International Cooperation Emphasis of Forthcoming U.S. Space Policy

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WASHINGTON — The United States will soon unveil a pair of new space policy documents that will prescribe increased international cooperation on the development of space systems and detail a code of conduct for space operations, according to U.S. Defense Department officials.

The White House National Security Council has been leading an interagency effort to draft a new National Space Policy to provide guidance for U.S. civil and military space activities. The framework for the policy changes is in place, but specifics about their implementation are still being hammered out, said Michael Nacht, assistant secretary of defense for global strategic affairs, at a May 12 Henry L. Stimson Center event here. The National Space Policy is expected to be finalized around the end of May, he said.

Simultaneously, the Pentagon is conducting its own Space Posture Review that was mandated by Congress last year. An interim version of the review  delivered to Congress March 15 described the current space environment as congested, contested and competitive. The final review will be delivered after the White House’s Space Policy Review, Pentagon officials said earlier this year.

Nacht said anticipation of flat to declining military space budgets in the years ahead is the driving force behind the drafting of new policies intended to increase cooperation with other nations. The United States has a long history of international collaboration on civil space missions, and this can serve as a model for other mission areas, he said.

The new U.S. space policies will likely adopt a principle of so-called selective interdependence, by which cooperation among space-faring nations is intended to deter on-orbit conflict. He cited the GPS constellation as an example of a system with some level of built-in deterrence because of the many nations that rely on the capability.


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“We need to protect capabilities in certain areas, like surveillance and command and control, but in other areas, such as environmental monitoring and perhaps even missile warning, our shared interests could open the door to possible cooperation between nations,” Nacht said. “Much as economic ties in an increasingly globalized world may make conflict less likely, ties in space have the prospect to influence countries to behave with one another in a positive manner.”

In what could be a significant departure from existing U.S. space policy, the new policies are expected to adopt some sort of code of conduct for U.S. space operations that other nations would be encouraged to follow as well. The U.S. National Space Policy issued in 2006 by the administration of then-President George W. Bush opposed the adoption of any new legal regimes or restrictions on the nation’s use of space.

“We seek as a minimum that space-faring nations would cooperate to track debris and notify each other about possible conjunctions of spacecraft,” Nacht said. “We need shared best practices in space to provide predictability in the congested environment that space has become.”

Nacht cited a model code of conduct for responsible space-faring nations issued by the Stimson Center in 2007 as one possibility under consideration. The Stimson Center’s code included a number of rights and responsibilities for actors in space, including: the right to space access for exploration and other peaceful purposes; the right to safe and interference-free space operations; the right to self-defense; the responsibility to share information related to space operations and traffic management; the responsibility to mitigate and minimize debris; and the responsibility to refrain from harmful interference against space objects.

U.S. Marine Corps Gen. James Cartwright, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, echoed the need for more regulation and openness in the space environment during a different forum here two days later.

“When there were tens [of satellites] in space, we kept it a secret,” Cartwright said May 14 at the Global Security Forum here hosted by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “Now that there are tens of thousands, we’re still trying to keep it a secret. It’s kind of like taking a fighter jet and saying, ‘The rules shouldn’t apply to me. I’m just going to fly through the traffic pattern in New York City because I’m the military.’

“We’re going to have to get some level of regulation, and nobody wants to do that.”

In addition to contributing to a dangerous space environment, the United States’ secrecy in space has also damaged the domestic industrial base, Cartwright said.

“Quite frankly, by keeping everything a secret, we’ve disadvantaged our own industry to the point where we’re becoming non-competitive in the global market. Our ability to build components, etc., is lagging,” he said. “We’ve got a few, and we can be exquisite, but our ability to compete on the international market for commerce in space has really taken a hit.”

The third prong of the forthcoming U.S. space policy will be to deny adversaries a benefit from attacks in space, Nacht said. Existing systems can be protected with tactics to limit their vulnerability, and redundancies can be built into future systems to make them more resilient, he said. The United States also can be ready to rapidly augment capabilities that are lost, and cross-domain solutions can be devised to mitigate the loss of space assets.