WASHINGTON — A set of guidelines issued by Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin for responsible space operations should be part of a wider conversation about how to maintain safety and security in space, a senior Pentagon official said July 26.

 Austin in a July 7 memo said DoD should operate in space “with due regard to others and in a professional manner.” The memo also listed five “tenets” of responsible behavior: Limit the generation of long-lived debris, avoid the creation of harmful interference, maintain safe separation and safe trajectory, communicate and make notifications about space activities.

John Hill, who is performing the duties of assistant secretary of defense for space policy, said these guidelines are only intended for DoD space operators but also are meant to contribute to a broader dialogue to encourage civilian, commercial and other organizations that do business in space to adopt a common set of rules.

“This is something that’s very important to understand: the Department Defense has no regulatory authority, no oversight authority. That’s not our competence, it’s not our strength,” Hill said in an interview with SpaceNews.

In response to Chinese and Russian advancements in anti-satellite weapons, leaders of the U.S. Space Force and U.S. Space Command have called for the adoption of international norms of behavior to deter testing and deployment of such weapons. 

Hill said anti-satellite weapons developments are concerning but this is not an issue that can be handled like traditional arms control. The conversation has to be about voluntary adherence rather than rigid rules because of the complexity of space operations and the number of actors that have stakes in the space domain, said Hill.

“The U.S. government’s view is that we should be pursuing voluntary, non-binding norms,” he said. 

“We would likely make more progress by engaging with other space operators, be they government, civil, military, commercial, universities, whatever field they come from,” said Hill. “We will make more progress through efforts to share views on what we think are the best practices and encourage each other to adopt those best practices.”

International discussions on space security for years have been at a standstill in part because countries and agencies have focused on “what should we all agree that we should prohibit,” said Hill. “That type of ‘arms control’ approach can be unending before you reach agreement and meantime space operations will continue to proliferate.”

With many more governments and commercial players now having access to space, he said, “We think that a voluntary, non-binding approach is simply more productive for all space operators”

What’s next 

The United States along with other UN member states in May submitted comments for a report on “Reducing Space Threats Through Norms, Rules and Principles of Responsible Behaviors” that will be unveiled this fall during the UN General Assembly meeting in New York. 

This initiative is important, said Hill, but it’s not policy. “What the United States government submitted to the United Nations is a ‘thought piece,’ it’s not a binding policy document.”

Austin’s memo directs U.S. Space Command to turn the five tenets into more specific guidance. 

A spokesperson for U.S. Space Command said the next step is to “define responsible military space behavior similar to what we seen in the air and sea domains.”

Hill said Space Command will coordinate this effort with civilian and commercial space organizations. The National Space Policy issued by the Trump administration in 2020 says the private sector is “encouraged to continue defining responsible commercial behavior and develop the technology to ensure a sustainable space environment.”

“We asked Space Command to think about what are more specific next level types of behaviors that we might want to incorporate in Department of Defense guidance,” said Hill. “They will of course, look at and probably interact with civil and commercial operators, and they will take ideas and suggestions and thoughts from those operators.”

Hill said DoD welcomes feedback and further discussions on Austin’s memo. “It’s entirely unclassified. We posted it on the web and shared it with others because we like to be transparent about what we’re doing,” he said. “If others find this to be useful, they’re more than welcome to use it, but this is only guidance for the Department of Defense.”

A caveat in Austin’s guidance is that the tenets should be followed “unless otherwise directed.” 

This means all bets would be off during a conflict if the United States came under attack. “Think of these tenets as the day-to day-practices,” said Hill. “Now of course we’re a military organization,” he added. “The United States has an inherent right of self defense.”

Sandra Erwin writes about military space programs, policy, technology and the industry that supports this sector. She has covered the military, the Pentagon, Congress and the defense industry for nearly two decades as editor of NDIA’s National Defense...