A fter years of review and bureaucratic wrangling, the Bush administration has finally revealed its rewrite of U.S. National Space Policy (NSP). The fact that the document, signed Aug. 31 by President George W. Bush (after going through some 35 drafts), was released at 5 p.m. on Oct. 6 — the Friday before the Columbus Day weekend — perhaps says something about the political sensitivity that continues to surround overarching U.S. goals for space, particularly military space.

The new policy thus emerged not with a bang, but with a whimper: with administration and military officials seeking to downplay the differences between it and its predecessor, which dated from 1996 and the Clinton White House. Indeed, much of the old Clinton-era verbiage appears unchanged in the new document.

That said, the Bush NSP also is suffused with a subtle, but extremely important, shift in tonality. In contrast to the previous version, which focused on civil and commercial space, and went out of its way to tout international cooperation, the Bush policy is all about us. That is, it is all about asserting unhindered U.S. rights, especially military rights, in space, rather than focusing on universal or collective rights of spacefaring powers.

One telling comparison regards the right of passage in space, the freedom of which is a solid tenet of the 1967 Outer Space Treaty to which the United States is a signatory:

  • Clinton NSP — “The United States considers the space systems of any nation to be national property with the right of passage through and operations in space without interference. Purposeful interference with space systems shall be viewed as an infringement on sovereign rights.” (Emphasis added.)
  • Bush NSP — “The United States considers space systems to have the rights of passage through and operations in space without interference. Consistent with this principle, the United States will view purposeful interference with its space systems as an infringement on its rights.” (Emphasis added.)

Yes, the distinction is slight — and comparing the two documents is somewhat akin to Kremlinology during the Cold War, when analysts scanned various photos to see which general was standing where in respect to Stalin — but such small differences quickly become a pattern. The clear focus of the Bush policy is on national security and military space. This is perhaps best seen in comparing the goals sections of the two NSPs side-by-side. Of Clinton’s five goals for the U.S. space program, only two mention national security; of six Bush goals, four do so.

Further, the viewpoint is clearly unilateralist — even hinting at zero-sum game logic whereby gains for any other spacefaring nations might be seen as losses for the United States. For example, the NSP states: “In this new century, those who effectively utilize space will enjoy added prosperity and security and will hold a substantial advantage over those who do not. Freedom of action in space is as important to the United States as air power and sea power.”

Perhaps the most important tweak on the Clinton language comes to the passage that could be read, similarly to its Clinton counterpart, as approving the development of anti-satellite weapons and/or space-based weapons.

The long-debated and much-interpreted Clinton language stated: “Consistent with treaty obligations, the United States will develop, operate and maintain space control capabilities to ensure freedom of action in space, and, if directed, deny such freedom of action to adversaries. These capabilities may also be enhanced by diplomatic, legal or military measures to preclude an adversary’s hostile use of space systems and services.” (Emphasis added.)

The new policy states: “The United States considers space capabilities — including ground and space segments and supporting links — vital to its national interests. Consistent with this policy, the United States will preserve its rights, capabilities, and freedom of action in space; dissuade or deter others from either impeding those rights or developing capabilities intended to do so; take those actions necessary to protect its space capabilities; respond to interference; and deny, if necessary, adversaries the use of space capabilities hostile to U.S. national interests.

“The United States will oppose the development of new legal regimes or other restrictions that seek to prohibit or limit U.S. access to or use of space. Proposed arms control agreements or restrictions must not impair the rights of the United States to conduct research, development, testing and operations or other activities in space for U.S. national interests.” (Emphasis added.)

The latter paragraph above is particularly telling regarding the attitude of those who authored the Bush policy. It is, of course, obvious that the United States would not support legal regimes or agreements that undercut our national interests. That would be stupid. But the wording of the NSP is also just as obviously a shot across the bow of the international community, the United Nations and domestic critics who contend that anti-satellite warfare and weapons based in space would be in no one’s interest, least of all the United States. The dismissive attitude toward cooperative security in space is made clearer by the fact that the only time international bodies, treaties or agreements are referred to in the new NSP, it is in the negative.

The new NSP language that augments, and improves, the Clinton-era document in the arena of homeland security and increasing interagency cooperation — as well as that which maintains the strong commitment to best practices regarding the mitigation of dangerous space debris — is to be welcomed. But coming after the publication of military documents, such as the Air Force Counterspace Operations Doctrine of August 2004, that advocate an aggressive U.S. strategy for space warfare, the new NSP does little to alleviate concerns, both at home and abroad, about the future military conduct of the United States in space. If anything, the tone of the new policy is likely to convince allies and friends, as well as possible enemies, that the space game is increasingly every man for himself. And that, unfortunately, will certainly have negative consequences for the future security of all.

Theresa Hitchens is Director of the World Security Institute’s Center for Defense Information, and author of “Future Security in Space: Charting a Cooperative Course.”