“Right after I graduated, I interned with the Arms Control Association. It was terrific.”

– George Stephanopolous
ABC News
January 1, 2005
Making a Mark in Space: An Analysis of Obama’s Options For a New U.S. Space Policy
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Victoria Samson

The change of U.S. administrations creates the opportunity for a broad assessment of the country’s space policy, starting with some basic questions.

What should the goal of national space policies be? Are they trying to ensure freedom of action for certain states and not others? Does the definition of “freedom of action” need to be updated to reflect the increasing number of space actors? Should the focus be on establishing future cooperative efforts in space, or is space being preserved just for its own sake?

The Obama administration, because of its general philosophical bent, seems likely to move toward a more multilateral approach to its space policy. Such a shift would shape the debate on space in the international community. Given roadblocks in the Conference on Disarmament (CD), however, traditional arms control routes may not be the best way to ensure the sustainability of space. International collaboration on space can still be effective, but it may require a different means to achieve the end goal of a sustainable space environment that can be used for generations to come. Formal treaties might not be the only way, or even the best, to improve space’s sustainability; other mechanisms that are not legally binding could be just as effective in the long run.

Changes in Washington

The Obama administration is presently reviewing U.S. space policy. This review typically takes place during a president’s second term because of the issue’s relatively low priority. In this case, it seems that the Obama administration will be producing a new policy within its first term, possibly within the next year or so. Trying to predict what will end up in the policy is much like reading tea leaves. In the interim, the White House Web site has this to say about space: “The full spectrum of U.S. military capabilities depends on our space systems…. We will cooperate with our allies and the private sector to identify and protect against intentional and unintentional threats to U.S. and allied space capabilities.”[1] This language is a step back from what was on the White House Web site shortly after President Barack Obama was inaugurated. At that time, the site said the Obama administration would strive to achieve a ban on weapons that “interfere with military and commercial satellites.” That wording has since been removed from the site, possibly because Obama’s official space policy has not yet been formalized.

Earlier Obama policy papers, which fully discuss his platform for U.S. space capabilities and priorities, may give an indication of the new administration’s goals for its space policy. According to presidential campaign documents released in August 2008, “Barack Obama will use space as a strategic tool of U.S. diplomacy to strengthen relations with allies, reduce future conflicts, and engage members of the developing world.”[2] A section headlined “Emphasizing an International, Cooperative Approach to Space Security” said that “[d]eveloping an international approach to minimizing space debris, enhancing capabilities for space situational awareness, and managing increasingly complex space operations are important steps towards sustaining our space operations.”[3] (Space situational awareness refers to the capacity to monitor objects orbiting the planet. The United States is currently keeping track of about 19,000 objects, down to the size of a softball; but it is expected that hundreds of thousands of smaller pieces are on orbit, leaving expensive space assets at risk.)

The campaign documents also said that Obama “opposes the stationing of weapons in space and the development of anti-satellite weapons” and that the United States “must show leadership by engaging other nations in discussions of how best to stop the slow slide towards a new battlefield.”[4] Finally, they stated that Obama would “work with other nations to develop ‘rules of the road’ for space to ensure all nations have a common understanding of acceptable behavior.”[5]

The exact words used in any modification of the U.S. space policy might be different, but the likely overall theme is consistent: an emphasis on the shared nature of space and responsibility to make certain that all states can utilize the space environment without endangering it for others.

Until the Obama administration comes up with its own version, the official U.S. policy is the one articulated in 2006 by the Bush administration in National Security Presidential Directive 49, which has a strong unilateralist streak. Although that document stated that the United States “is committed to the exploration and use of outer space by all nations for peaceful purposes, and for the benefit of all humanity,” it also said that “the United States will: preserve its rights, capabilities, and freedom of action in space; dissuade or deter others from either impeding those rights or developing capabilities intended to do so; take those actions necessary to protect its space capabilities; respond to interference; and deny, if necessary, adversaries the use of space capabilities hostile to U.S. national interests.”[6] Arms control advocates were alarmed by the section that said, “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. Proposed arms control agreements or restrictions must not impair the rights of the United States to conduct research, development, testing, and operations or other activities in space for U.S. national interests.”[7]

Some of this wording was very similar to that in the Clinton administration’s 1996 presidential decision directive on space policy. That document asserted 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. The capabilities may also be enhanced by diplomatic, legal, or military measures to preclude an adversary’s hostile use of space systems and services.”[8] Yet, the Bush policy’s formal opposition to legal regimes “or other restrictions” was new. Some of it was a nod to a long-standing U.S. policy that because there was no space arms race, there was no need for any kind of arms control agreement on the matter. It also highlighted the Bush administration’s concern with unfettered freedom of action and underlined the administration’s unilateralist tendencies.

The Obama review probably will result in a U.S. policy that is more amenable to multilateral space efforts. One indication of this likely shift is that the United States has been quietly reaching out to allies as part of an interagency review on space to obtain their input. The Space Posture Review and the Quadrennial Defense Review, which are expected to be completed by the end of 2009, will also affect the Obama policy. A key goal of those assessments is to determine what technologies and capabilities the U.S. military needs if it is to maintain its ability to defend the United States and its national security interests.

Recent comments by Pentagon officials indicate that the United States will continue its shift toward a more multilateral approach in space. For example, in May 2009, Brig. Gen. Susan Helms, director of plans and policy for U.S. Strategic Command, said, “With the cost of space development increasing, it is in all our interests to work together.”[9] Space is “no longer the desolate and remote ocean,” but rather a “central station” and “part of the global economy,” she said.[10]

Retired Gen. Lester Lyles, who headed the National Research Council’s Committee on the Rationale and Goals of the U.S. Civil Space Program, also emphasized the need for cooperation. “The United States can no longer pursue space activities on the assumption of its unchallengeable dominance as evidenced by the view of other nations that the United States is not the only, or in some cases even the best, option for space partnerships,” he told Congress in July 2009.[11]

Red Tape at the CD

During the Bush administration, U.S. officials strongly argued that there was no need for new agreements on space. Christina Rocca, U.S. ambassador to the CD, said in February 2007 that universalization of existing conventions “is a much more practical and effective step towards guaranteeing the peaceful use of outer space.”[12] In a March 2008 roundtable, Paula DeSutter, assistant secretary of state for verification, compliance, and implementation, said there is “no—I repeat, no—on-going space arms race.”[13]

Under the Obama administration, the U.S. position shifted. The U.S. delegate to the CD, Chargé d’Affaires Garold Larson, stated in February 2009 that the collision of an Iridium satellite with a nonfunctioning Russian satellite that month “emphasizes the vital importance of international cooperation between governments and industry, which is critical in the future to improve space safety.”[14] He said he looked “to further productive discussions in the CD in connection with outer space.”[15] Three months later, the CD finally, after more than a decade of gridlock, agreed to a program of work.

As the United Nations’ primary disarmament forum, the CD has for many years been the venue for discussions on preventing an arms race in space. The CD differs from the UN Committee on Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS) because the latter has a civil space focus while the former addresses military issues. The committees do not have a formal relationship with each other, and, for a long time, maintained a rigid separation. More recently, however, the participants have recognized that some issues affect both committees.

The program of work to which the CD agreed in May created four working groups: prevention of an arms race in space, fissile material controls, nuclear disarmament, and negative security guarantees. The agreement was hailed by observers as a long-needed break in the CD’s gridlock, but the organization shifted back to form fairly quickly. Space arms control in the CD is now even more firmly linked to nuclear issues. In August, the Pakistani delegation, led by Ambassador Zamir Akram, fretted about vague national security concerns related to the work program and implied that Pakistan was withdrawing its support from the program of work, effectively shutting down the CD because the organization operates by consensus. Akram highlighted Pakistan’s concern that the work program would focus primarily on fissile material control and said, “We wanted to see a program of work being implemented in a way that would set the stage for a balanced outcome on all the four issues.”[16]

The Pakistani action destroyed any hopes for progress this year. Because the work program is valid only for a given year, however, a new one would have to have been created next year anyway. This latest stumbling block may result in another long halt in the CD’s operations, and meaningful arms control solutions should not be expected from the organization in the near term.

Other International Options

A separate treaty attempt on space arms control came in February 2008, when Russia and China introduced the Treaty on the Prevention of Placement of Weapons in Outer Space, the Threat or Use of Force Against Outer Space Objects (PPWT). Following its introduction, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said, “It’s time, by way of preempting, to start serious practical work in this field. Indeed, to prevent a threat is always easier than to remove it.”[17] At the same time, in a message to the CD, Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi said,

Preventing the weaponization of outer space and an arms race in outer space and ensuring the peace and tranquillity of outer space are goals consistent with the shared interests of all countries. It is therefore essential that the international community develop new legal instruments to strengthen the existing legal regime on outer space. The United Nations General Assembly has, over a period of more than 20 years, adopted resolutions by an overwhelming majority which reiterate that the Conference on Disarmament must play a leading role in the negotiation of a multilateral agreement to prevent an arms race in outer space.[18]

With its focus on banning certain types of technologies, the PPWT has been criticized for not limiting destructive or dangerous behavior in space. That aspect of the treaty leaves open the possibility of disputes over technologies that ostensibly are not military in purpose but do retain a weapons capability. Also, the treaty is carefully worded to allow the research, development, and deployment of ground-based anti-satellite weapons (ASATs), which both Russia and China see as essential to combating U.S. space power, while banning space-based missile defense interceptors, something the United States could be holding onto as an option for its overall ballistic missile defense system. The international community has compiled a list of principal questions and comments on the PPWT, and Russia and China are examining the list as of this writing. The two countries’ official response, when released, will probably provide a stepping stone for further discussion of the treaty.

There are four main space treaties currently in force; all of them were products of COPUOS. They are the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, which bans placing weapons of mass destruction in space; the 1968 Rescue Agreement, which calls for cooperation in rescuing astronauts who are in distress; the 1972 Liability Convention, which requires compensation for damage a state’s space objects may do to another state’s assets in space, on earth, or in flight; and the 1974 Registration Convention, which dictates that there must be international notification of space launches. These are good building blocks for international space law, but they do not cover gray areas such as orbital debris and interference with other countries’ space assets.

Informal Arrangements

Although the CD should not be cut out of the discussion altogether, a rigorous assessment of the situation indicates that alternative options should be explored. By developing agreements, albeit unofficial ones, on proper and responsible space behavior, the international community can lay the groundwork for more formal agreements later. This is where operator best practices and the construction of confidence- and security-building measures can be very fruitful. By disentangling states from binding legal agreements, the international community can focus its attention on creating instruments that can have positive effects on the space environment now and not be forced to wait for an indeterminate amount of time before the international community is completely in sync. Furthermore, it is likely that some space powers will be more responsive to these approaches if they are not in treaty form. For example, in January 2008, Acting Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Threat Reduction Donald Mahley said the U.S. approach is “not to tie pragmatic TCBMs [transparency and confidence-building measures] to proposals for space arms control treaties.”[19] That attitude may change with the upcoming Obama space policy, but some remnants of it will probably stubbornly stick around.

Orbital debris is one area in which these unofficial agreements can be productive. A consensus by all space actors, civil and military, is emerging that it is an important issue, and international debris mitigation guidelines are already fairly widely accepted. For example, Nicholas Johnson, chief scientist for orbital debris at NASAJohnsonSpaceCenter, testified to Congress in April 2009 that “[w]e have time. The [space] environment is certainly degrading over time, but at a relatively low rate. If we find that voluntary measures are not working to an extent we would like, other options are certainly possible in the future, but so far we’ve found very good response at the voluntary level.”[20]

A kinetic-energy ASAT ban is another option that would be slightly more controversial but has the potential for success. Unlike the PPWT, this would prohibit actions that would prove hazardous to the space environment and avoids the sticky issue of defining an ASAT, as well as concerns about restrictions on “dual-use” technologies, which have commercial as well as military applications. One question is how this proposed ban would affect U.S. missile defense systems. If it is explicitly worded so that the ban is on actions only, then the United States, as well as Japan, South Korea, and other countries that have purchased or are considering purchasing U.S. missile defenses, would have no cause to worry. Operation Burnt Frost, in which the United States shot down a deorbiting U.S. spy satellite in February 2008 with a modified interceptor from its ship-based missile defense system, demonstrated that kinetic-kill missile defense interceptors have innate offensive capabilities. As Joan Johnson-Freese has pointed out, concerns about countries’ intent in space can never truly be eliminated because much of space technology has this dual quality, but they can “be lessened.”[21] (The comment was referring to China’s space program, but it also applies to other countries.)

In discussions of these more informal agreements on protecting the sustainability of space, emerging space powers need to be included. Otherwise, countries that so far have made relatively small investments in their space programs might not be as interested in signing on to agreements, formal or otherwise, because that could be seen as solidifying the U.S. lead in space capabilities. The current space powers should see that it is to their own advantage to broaden the roster of participants. If the discussions included emerging space powers, those countries would be able to make sure the resulting agreements addressed their concerns and protected their interests. Such a process would give these countries a stake in preserving the space environment and therefore would increase the likelihood that they would abide by the agreements. Perhaps this can be done through the development of regional space policies through existing fora that would allow space powers ways in which to develop common grounds on space issues before bringing them to the larger and possibly more contentious table.

Closer to home, the United States can take steps that would give it more credibility in the international arena when discussing efforts such as space operator best practices. The first and best step would be the inclusion of formal wording in the U.S. space policy document spelling out the U.S. interest in multilateral elements of space security and how such elements would work in concert with unilateral elements. Another move that would demonstrate the U.S. commitment to change would be relieving some of the restrictions of the International Traffic in Arms Regulations. These regulations have severely wounded the U.S. position in the international satellite market and done very little to increase U.S. national security. The United States could, for example, take commercially available space technology that is not militarily sensitive off the United States Munitions List. Although potentially difficult to change as the United States strives to strike a balance between opening up its satellite market and meeting national security concerns, this step would send a strong message to the rest of the world that the United States is serious about cooperation in space.

Meanwhile, the United States should continue certain policies that bolster its position when negotiating in informal multilateral fora about space. One is cooperation on space situational awareness. The U.S. Commercial and Foreign Entities program allows the sharing of information from its satellite catalogue with interested parties and is a good start for enhancing this awareness. Another long-held policy that should be maintained is that U.S. counterspace efforts are temporary and reversible, with the goal of not permanently damaging or destroying another country’s space assets. A change in this policy could lead to a situation that Bruce MacDonald of the U.S. Institute of Peace cited in March 2009 congressional testimony: “[W]e could create a self-fulfilling prophecy: as nations like China or Russia see evidence of U.S. attempted space hegemony, they would accelerate their own efforts, just as we would if the roles were reversed.”[22] An example of that came earlier that same month, when Russian Gen. Valentin Popovkin, a deputy defense minister, hinted that Russia was working on an ASAT capability because “we can’t sit back and quietly watch others doing that.”[23]

Finally, as two of the preeminent space powers, China and the United States should each make a special effort to reach out to the other and conduct bilateral discussions about cooperative efforts in space. This would do much to dispel some of the mistrust and apprehension that has arisen between the two countries with regard to their space programs, research, and intentions. Doing this would also increase the chances of removing major stumbling blocks that could arise in later multilateral space discussions.

In the end, the determining factor for any change in policies to enhance U.S. space capabilities will be issues in international relationships “that have less to do with our ability and more to do with our willingness,” as Gen. James Cartwright, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff told the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in February.[24] Multilateral efforts to handle common space issues outside the traditional arms control arena can be very effectual, but in order to succeed, they require commitment and a shared desire to guarantee the sustainability of space. Otherwise, the international community runs the risk of losing its chance to create common ground and have a positive effect on the space environment.

Victoria Samson is the Washington office director for the Secure World Foundation. From 2001 to 2009, she was a senior analyst at the Center for Defense Information. Prior to joining the center, she was the senior policy associate at the Coalition to Reduce Nuclear Dangers and worked as a consultant to the Ballistic Missile Defense Organization’s Directorate of Intelligence.


1. The White House, “Defense,” n.d., www.whitehouse.gov/issues/defense/.

2. Obama for America, “Advancing the Frontiers of Space Exploration,” n.d., www.fladems.com/page/-/Obama_Space.pdf (released Aug. 17, 2008).

3. Ibid.

4. Ibid.

5. Ibid.

6. “U.S. National Space Policy,” Aug. 31, 2006, www.ostp.gov/galleries/default-file/Unclassified%20National%20Space%20Policy%20--%20FINAL.pdf.

7. Ibid.

8. Donald A. Mahley, “The State of Space,” Remarks at the Space Policy Institute, Washington, Jan. 24, 2008.

9. “MilSpace Panels Stress Urgency of Space Debris and Security Issues,” Satellite News, April 30, 2009.

10. Ibid.

11. Gen. Lester Lyles (Ret.), “Enhancing the Relevance of Outer Space,” Testimony to the House Committee on Science and Technology Subcommittee on Space and Aeronautics, July 16, 2009.

12. Reaching Critical Will, “Governmental Positions on the Core Issues at the Conference on Disarmament: Publicly Stated Positions since 1 January 2003,” July 27, 2009, www.reachingcriticalwill.org/political/cd/positions_matrix.html.

13. Paula A. DeSutter, “Is an Outer Space Arms Control Treaty Verifiable?” Remarks to the George C. Marshall Institute Roundtable, Washington, March 4, 2008, www.marshall.org/pdf/materials/592.pdf.

14. Reaching Critical Will, “Governmental Positions on the Core Issues at the Conference on Disarmament.”

15. Ibid.

16. Jonathan Lynn, “Geneva Nuclear Arms Talks Fail to Overcome Block,” Reuters, Aug. 31, 2009.

17. “Proposal Seeks to Keep Space Arms-Free,” Xinhua News Agency, Feb. 14, 2008.

18. Conference on Disarmament, “Final Record of the One Thousand and Eighty-Ninth Plenary Meeting,” CD/PV.1089, Feb. 12, 2008, p. 8, http://disarmament.un.org.

19. Mahley, “State of Space.”

20. “Keeping the Space Environment Safe for Civil and Commercial Users,” Federal News Service, April 28, 2009 (House Science and Technology Subcommittee on Space and Aeronautics hearing).

21. Joan Johnson-Freese, “The Future of the Chinese Space Program,” Futures, October 2009.

22. Bruce W. MacDonald, “Space and U.S. Security,” Statement before the Committee on House Armed Services Strategic Forces Subcommittee, March 18, 2009.

23. William Matthews, “Keep Space Debris-Free, U.S. Congress Told,” Defense News, March 30, 2009.

24. Jason Simpson, “Analyst: Nation Must Be Agenda-Setter in International Space Policy,” Inside the Air Force, Feb. 13, 2009.