U.S. Moves Forward on Space Policy

Jeff Abramson and Nik Gebben

The Obama administration has made clarifications to its space policy in recent months, but has continued to delay its decision on supporting a voluntary international code of conduct that has recently drawn questions from a large group of Republican senators.

On Feb. 4, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and Director of National Intelligence James Clapper released an unclassified summary of the “National Security Space Strategy.” The document outlines how the defense and intelligence communities will carry out the National Space Policy, released in June 2010. (See ACT, September 2010.) The space strategy, which seeks to address a “strategic environment” that is “increasingly congested, contested, and competitive,” details five interrelated approaches: responsibility, improved U.S. space capabilities, international cooperation, prevention and deterrence, and preparation to defeat attacks and operate in a “degraded environment.”

As with the 2010 space policy, the new document states that the administration will consider “proposals and concepts for arms control measures if they are equitable, effectively verifiable, and enhance the national security of the United States and its allies,” but offered no specifics on what particular proposals those would be. The policy also does not explicitly address space weaponization, an ongoing topic of concern in the international community.

At a news briefing the day of release, Deputy Secretary of Defense William J. Lynn responded to questions about placing weapons in space or attacking assets in space by saying the policy “doesn’t address those issues.” He reiterated ongoing U.S. policy that “we retain the right to respond …[with] whatever we would choose to be the appropriate means.”

At the same briefing, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Space Policy Gregory Schulte described the administration’s arms control approach as “promoting what we like to call transparency and confidence-building measures, which tend to be voluntary as opposed to legally binding.” In particular, he highlighted the so-called EU code of conduct “as a potential way to do that.” (See ACT, November 2010.) The voluntary code includes a commitment to refrain from harming space objects, measures to control and mitigate space debris, and mechanisms for cooperation and consultation.

The United States has been considering the code for months. In her Jan. 27 opening statement to the Conference on Disarmament (CD), Assistant Secretary of State for Arms Control, Verification and Compliance Rose Gottemoeller said, “We plan to make a decision in the coming weeks as to whether the United States can sign on to this Code, including what, if any, modifications would be necessary.” A senior Department of State official confirmed in a Feb. 23 interview that no decision had been reached yet.

The official indicated, however, that the code has been reviewed by an interagency team and is now awaiting a decision on whether to move forward with a phase of formal consultation with the European Union.

In her Feb. 8 speech to the CD, EU nonproliferation official Annalisa Giannella said that the EU is considering organizing “a multilateral experts meeting in 2011” to discuss the code in preparation for an ad hoc conference in which the code could be opened for signature. The State Department official indicated that attending such an experts meeting would be an appropriate step for the United States should it decide to pursue the code formally.

Although the code would be nonbinding, a group of 37 Republican senators sent a letter Feb. 2 to Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton requesting that the administration “immediately consult” with key Senate committees and interested senators. The letter’s authors, led by Sen. Jon Kyl (Ariz.), said that they were “deeply concerned” that the administration may pursue “a multilateral commitment with a multitude of potential highly damaging implications for sensitive military and intelligence programs (current, planned or otherwise).” In particular, they asked for clarifications as to whether the code would limit deployment of missile defense interceptors in space or development of space-based systems capable of defeating anti-satellite weapons.

The State Department official indicated that an administration response to the letter was forthcoming and that the code is generally consistent with the National Space Policy. As with the strategy policy, the National Space Policy does not explicitly create new limits on space-based systems, including those identified by the senators.

Also, the administration indicated that the release of the space security strategy document marked the end of its space posture review. That review, which was mandated in the fiscal year 2009 National Defense Authorization Act, required the administration to provide Congress with various plans and policies, including an assessment of the relationship among military, national security, arms control, export control, and industrial base policies as they relate to space.