When the Bush Administration unveiled its national space policy last October, nearly six years after taking office, it validated the proposition that presidential decisions on vital matters illustrate the strengths and weaknesses of the administration drafting them.


The policy makes long-overdue changes in defining
vital national interests in space, but it conspicuously lacks the decisive voice needed to safeguard
and her allies from rapidly emerging challenges in space.


An Inauspicious Launch


July 4, 1982
, former U.S. President Ronald Reagan announced his first space policy directive in a flag-bedecked ceremony at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif. Reagan’s self-confidence offers a stark contrast to the release of President George W. Bush’s policy. The newest directive was posted furtively onto a secondary Web site just before a three-day weekend – a slot reserved for the most awkward of official announcements.


This “Friday news dump” treatment backfired. The low-key release delayed press attention, but as it was discovered and received front-page coverage in major news outlets, a fusillade of hostile editorials followed and internationalist critics cited it as yet another example of a “unilateralist” foreign policy.


These reactions are hardly surprising. The fumbled release allowed its critics to frame the debate and again put supporters on the defensive. More significantly, the opportunity to educate the public about the importance of space for security and prosperity was lost.


Missing Opportunities


The new national space policy makes welcome improvements over the 1996
policy. These include the statement that the
United States
“considers space capabilities … vital to its national interests.” The new policy also recognizes the importance of space in homeland security and the increasing criticality of commercial space, emphasizes development of space situational awareness, and reiterates the commitment to civil space exploration.


Importantly, it reiterates long-standing principles of
space policy, including the sovereign right to free use of outer space to support defense and intelligence-related activities. In highlighting “freedom of action,” the new policy reflects the experience of the past decade – when space-based navigation, communications and reconnaissance systems became key enablers for global power projection. This integration of space and warfighting is currently unmatched and gives the
United States
the unique ability to influence world events and promote the values of freedom, democracy and enlightenment.


History shows that any nation at a pinnacle of power will soon be contested by other nations. This suggests that other nations will seek to counter
‘s asymmetric advantage in space, including the development and deployment of ground- and space-based anti-satellite (A-Sat) weapons. In some cases, these activities are accompanied by hypocritical hand-wringing over the specter of an arms race in and the weaponization of outer space. The Jan. 11 Chinese A-Sat test, coupled with
‘s “illumination” of a
satellite last fall, should alert us that we face just that sort of contest in space.


To address these emerging challenges, decisive direction for the entire national security establishment is required. Unfortunately,
policy often lacks such clarity when addressing the key issues of space control and force application.


Weasel Words


The policy’s torturous phrasing and its release late in the president’s second term suggest it is a dismal compromise between political appointees and the bureaucracy. Apparently operating with only minimal feedback from senior leaders, the guidelines for national security space provide little specific direction. In cases where guidance is more specific, it occurs in areas where presidential exhortation is largely irrelevant.


By allowing administrative parochialism to triumph over a clear sense of shared purpose, it avoids explicit calls for action and fails to define clear outcomes for assuring freedom of navigation in space.


The bureaucratic obfuscation on protection explains one of the few clear parts of the policy: the declaration that the
United States
“will oppose the development of new legal regimes or other restrictions that seek to prohibit or limit
access to or use of space.” This continues long-standing
policy regarding free access to space for reconnaissance satellites. It reflects lessons drawn from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty as well as skepticism towards multilateral space disarmament efforts that provide cover for self-serving attempts by
to constrain the
United States
, while doing nothing to restrict their own clandestine A-Sat programs. Unfortunately, the policy’s opposition to “new legal regimes” is not accompanied by fuller discussion on how the
United States
will work with its allies to protect critical space infrastructures. The absence of such discussions has produced confusion about our intentions in those countries that otherwise stand most closely with us.


Next Steps


Policymakers can take several measures to enhance
interests in the short term while establishing a firm foundation for the future.


  • Be forthright. If space is really a national priority, an explanation of how
    will defend its vital interests in the space domain is needed. This explanation will help both domestic and international audiences discern what we stand for and the consequences of inaction.


  • Hold bureaucracies accountable for results. Congress should focus its oversight on the specific actions being taken to enhance space situational awareness, maximize use of commercial space assets and respond to evolving threats to
    and allied interests. The need to link these oversight activities to reprioritization of budgets is obvious.


  • Develop an alliance strategy for space. Although the
    United States
    may retain its absolute advantage in space for some time, the relative
    advantage is declining as others’ capabilities rise. It is essential for the
    United States
    to work closely with its allies to develop coordinated approaches to emerging threats.


Consultations on space security should start with
‘s closest allies:
and the
United Kingdom
. Formation of a space planning group in NATO could develop a common appreciation of the threats and formulate plans to defend against threats from space.


The next administration and future Congresses should be mindful of two additional points.


  • Hire carefully. Barring a “Space Pearl Harbor” crisis, space will remain a second-tier security issue in the next administration. Given these challenges, space policy jobs cannot be treated as plums for sharp-elbowed strivers with only limited knowledge of space programs and technology. Instead, the transition team should seek out prunes with the requisite experience and judgment to achieve results, mend fences with allies and shape responses to emerging threats.


  • Move smartly towards a U.S. Space Corps. Congress and a future administration should consider a bold initiative: creation of an autonomous U.S. Space Corps. Creating such a uniformed space corps would cut along the tear line established in the Space Commission plan, with a senior civilian appointee and four-star military commandant exercising joint control. By desegregating defense and intelligence space activities, this Space Corps could assume direct authority for space policy, planning, programming and budgeting.


The vision and attention to detail needed to inject vitality into
national security space policy has been largely absent for more than a decade. Given the inherent inertia in the
security establishment, such efforts may prove daunting, but the consequences are dire.
defeat in a space engagement would be devastating. Policymakers must take action now to shape events to the
United States
‘ advantage to avoid such a perilous outcome.


Jeff Kueter is president of the George C. Marshall Institute, a Washington-based think tank.