ecent threats by France to publish the orbital parameters of 20 to 30 unidentified objects presumed to be classified
U.S. spy satellites underscores the degree to which space-related diplomacy and policymaking struggle to keep pace with events.
Now comes the question of how much information about operational satellites should be in the public domain. The French are miffed that the orbits and location of their military satellites are published by the U.S. Air Force as part of an almost-comprehensive registry of known satellites and space junk – certain U.S. government satellites are excluded – and say they will return the favor unless that practice ends.
The orbital disposition of U.S. spy satellites is a jealously guarded secret, even though it is fair to assume much of this information already is known to other spacefaring nations such as China, India, Japan, Russia and the major European powers. Indeed, U.S. government officials have accused China of deliberately illuminating a U.S. satellite with a ground-based laser, something Beijing could not have done without an independent means of space surveillance. In fact, spotting U.S. spy satellites – particularly the big radar satellites in low orbit – has long been a game of sport among a small band of hobbyists around the world.
Many of France’s military satellites are experimental, but French defense officials say they are serious about fielding operational space capabilities in areas such as electronic eavesdropping and missile warning.
In any case, France has a point: Why should the whereabouts of U.S. national security satellites be held sacred while French satellites are treated as fair game?
Perhaps more importantly, France now has the technical means to even the score.
This goes to the larger point that space-related capabilities that once were the exclusive domain of a very few nations – in many instances the United States alone – are becoming more widely available. This is not so much a revelation as a recurring theme, but it is one Washington has always seemed to accept only grudgingly.
Given the increasingly crowded environment in which satellites of all types operate, there is obvious benefit to having a public registry of Earth-orbiting objects from large satellites to the tiniest pieces of observable debris. The question of whether certain satellites should be left out of the registry – and if so, which ones – is far more complicated now that France has pushed it into the realm of international diplomacy.
The inexorable spread of space technology is bringing an end to the days when issues such as this could be decided unilaterally based on who had what capability. While few would argue that the U.S. Space Surveillance Network is not the world’s best in terms of the number and size of space objects it can detect and track, when it comes to operational spy satellites, France’s Graves radar – and probably others operated by countries like China – appears good enough.
France, having made its point, now should refrain
from following through on its threat. While some countries
already might know the whereabouts of America’s satellites, others do not. Some of the countries that presumably are still in the dark – Iran and North Korea come to mind – are engaged in activities that bear watching for the sake of everyone.
The same holds true for non-state actors, including terrorist organizations. The recent hijacking of Intelsat satellite signals by the Tamil Tigers separatist group in Sri Lanka attests to the growing awareness and technical savvy of these organizations: One must assume that, armed with knowledge of the disposition of the U.S. spy fleet, they would time certain activities such as communications or movements of materiel so as to escape detection by satellites passing overhead.
In the meantime, the United States and France should begin a dialogue on this matter, if they have not already done so. Perhaps some sort of a bilateral arrangement can be reached that strikes a reasonable balance between the need, especially among spacefaring nations, to understand the cluttered orbital environment and legitimate security-related concerns. Any such deal could form the basis of a multilateral regime, which will become necessary as other nations acquire sophisticated space-surveillance capabilities.