May 23 hearing in the House
Oversight and Government Reform
national security and foreign affairs subcommittee on U.S. national security space policy brought out a surprising dichotomy. Military, industry
nongovernmental organization representatives agreed on the possible value of
rules of the road
and new international mechanisms for reducing space threats faced by the United States. By contrast, the State Department urged a more detached U.S. policy, cautioning against greater U.S. engagement.
To many observers, this argument – with its claims about the “impossibility” of formulating beneficial agreements, achieving transparency
and agreeing on what constituted a space weapon – sounded legalistic and out-of-touch with reality. In January 2007, everyone in the world seemed to recognize what a space weapon was and what it had done. Their shared interest was in stopping the next one.
The State Department’s current perspective reflects a unilateralist space policy that was
tried from 1958-1962 and failed. At that time, U.S. and Soviet nuclear testing and the release of man-made electromagnetic pulse radiation threatened satellites and manned spacecraft alike. Rather than throwing up their hands, however, U.S. leaders changed course. They reached across their gaping political hostilities with the Soviet Union (and claims by domestic naysayers about verification loopholes) to include space in the Limited Nuclear Test Ban Treaty of 1963, as well as to initiate a series of other agreements to improve space security. Such a flexible policy of building on new knowledge about space threats and forming mutual restraint
agreements, as needed, became the hallmark of successful U.S.-Soviet space management. Yet, it is strangely absent from U.S. policy today.
Sadly, despite our self-perceived “defensive” approach to space, most countries now see
us as aggressors. The 2006 U.S. National Space Policy went out of its way to reject any new treaties regarding space. In recent years, the United States has cast the only votes ever against the perennial U.N. resolution on the Prevention of an Arms Race in Outer Space and has been alone in rejecting a Russian-sponsored resolution calling for greater transparency and enhanced confidence-building measures.
Unfortunately, we now face a space arena where international solutions are increasingly urgent to again protect the space environment from possibly irreparable damage. This emerging reality calls for a more engaged U.S. policy. The real question should boil down, not to whether, but
to how to use current U.S. technical advantages in space, our commercial might
and our broad international influence to reduce prospective threats to space, especially
Earth orbit. Such a strategy,
compared to putting our heads in the sand, stands a much better chance of success.
Fortunately, within the Pentagon, the new code-word for space security is so-called “operationally responsive” space, a much less threatening term than the previous focus on “space dominance” and one more appropriate to this fragile environment. There also is growing support for non-destructive U.S. capabilities for dealing with hostile satellites and for reducing U.S. vulnerabilities: decoys, spares, hardening, shielding, denial, deception, jamming, dispersion and reconstitution capability.
But security in space is not primarily a military question, and addressing current problems requires largely non-military means. Space
now is populated by a growing number of civilian actors, including private companies, universities, international consortia
and even individuals. Whether national space programs like it or not, non-state actors are the wave of the future. Plans for sub
orbital commercial flights and orbital space stations will place a growing number of ordinary civilians in low
Earth orbit, where they will be put at risk by future weapons testing.
Notably, important segments of the commercial space industry have broken with current U.S. space security policy by calling for stronger international controls against future destructive activities in space.
Chief Executive David McGlade persuasively argued recently in Space News [“Preserving the Orbital Environment,” Feb. 19, page 27]
our “own self-interest lies in preserving this precious common good,” meaning debris-free space.
If the U.S. government wants to rejoin the debate on halting space weapons and related testing, it will have to overcome a decade
of disinterest and doubt. To strengthen its case, the administration should begin by engaging in less threatening international rhetoric and behavior. But more specific steps will be needed both to rally domestic and international public opinion to its side and to make concrete progress.
First, a campaign is needed to explain to the public
why space is different from the Earth, the seas
global airspace. This campaign needs to focus on the unique problem of space debris, which
is easily understandable to the general public. Such a campaign would put the onus on any country (or other user) that intentionally threatens the safety of the space environment. The commercial community could play a major role here as well
Second, a clearer enunciation of the range of possible measures to improve space security is called for. This discussion should include formal treaties but also considerably less cumbersome (yet possibly quite effective) unilateral declarations, bilateral non-interference pledges, multinational conventions, rules of the road
and codes of conduct. The important point is to be flexible and adaptive to what works, not to refuse
on principle to bargain – which we can do as skillfully as any other country
Third, the space weapons debate needs to be separated from the missile defense debate. While many forms of missile defense use space as a point for interception, this does not mean that restraint-based measures in space (as in all other environments of human activity) should not be pursued.
Strong, space-related arguments can be made for limiting the altitude of interceptions, banning space-based weapons, halting the use of ground-, air- or space-based laser weapons, and prohibiting destructive tests against orbital objects, which generate persistent debris. Such measures could create significant new protections for all users of space, particularly commercial entities and important downstream clients who rely on orbital services.
For all of its criticism of new international measures, the U.S. President George W. Bush’s administration is engaging in significant debris restraint and supported
the U.N. Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space’s
approval of a
first-of-its-kind convention against space debris at its June 2007 meeting. This should be applauded.
But Washington needs to move beyond this long-overdue first step and take the lead in organizing substantive talks toward a new space security framework, one that replaces a
focus, and instead emphasizes the notion of shared
for space. If the U.S. government
will not lead, then industry may need to step into its shoes, given the urgency of the problem.
As the first 50 years of space security have shown, the greatest value from space is information: for communications, navigation, remote sensing, weather forecasting
and intelligence. All of these services depend on debris-free space and international cooperation in preventing future conflicts over such issues as geo-stationary slots, broadcasting frequencies, orbital traffic
and space weapons.
If something good can come from the renewed U.S. debate after the Chinese test about how to pursue enhanced space security, it is perhaps a recognition among critical domestic actors, including members of Congress, that the United States would be well-served to resume its traditional role as a leader, not a passive observer.
James Clay Moltz is professor and deputy director at the Center for Nonproliferation Studies, Monterey Institute of International Studies.