Paula A. DeSutter
Assistant Secretary of State for Verification, Compliance, and Implementation
A s the U.S. State Department’s point person for responding to the Jan. 11 Chinese test of a kinetic anti-satellite missile Paula DeSutter made clear from the outset the position the administration articulated forcefully in the space policy signed by President George W. Bush in August: there is no need for any new arms control agreements to address the Chinese test.
That test and the orbital debris it created pose a problem not just for America, but for the world, she says. “Part of what our national space policy recognizes is that space is a global place for operations. Everyone is dependent on it — and not just the other spacefaring nations. Poorer countries that depend on telecommunications and other services from space assets need to be advised that there is a problem for them as well.”
A long time member of the conservative wing of the Republican Party, DeSutter served more than four years as a staff member on the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, where she was the professional staff’s liaison to Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.). In that job she also was responsible for legislation and oversight of intelligence collection, analysis and activities related to proliferation, terrorism, arms control, the Persian Gulf States, India, Pakistan, China and Afghanistan.
Before heading to Capitol Hill, DeSutter worked for the now defunct Arms Control and Disarmament Agency (ACDA) for 14 years. ACDA was integrated into the State Department as part of a reorganization completed during the administration of President Bill Clinton.
DeSutter, a history buff, spoke recently with Space News Editor Lon Rains and staff writer Colin Clark at her office suite at the State Department, an elegant series of wood-paneled rooms that she has refused to update, insisting on keeping the original Art Deco fixtures and martial mosaics that date back to 1943 when it was known as the New War Building (now State’s George Marshall Wing). It’s a space that according to lore was used by Army Lt. Gen. Leslie Grove, builder of the Pentagon and manager of the Manhattan Project. She’s still researching that.
How many A-Sat tests has China conducted?
There have been three.
Does that include the incident confirmed last year by National Reconnaissance Office Director Don Kerr, who said China shined a laser on a U.S. satellite?
No. It’s three — not counting the laser.
Did the first two tests fail?
That’s what I asked and I was told there had been three attempts — one successful. There might have been one that did not accomplish all of its mission. It did not do an intercept, but nobody in the first test tries to do everything. You test various elements at a time, like in missile defense.
So it depends on what their objectives were with the first two. I don’t think that the first one was attempting to hit anything; the second one might have been.
Did the Chinese inform the United States directly or by a general warning to stay away from the area of the tests?
No. Apparently they may have done an air closure, but you do an air closure in response to a lot of things. Did they do an air closure and say “We’re closing this air space because we’re about to blow up a satellite?” No. And neither, as near as I can tell, did they notify any other country of the impending test.
And I don’t very often say that I am extremely well pleased with the way the intelligence community performed, but on this — both in terms of keeping an eye on things and in terms of letting policy makers know on a timely basis — they’ve really done a terrific job.
You have said that you were not happy with the Chinese response. What specifically are you unhappy about?
We got a platitude about how China opposes arms races in space. Well there is no race because the United States isn’t doing anything.
We asked some questions like “What is your intent with this program? What is it that you’re doing and how do you reconcile this with the type of cooperation that we’ve been looking at?”
We’re still awaiting a more substantive answer.
How do you feel now about the things China has said in the United Nations
and elsewhere about banning space weapons?
When people talk about space weapons and banning them, it often is a code. What they really mean is they want to ban the United States from deploying a space-based missile defense. That’s a program we don’t even have, though it is one that I advocate. These are defensive systems that would take out ballistic missiles, including those with nuclear warheads designed to wreak absolute devastation on other countries.
You do have to nod at the hypocrisy of the Chinese calling year after year for negotiations on a ban on outer space weapons — meaning weapons deployed in outer space, while theirs was ground based.
So the thing that would take out the ballistic missile is the provocative weapon? Come on; give me a break. That’s absurd.
Contrast that with the U.S. approach, which is well articulated in the national space policy. The United States insists on free access to and peaceful use of space for all nations. We are not claiming space as ours; we are not doing anything like that. In the meantime the Chinese are up there conducting something that can only be viewed as a very provocative test of a weapon.
How do you prevent other countries from deciding down the road that they need to conduct similar tests?
That’s a real danger. But I think that danger is not created by the Chinese test. It is created by an awareness of the need for asymmetric capabilities against the United States. So again our national space policy was completed knowing about the Chinese counterspace program and also with a view toward vulnerabilities that other countries could take advantage of.
A space policy cannot just be aimed at one country. It has to be broader in scope. That policy says space is important; it’s a vital asset. We need to figure out better ways of protecting it and enhancing it and the policy acknowledges both our dependence on space and the vulnerabilities, and the need to address those. This is a red line for us. And countries should know that if they try to attack our capability or our space assets they are attacking a vital U.S. interest.
While the new U.S. space policy states clearly that the United States is not interested in negotiating any new space treaties, what about a ban on deliberate kinetic strikes that create debris?
We’re not prepared to constrain our freedom of action and we don’t believe that a piece of paper would make a huge difference in providing for our security.
The question of how we are going to protect our space assets is a huge question and the answer isn’t going to be cheap. We’re going to need as much flexibility and capability to tackle this problem of how to protect our space assets. And the last thing we need to do is to be out there negotiating with Venezuela and Cuba and Iran and North Korea about what it is the United States can and cannot do in space.
If somebody violates an arms control agreement and there’s no consequence, don’t expect them to comply. People think verification is the hardest part. Well, verification is tough; enforcement is worse. We’re seeing that with Iran. People have tried to have bans on anti- satellite weapons in the past. It does not lend itself to verification.
Sen. Kyl characterized the administration’s response as tepid and complained that not enough has been said to the Chinese or the American public. How would you characterize the response?
I personally am comfortable with what we said to the Chinese. What we’re dissatisfied with are the Chinese answers.
As to the second part about whether or not we informed the public enough, any time our intelligence sources and methods are involved, we will tend to be very cautious.
Was the senior leadership in China aware of the test?
My understanding of the way the Chinese budget process works is that the senior leaders know basically what is going on with their investment in large programs. It seems to me, the leadership had to know that they have been investing for at least a decade in a counterspace program.
Now, did the foreign ministry know the other day that they were planning the test that day? I don’t know. How often does the Pentagon notify the State Department about a test they are planning to conduct over our own territory?
Unless one is going to assert that they simply have a rogue Ministry of Defense, then it certainly seems that the senior leadership had to know about the overall program. But in the big scheme of things I don’t think it matters all that much.