for mal-intent should drive us to do better.

Greater leadership and investment can solve the issues presented by unknown intent and capabilities of aggressive and developing countries such as China. Leadership can inspire a generation of the brightest minds to pursue STEM careers, tackle challenging national security issues in space, and participate in cutting edge science and research. By leading in this field of S&T, the US can make important long term decisions in areas like exploration and commercialization of space. More investment in civil and military space programs – with a renewed mission and focus – can maintain and progress US leadership in this domain. Programs that invigorate the national mindset and those that keep Americans safe should be some of the highest priorities in every President’s R&D agenda. Understanding the importance of space and acting upon it should deeply motivate US citizens and policymakers to maintain superiority and freedom of action in the future.

ISIL’s threat to the US

Kathryn Schiller Wurster

On the 13th anniversary of Sept 11, 2001, we pause to remember those lost. We have experienced 13 years without another major attack, thanks to the hard work of the military, intelligence community, and homeland security personnel charged with dismantling Al-Qaeda and preventing another terrorist strike.

This week, intelligence community officials have stated that there are no credible threats to the United States homeland from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL): according to Homeland Security secretary Jeh C. Johnson, “We know of no credible information that ISIL is planning to attack the homeland at present.”  But at the same time, other government officials, including President Obama and Senator Dianne Feinstein, Chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, have said ISIL is a significant threat and must be dismantled and defeated.

ISIL has built a large cadre of fighters, seized huge weapons caches in Iraq, and has accrued far more cash than Al-Qaeda ever dreamed of. They have brutally murdered two American journalists and executed thousands, including hundreds of children and religious minorities.  ISIL is highly organized and issues annual reports touting statistics of their activities—suicide bombings, murders, sniper attacks, and car bombs, among others. They have explicitly declared war on the West, making threats against the US homeland, stating American streets will run with blood. ISIL has people in their organization who are citizens of the western countries they wish to target and can easily travel and operate in them. The FBI has tracked some of these individuals, but many are unknown or unaccounted for. Attacks have already been carried out by ISIL associates in Belgium and foiled in France. 

If we compare this to the period leading up to September 11, 2001, the parallels are chilling. Osama bin Laden declared war on the US, threatened us, and launched attacks on embassies, the USS Cole, and even the World Trade Center. We saw evidence before Sept 11 that some kind of plot was in the works, but did not connect the dots on the specifics. We continued to believe that a larger attack would never happen.

This time, we are paying attention and know from experience that groups like this are willing and able to threaten the US. Our ability to collect intelligence has been damaged by the exposure of methods by Edward Snowden—targets have changed their communications practices. Human intelligence in these groups is difficult. But we seem to have a mindset that just because we don’t have direct evidence of a plot to attack US soil, there isn’t one. Like 9/11, this is another failure of imagination. We should listen to what ISIL is telling us about their intentions, and take action to ensure they cannot bring their vicious fight to us.

Of course, this is easier said than done. The President’s strategy as announced last night is to use airstrikes and support a coalition of fighters in Iraq and Syria to defeat ISIL. Arming and equipping rebels in Syria is a complicated proposition; how do we arm Syrian rebels and ensure that those arms don’t end up in the hands of ISIL? How can we expect the rebels fighting Assad to also take on ISIL? Syria has no good options, and if we rely on a coalition approach we will be forced to deal with the lesser of many evils. The President has pledged not to put boots on the ground. But if we continue to let ISIL simmer and build strength, they will have to be dealt with militarily before long.

The Multilateral Outcome of NETmundial

by Jennifer McArdle


Tension is increasingly mounting over the future governance framework of the Internet. The Internet Governance Forum came to a close last week, and Internet stakeholders are beginning to look to October’s Internet Governance Telecommunications Union (ITU) Plenipotentiary with anxiety. As the U.S. prepares for October’s meeting, it would be wise for them to look back to April’s NETmundial meeting. NETmunidal provides an informative example of a concluding meeting statement that does not necessarily reflect the ‘mulitstakeholder’ decision it supposedly endorsed.


The conflict over the future of the Internet is over two differing approaches to Internet governance: multistakeholderism and multilateralism. Multistakeholder advocates believe stakeholders from a multitude of entities should govern the Internet: states, private sector, civil society groups, academia, and non-governmental institutions. Multilateral champions, in contrast, believe that a conglomeration of states, most likely located within the United Nations (UN), should govern the Internet.  While the divide separating both camps is not necessarily manichaeistic, their divergences over how the Internet should be governed has tremendous social, economic, and security implications


At first glance, the April NETmundial Internet governance meeting in Sao Paulo, Brazil appears to be a victory for the ‘multistakeholder’ Internet governance camp. A quick look at the website home page shows the ‘NETmundial multistakholder statement’ as the first item on their banner. Country statements post meeting seem to support this view. In late April, the U.S. State Department—perhaps one of the more vocal advocates of multistakeholderism—issued a press release that noted their ‘pleas[ure] that the [NETmundial] document continues to focus on a future Internet rooted in mutlistakeholder processes and institutions.” Likewise, the European Commission, another important member of ‘team multistakeholder’ stated that, “NETmundial has put us on the right track.” However, a closer analysis of the NETmundial statement seems to suggest otherwise.

The outcome document from NETmundial, “The NETmundial Multistakeholder Statement”, provides various taskings or suggestions that advocate for either a multilateral or multistakeholder process. There are fifteen such statements that task an item or make a suggestion. Overall when comparing the various items that support multistakeholderism to the items that advocate multilateralism, the outcome of the various statements are 40% promoting a mulistakeholder approach to 60% advocating multilateralism. Moreover, if one only includes concrete follow-on taskings to organizations, the result would be 100% multilateralism. Of those fifteen statements, the only concrete taskings that takes place in the document is to UN forums or UN sponsored conferences. The UN is a multilateral institution, composed of member states.


There is also some disconnect between statements advocating a multistakeholder process and the institution or former document the ‘NETmundial Statement’ endorses as a mechanism to achieve multistakeholderism. For example, in 2.1.2 the document advocates for a mulitstakeholder process to enhance cooperation on Internet governance public policy. While making this statement, the document notes that cooperation should be in the spirit of the Tunis Agenda and should consider UN Commission on Science and Technology Development (CSTD) working groups. The Tunis Agenda places emphasis on development goals through a multilateral process and the CSTD is a UN institution, which is inherently multilateral. While 2.1.2 advocates for a multi-stakeholder approach, the institutions that are mentioned to help facilitate that process are multilateral.


From a U.S. policy perspective NETmundial was not the success that the U.S. State Department purported. In the upcoming ITU Plenipotentiary negotiations, the U.S. government would be wise to heed the example of NETmundial and take note of the disparity between overt statements and actual outcomes.


This blog is based on a conversation with Senior Fellow, Melissa Hathaway. Initial observations on the disparity between the NETmundial document and outcomes are hers. 

Fear of Science

Brian Barnett

Injecting a conflated understanding of ethics into journalism negatively affects scientific progress. That is to say, unethically performed research such as the fraudulent Wakefield paper on autism and vaccines or the Tuskegee syphilis experiment should be reported on and brought to the attention of the public. In contrast, journalism involving research findings should not jump to conclusions about the potential for research to be used unethically. When these unwarranted ethical questions are presented in the media, their only utility is to propagate a mistrust of science research.

A recent Atlantic article presents recent neuroscience research as a potential treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The research focuses on altering memories that trigger PTSD symptoms. When a memory is retrieved, it can be affected by additional stimuli or neural signals. This is generally useful, as memories need a way to update themselves in response to changes in the environment or behavior. The research targeted the unstable nature of recalled memories by giving participants a dose of propranolol (a beta blocker drug) before asking them to recall a fearful memory. The idea is that these drugs reduce emotional responses (e.g. some musicians take beta blockers before a big audition so that their nervousness or anxiety is lowered and they are able to play well). If a person’s emotional responsiveness is reduced, then recalling a fearful memory might not produce the usual physiological response. Over time, repeated and directed therapy could cause this memory to reconsolidate into a non-stressful version.

The article does a great job of explaining the content of the research in a concise fashion, but its attempt to incorporate ethical concern is harmful. The subheading at the top of the article is as follows: “A controversial area of brain research suggests [changing memories] may be possible – but is it ethical?” The article does not mention ethics again until the very last sentence, where the author asks the same exact question. The author wants to make sure that the first thing that the reader sees after the title is this question. I find this disconcerting. When a proposed treatment is not even close to being verifiable, and the scientific community understands the limitations of a specific study, we do not need to spend time questioning its ethical nature.

It is easy to take our science findings and extrapolate them to their scary extremes. Tacking on a question of ethics probably generates controversy and can be good for an author’s page views. It is telling that the author asks the question but does not address it. It can be hard to make definitive statements about what is right or wrong when it comes to a complex concept like memory alteration. Regardless of how difficult this question is to answer, science research on memory alteration should not be stopped. When our scientists are not close to figuring out how to reliably alter memories in a benign, therapeutic context, then we do not need to worry about their ability to perform unethical experiments. The research studies presented in the article followed Institutional Review Board guidelines and underwent stringent peer review (processes which are largely meant to prevent unethical research from occurring). There is a distinction between ethically performed research and the ethical use of a technology or process. This neuroscience research followed all established ethical guidelines and it should not be stopped because of the fear that it might lead to unethical practices later on.

If we are going to worry about anything at all involving this research, it would be that a rogue actor, who somehow does understand how to manipulate memories, starts to cause undue harm and suffering to others. If this hypothetical situation occurs, what can we do? Our only option would be to perform even more research to figure out how to undo his or her actions! Opportunists will always try to take advantage of science and technology advancements. We cannot avoid that fact, unless we become complacent, halt all research, and never solve another difficult problem again. Performing solid, peer-reviewed research on topics like PTSD therapy is a valuable endeavor and placing unnecessary questions of ethics around it will limit our abilities to succeed. Ethics are an important aspect of our society and are the vehicle by which we demonstrate fair and just treatment of our fellow citizens. However, scientific research should not be hampered by premature concern about its ethical consequences.