Aiming to raise the profile of and accountability for U.S. defense and intelligence space-related activities, at the Pentagon on May 8 Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld announced several changes to the way the United States oversees and operates its space programs. Most of the recommendations mirrored those outlined in a January 11 report by a congressionally mandated commission tasked with reviewing U.S. space activities, which Rumsfeld chaired until he was nominated to head the Pentagon. (See ACT, March 2001.)
Describing how reliant the United States is on space assets for both military and civilian purposes—from gathering intelligence on foreign militaries to enabling global communication to providing early-warning of missile launches—Rumsfeld said the United States needs to match the management and organization of U.S. space-related security programs with the “importance of space to the nation today.”
Rumsfeld argued that the heightened U.S. dependency on space makes the United States “somewhat vulnerable to new challenges.” He said the question is how to “deter and dissuade” others from attacking or interfering with U.S. space assets in possible times of tension. Approximately half of the roughly 700 operational satellites in orbit are U.S. commercial, civilian, or military satellites, according to U.S. Space Command.
Topping the list of Rumsfeld’s changes is the creation of an interagency Policy Coordinating Committee for Space within the National Security Council. The new committee will be charged with developing, coordinating, and monitoring implementation of any presidential policy guidance on space.
Aiming to increase attention devoted to space by senior military officials, as well as accountability, the command of Air Force Space Command will now be independent and headed by a four-star officer. Previously, this command was part of the responsibility of the commander-in-chief of U.S. Space Command, who also serves as commander-in-chief of North American Aerospace Defense Command.
In addition, the Air Force will now be designated the executive agent for space within the Defense Department, putting the service in charge of planning, programming, and acquiring space systems. Rumsfeld also tasked the Air Force with being ready for “prompt and sustained offensive and defensive space operations.”
Although some members of Congress had lobbied for the creation of a separate Space Force, Rumsfeld said that the cost and complexity of such an initiative could detract from the effort to increase joint war-fighting capabilities among the existing services. Rumsfeld also elected not to request creation of a new undersecretary of defense for space, intelligence, and information, one of the few recommendations from the January report of the “Commission to Assess United States National Security Space Management and Organization” that he declined to follow.
When asked after his speech whether he intended to pursue space-based weapons, Rumsfeld dodged the question, saying his initiatives only focused on organizational issues. Pressed again, the secretary quoted from the 1996 U.S. National Space Policy, which says that the United States “will develop, operate and maintain space control capabilities to ensure freedom of action in space and, if directed, deny such freedom of action to adversaries.”
In its report, the members of the independent commission on space activities wrote that, although they appreciated that there is a controversy about weaponizing space, they believed the United States should “vigorously pursue the capabilities…to ensure that the President will have the option to deploy weapons in space.”
Then-Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-SD) reacted to Rumsfeld’s May 8 speech by characterizing the possibility of space-based weapons as possibly “the single dumbest thing I’ve heard so far in this administration.” He warned that he believed Democrats, who became the majority party in the Senate following Vermont Senator Jim Jeffords departure in late May from the Republican Party, would be “universally opposed to doing something as foolish as that.”
Many countries, led by China and Russia, are already pressing the United States to negotiate an agreement at the UN Conference on Disarmament to prevent an arms race in outer space, something Washington has refused to do. (See CD Reconvenes, Stalemate Likely to Continue.)
The 1967 Outer Space Treaty bars states from stationing weapons of mass destruction in space and forbids military activities on celestial bodies, and the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty proscribes the development, testing, and deployment of space-based ABM components or systems.