Refraining from conducting those kinds of tests in space, in part, prevents the creation of new and dangerous space debris.
John F. Plumb, the assistant secretary of defense for space policy, said the agreement not to conduct such tests is just one of many norms that will need to be established in space to make that domain safe for everybody who wants to operate there. "Voting against it ... could be for all sorts of reasons," Plumb said during a Wednesday discussion at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "I'm not giving them [Russia and China] an excuse, [but] you don't have to vote for it to comply with it. You don't have to vote for it to have some version of it that you might enforce."
Norms in space, he said, can be established without a vote.
As the U.S. and other nations move into space, there will need to be norms established just as there are norms in place for operations on land, in the air, at sea, and even under the sea, Plumb said.
"We have established, over long periods of time, norms at sea to avoid collision [and] norms in the air to avoid collisions. Norms undersea. All sorts of places—ground, surface, air, subsurface— [in] any operational domain," Plumb said.
Those established behaviors, he said, do more than just avoid collisions. They also provide a way for everybody operating in a domain to know when another actor’s intentions are hostile.
"[They] give you an understanding of if someone is accidentally or, frankly, intentionally violating those norms," Plumb said. "It gives that trigger ... to let you know something is amiss here; we need to be on guard and be careful of what's happening."
Norms on the sea have existed for generations, Plumb said. In the air, for a little over 100 years. But in space, they must be established, because it is a relatively new domain for many of the nations and businesses operating there now.
"There are all sorts of commercial companies operating all sorts of craft ... the number is going up," he said. "I think the more we can develop norms that make sense for protection of a safe, secure, stable space environment, the better it is for all spacefaring nations. It lowers the risk of miscalculation and potential escalation, accidental escalation."
With so many entities operating in space — many in the U.S. and many that are partners or aspiring partners of the federal government, Plumb said an issue his office is tackling is the overclassification of information in the space domain.
Overclassification of information — where information is marked at a higher classification than it might need to be — makes it more difficult to share information with mission partners, including partner nations, other federal partners, and commercial entities.
"I think there's clearly industry ramifications," he said. "Especially companies that might have to build entire architectures of classified information handling that can't talk to other parts of their company. We have to solve these problems so we can have our industrial base be able to move faster."
Addressing the issue of overclassification is one of the priorities of the department, Plumb said.
"I ran a ... summit for internal DOD [Defense Department] space stakeholders and [intelligence community] stakeholders focused on what are those things that are limiting our ability to do deeper operational cooperation with our spacefaring allies," Plumb said. "And it turned out that most of the problems there are related to overclassification because ... some things are classified in a way that I cannot share them with allies, even if they're highly capable."
Plumb said his office is working with the intelligence community on reducing some of the classification issues so information can be better shared with operational partners.
"That is a huge, huge problem for us where we're really starting to dig into," he said. "And when I talk about that DOD/IC [intelligence community] cooperation, this is one of those things that is ... it's the right time, it's the right place, it's the right window of opportunity to fix it."