U.S. Nixes Arms Control in New Space Policy

Wade Boese

The Bush administration recently released a new space policy that eschews future binding measures to regulate space activities in favor of keeping open all U.S. options, including space-based anti-missile systems, to promote and protect U.S. security and space assets.

Dated Aug. 31 but issued Oct. 5, the new policy replaces a September 1996 Clinton administration version. The October document was a slimmer, unclassified version of the actual policy.

Some overlap exists between the Bush and Clinton policies. Both extol a goal of preserving U.S. “freedom of action” in space and denying the same to foes. The two policies also instruct the Pentagon to pursue space capabilities for “force enhancement, space control, and force application” missions.

Still, the Bush administration version is more muscular in tone. “Freedom of action in space is as important to the United States as air power and sea power,” the new policy declares.

In addition, the Clinton administration policy held out the possibility of negotiating arms control and related measures if they were “equitable, effectively verifiable, and enhance the security of the United States and our allies.” The Bush administration strategy states the United States “will oppose the development of new legal regimes or other restrictions that seek to prohibit or limit U.S. access to or use of space.”

Some aspects of the new policy were foreshadowed by a January 2001 report of the Commission to Assess United States National Security Space Management and Organization, which Donald Rumsfeld chaired before becoming President George W. Bush’s secretary of defense. Declaring U.S. vulnerability to a potential “Space Pearl Harbor,” the commission warned the United States “must be cautious of agreements intended for one purpose that, when added to a larger web of treaties or regulations, may have the unintended consequences of restricting future activities in space.”

The 2001 report further recommended that Washington develop “new military capabilities for operation to, from, in, and through space” and preserve the “option to deploy weapons in space.” However, the Bush policy offers a streamlined formulation of pursuing “unhindered U.S. operations in and through space” and makes no specific mention of weapons.

Still, the new policy calls on the Pentagon to “provide space capabilities to support…multi-layered and integrated missile defenses.” The Pentagon’s Missile Defense Agency (MDA) will be seeking $45 million in the administration’s upcoming fiscal year 2008 budget request to begin conducting “space-based interceptor feasibility and demonstration experiments.” All told, MDA is envisioning spending nearly $570 million through 2011 to develop space-based interceptors.

Lieutenant General Henry Obering, the head of MDA, told Arms Control Today in September 2005 that the goal is to create a space test bed comprised of “not even a handful” of interceptors for conducting experiments. (See ACT, November 2005.) The Fort Greely, Alaska, ground-based midcourse defense missile interceptor base was originally described as a test bed and is now the core of the administration’s rudimentary missile defense system. “Being able to go from a test bed into an operational status in a very short amount of time is something that is an advantage, not a disadvantage,” Obering stated.

In an Oct. 19 interview with Arms Control Today, a congressional source who requested anonymity said the test bed could be a stepping stone to a more expansive interceptor network. This perception, the source commented, could lead lawmakers to resist the space missile defense plans, particularly because Congress recently chastised the administration for devoting too many resources to futuristic concepts instead of more near-term technologies. The administration tends “to push the envelope,” the source said.

The administration also draws a distinction between space-based missile interceptors and weapons in space. “The notion that you would do defense from space is different than the weaponization of space,” White House Press Secretary Tony Snow told reporters Oct. 18.

This perspective is not shared abroad, particularly by China and Russia. Motivated in large part by U.S. missile defense plans, the two countries have sought for the past several years to begin negotiations or less formal talks on the prevention of an arms race in outer space in the 65-member Conference on Disarmament (CD) in Geneva.

Because the conference works by consensus, the United States has been able to block this initiative despite its broad support. At the same time, other conference members, led by China and Russia, have rejected Washington’s call for the CD to focus exclusively on negotiating a treaty ending the production of plutonium and highly enriched uranium for nuclear weapons.

Lieutenant Colonel Randi Steffy, a spokesperson for U.S. Strategic Command, which manages U.S. military space operations, told Arms Control Today Oct. 19 in an e-mail that a new policy was necessary because over the past decade “technology advances have increased the importance of and use of space.” Noting that some countries are expanding their space capabilities, Steffy added that, “unfortunately, we anticipate some will challenge the free use of space.”

In an incident first reported Sept. 25 by Defense News and subsequently confirmed by U.S. officials, China at an unspecified time “illuminated” a U.S. satellite with a ground-based laser. Although reportedly no damage was done, a laser could blind or disable satellites.

The United States in 1997 test-fired a laser at a U.S. satellite, but Steffy declined to say whether the United States has illuminated foreign satellites. “As a matter of principle, we do not discuss specific vulnerabilities, threats, responses or steps to mitigate,” Steffy wrote.

Washington contends that there is no arms race in space and that existing restraints are sufficient. The 1967 Outer Space Treaty prohibits the deployment of weapons of mass destruction in space and outlaws military activities on celestial bodies. In June 2002, the United States withdrew from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, which barred the development, testing, and deployment of nationwide strategic ballistic missile defenses, including space-based systems.