WASHINGTON — The head of U.S. Strategic Command is trying to establish closer ties with China and Russia on space issues to help reduce the potential for any misunderstandings between the Pentagon and the military forces of those two countries.
Forming closer bonds with those nations could help ease suspicions between the Pentagon and those militaries over what the other might be planning to do in space, said U.S. Marine Corps Gen. James Cartwright, commander of U.S. Strategic Command.
One of the ways he intends to accomplish that goal is by exchanging officials with those military forces in China and Russia.
Talks with China are still in the early stages, but the cooperation with Russia could soon result in an exchange of field grade officers, Cartwright said during a Sept. 8 interview at the Pentagon.
Field grade officers are typically majors, lieutenant colonels and colonels.
Cooperation with the Russian military on space issues was broached this past spring when officials from the U.S. and Russian militaries visited each other’s space facilities.
Top Russian officials visited Schriever Air Force Base, Colo., the Air Force Academy’s small satellite laboratory, Colo., the Joint Space Operations Center at Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif., and the Atlas launch facility at Patrick Air Force Base, Fla., during a visit that ran from late February through early March. Cartwright followed that visit with a trip to Russia in April, where he met with a variety of top Russian military officials.
Cartwright noted during the interview that NASA has had a history of strong cooperation with Russia, and said he would like to see the Pentagon establish a similar bond on military space matters. He said that he and his counterpart, Gen. Vladimir Popovkin, commander of the Russian space forces, are still defining the goals of their cooperation, but one of the initial focuses will be space launch. Cooperation could include U.S. and Russian officers working side by side on a c tivities ranging from research and development to rocket assembly, he said.
Russia will likely send an officer to the United States as the first part of the staff exchange, Cartwright said.
Classification of payloads could be one of the limitations involved with cooperative work in this area, Cartwright said. However, cooperative work with Russia on launch activities could be particularly valuable to the Pentagon as it relies on the Russian-made RD-180 engine for the Atlas 5 rocket, which along with the Boeing Delta 4 carries the bulk of U.S. military payloads to orbit.
Russian officers who get an up close look at the way that the Pentagon approaches launch operations may find some ways of improving their own processes, Cartwright said.
Operating and monitoring satellites is another area for cooperation that Cartwright believes could be mutually beneficial. Collision avoidance is a high priority for the United States and Russia, with both countries seeking to protect both manned and unmanned spacecraft from colliding with other objects in orbit, he said.
Collaborative work in this area could play a role in helping assure officials from each military that the other does not have ulterior motives for its use of space surveillance sensors, Cartwright said.
“If you get a chance to sit and watch people do business and see people perform, then there is a better understanding of ‘OK, I understand what they’re doing,'” Cartwright said. “Transparency helps you get to a better basis of ground truth.”
In the case of China, the first step towards a better relationship may have come when Luo Ge, vice administrator of the China National Space Administration, spoke at the National Space Symposium in Colorado Springs, Colo., in April. Cartwright indicated during the interview that he hoped to see further Chinese representation at space conferences in the United States.
The top item on the agenda for cooperation with China would likely be addressing collision avoidance, Cartwright said. The two militaries could develop methods for handing collisions, whether that entails a satellite accidentally crashing into another spacecraft, or unintentional interference between the signals of two communications satellites, he said.
Dealing with these issues raises a lot of questions, Cartwright said.
“If a communications satellite is not working right and starts to wander in its frequency, who do you call?” Cartwright said. “How do you do that in a way that is reliable and you can expect a certain amount of performance? I might send a letter to the embassy, but who will answer it? Will it really get to the other commercial partner?”
The two countries also could develop joint standards for station keeping so that one military is not alarmed by a sudden maneuver of the other’s satellite that was intended as station keeping, not as the beginning of an attack, Cartwright said.
Several defense experts who have expressed concern in the past about the possibility of warfare in space applauded Cartwright’s ideas for cooperation with Russia and China.
Theresa Hitchens, director of the Center for Defense Information, a Washington-based think tank, said that she hoped to see the Pentagon implement Cartwright’s ideas for cooperation with other European allies as well.
“The more transparency there is, the more everyone knows how everyone else is operating, less tension you will have,” Hitchens said.
Hitchens noted that Russia has sophisticated models for predicting orbital location of objects in space that could benefit the Pentagon’s space situational awareness work.
Michael Krepon, president emeritus of the Stimson Center, another Washington-based think tank, praised the concept of establishing clear guidelines for dealing with issues like station-keeping, collision and unintentional jamming.
The Stimson Center had published its own proposed “Code of Conduct for Outerspace” in 2004, and currently is working on a revised version in consultation with experts from countries including China, Russia, Japan, France and Canada, he said .
Gregory Kulacki, a China specialist at the Union of Concerned Scientists, an advocacy group based in Cambridge, Mass., said that the commercial satellite sector would likely welcome clearer lines of communication with China to help resolve instances of jamming of satellites.
While the International Telecommunications Union is intended as the formal channel for resolving such issues, most firms prefer to avoid the bureaucracy and settle issues informally, Kulacki said. However, this can be difficult in the case of China due to U.S. export controls that stand in the way of commercial space relations between U.S. firms and China, he said via e-mail from China, where the Union of Concerned Scientists has a working group on space security with Beijing University of Aeronautics and Astronautics’ Institute of Space Science.
That working group currently is conducting a study of problems that debris in orbit can cause for satellites, including the possible debris fall out from an attack on a spacecraft, Kulacki said.
Kulacki said that military-to-military cooperation with China could face resistance in both countries. He said there are ill feelings on both sides in the aftermath of the allegations of spying against Wen Ho Lee, an American citizen who was born in Taiwan and charged with stealing secrets from Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico to benefit China’s nuclear warhead development.
The original spying charges against Lee were dropped, though he later plead guilty to improperly handling of sensitive data following a subsequent investigation. The congressional investigation into allegations of Chinese spying known as the Cox Report, which was issued in January 1999, further hardened feelings on both sides, Kulacki said.