Ambassador Greg Schulte likes to point out he doesn’t come from a space background, having spent most of his career working on international military, nuclear weapons and proliferation issues. He draws heavily on his diplomatic credentials in seeking to promote and implement the U.S. National Security Space Strategy, which is based on the premise that space is becoming increasingly congested, contested and competitive.
The strategy focuses heavily on international cooperation as a means to mitigate the growing orbital debris problem, reduce the chances of space-related accidents or misunderstandings, and make critical U.S. space capabilities more robust and less vulnerable. Another point of emphasis is leveraging commercial sector investments in space in ways that include placing dedicated Department of Defense payloads aboard privately owned communications satellites.
A major challenge for Schulte and his administration colleagues is doing more with less while still maintaining a healthy U.S. space industrial base in an increasingly constrained budgetary environment.
Schulte spoke recently with Space News Editor Warren Ferster.
You’ve talked about establishing a military space dialogue with China, which is bound to be controversial in some circles, including in the U.S. Congress. How can you convince skeptics that this is a good thing?
We’re very cognizant of the investments China is making in counterspace capabilities. That makes it that much more important that we talk to them to make sure they understand our policy, make sure that they understand we consider space to be a national asset and to perhaps convey some deterrent messages too. Neither the United States nor China nor any other spacefaring country has an interest in space becoming an arena for hostilities. So we have an interest in making sure we can develop rules of the road, including with countries like China, to minimize the risk of misperception, mishap or miscalculation, particularly in a crisis.
China ’s 2007 anti-satellite test sparked widespread international criticism. Has Beijing gotten the message that the test was a bad thing?
I would like to think that. I was in Vienna at the time and I remember meeting with my Chinese counterpart, the Chinese ambassador, and asking him what had they just done. At a time when we were working on the Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space to minimize the creation of debris, he didn’t have any talking points; he didn’t have any talking points for about a week or two. You would think that they would have been embarrassed and have learned from that experience, but on the other hand we still see China continue to invest substantially in counterspace capabilities. And not just direct-ascent anti-satellite weapons — it’s things like jammers and lasers and other ways to affect and interfere with space systems.
Has the dialogue with China at least improved since then?
We’d like them to become more forthcoming. But China — particularly the People’s Liberation Army — isn’t big on transparency, and that’s one of the reasons we want to have this dialogue, to encourage them to be more transparent, to encourage them to understand international concerns and to encourage them to understand that we have a shared interest in protecting the space domain.
Some have suggested that this lack of transparency is also a problem among different branches of the Chinese government. Is it possible that many in the civilian leadership were caught off guard by the anti-satellite test?
I’m guessing the ambassador didn’t know anything about it. Our goal is to make sure that when the Chinese make calculations about space they understand that these are issues that have to be made by national leaders, that these are issues that can have strategic impact, which is why we want to have that strategic dialogue with the Chinese and others.
In January the U.S. government removed India from its Entity List of suspected proliferators, presumably opening the door to space cooperation. Is there anything new to report on that front?
We have started a strategic dialogue together with the State Department with India to talk about space security. They’re very interested in this; they’re interested in it for their sake, and they’re also looking to their north, thinking about the capabilities that are being developed there. So I think we have very good opportunities to collaborate in terms of thinking about what rules of the road should look like for space. There are also important opportunities for civil collaboration, and NASA has been talking to India about collaboration in space research.
What can you do to energize the U.S. industrial space base in a time of declining budgets?
There was a time when we could take our industrial base for granted — we can’t anymore. A couple of the approaches the administration is taking are to relook at the way we procure satellites but also to reform export control. Now space as you know is the only area where Congress has legislated export control. So we need Congress to say, “OK, we’re going to give the authority to the president to make sensible changes in export controls that can benefit our industry but not hurt our national security.” And I can assure you we here at the Defense Department are going to make sure our national security isn’t hurt, and we are not worried about letting U.S. industry sell technology for commercial satellites that’s readily available on the global market.
Is it realistic to expect legislative relief in the current political environment?
I think that’s a question for Congress.
What are the barriers to closer cooperation with allies and industry in space situational awareness?
The first barrier to closer cooperation is psychological, and it’s on our side. We have been used to treating space as a domain in which only we operated and in which the data were super secret, and we need to shift to a presumption that we will share more and more data, certainly with close allies and with others. It’s a little bit like the counterterrorism arena where after 9/11 we had to shift from a presumption to protect to a presumption to share. We need to think more about sharing, and Air Force Gen. Robert Kehler, commander of U.S. Strategic Command, has said he intends to share until it hurts.
What’s your vision for Europe’s proposed code of conduct for space activities?
The code of conduct is consistent with our current practices in terms of notification, in terms of our emphasis on mitigating debris; it’s largely about avoiding the creation of debris and increasing transparency through notifications. So we are evaluating the code; we think it has potential, and it would only make sense if it were widely adopted. Were we to pursue it, we would want the full range of spacefaring countries, including countries like India, Brazil and China, to adopt it. Because in the final analysis the proposed code would not be about constraining us, it would really be about exporting our best practices to the rest of the world.
We hear a lot about placing U.S. military payloads on commercial satellites. What about putting U.S. payloads on foreign government satellites — is that being actively considered?
Yes, but I’m afraid I can’t be more specific. We are looking at areas to cooperate with allies where we could put hosted payloads on their satellites that would give both of us additional capabilities that would increase resilience and frankly would also increase deterrence for anyone who was thinking about attacking those particular capabilities.
How might this enhance deterrence?
It increases deterrence because if a country is thinking about going after a particular system they would actually be attacking more than one country so an attack against one effectively becomes an attack against all, which complicates the decision-making.
The Pentagon struck an arrangement under which Australia is effectively funding construction of a Wideband Global Satcom (WGS) communications satellite in exchange for access to the system. Are there more such arrangements in the works?
The Air Force is actually talking to a number of allies about purchasing into the WGS system the same way that Australia has, and we see advantages in doing that. We cost share, which is important in a tight budget environment; we get additional satellites, additional coverage, additional capacity.
What sorts of arrangements are in place for missile warning data sharing?
Today we have something called the shared early warning system whereby we provide warning data from our infrared sensors to partners, but we can easily see this going another step forward where in addition to just providing data you look at architectures where partners actually contribute perhaps hosted payloads or other elements of the early warning architecture. We have a lot of partners who are worried about the development of missile capabilities by Iran or North Korea or others. You could imagine them also wanting to have greater missile warning capabilities, and it just makes sense to look at how do we do this collaboratively so we can all benefit rather than all doing it on our own.