Report Urges More U.S. Action To Protect Space Environment

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WASHINGTON — The National Space Policy issued by U.S. President Barack Obama in June was a positive step toward securing the space environment for all users, but little is being done to implement its stated goals and some of its language must be better defined, according to a new report from a science advocacy group.

The United States should take on a greater leadership role in the international community with regard to space security issues, and it should pledge not to attack or destroy other nations’ satellites and implement more transparency and data sharing measures, the Union of Concerned Scientists said in a Nov. 15 report, “Securing the Skies.”

The United States has a vital interest in keeping its satellites safe and secure, as the nation depends on space capabilities for military and civil government uses as well as U.S. commercial endeavors, the report said. This has become more challenging in the last couple of decades as the number of satellites and pieces of debris on orbit has risen dramatically with the emergence of new players and new applications. Because of the special nature of space, the United States cannot address space security issues on its own and therefore must be a leader on the international scene, the report said.

Developing an international consensus for keeping the space environment secure may take years, and hurdles such as treaty verification are significant, but the matter is urgent and work should begin immediately, the report said. It outlined 10 near-term steps the United States should work toward in this regard.

“The Obama administration has pledged international cooperation in space and has even stated its intention to reinvigorate U.S. leadership in that domain,” the report said. “But so far its actions have been incommensurate with the urgency of space security and sustainability issues.”

The first step, it said, should be for the administration to elaborate on its National Space Policy approach and goals to provide better high-level guidance for U.S. policymakers and to clarify intentions to other nations. The policy emphasizes international cooperation, but it fails to specify what the United States aims to gain from cooperation or the strategic concepts that will be used to achieve this, the report said. Additionally, the policy states the U.S. will seek to “assure the use of space for all responsible parties,” but it does not provide a definition of “responsible.”

The National Space Policy supports the development of transparency and confidence-building measures, but it states the nation will only consider arms control proposals that are “equitable, effectively verifiable, and enhance the national security of the United States and its allies.” This is a welcome change in tone from the previous U.S. policy, but the administration must do more to articulate specific approaches and measures that it could support, the report said.

Another step to increasing space security would be for the United States to declare that it will not damage or disable any satellites operating in accordance with the Outer Space Treaty and to pledge that the United States will not be the first to station dedicated weapons in space, though the report acknowledges the difficulty in defining what constitutes a space weapon. It said the nation should also pledge not to deploy space-based missile defense interceptors and not to use any land-, sea- or air-based missile defense systems to attack or destroy a satellite, even in testing.

The report outlined a number of other steps that the U.S. government should take to enhance space security, including:

  • Pursue a hedging strategy by improving its ability to reconstitute satellite capabilities with other space-, air- and ground-based backup systems. Satellites are inherently vulnerable to physical attacks because of their fragility and predictability, and maintaining robust backup capabilities would reduce the effectiveness and likelihood of an anti-satellite attack, the report said.
  • Modify export control regulations to reduce barriers to commercial and civil space collaboration. Over the past decade, concerns about U.S. technology being transferred to China have led to tight restrictions on space hardware that can be sold commercially outside the United States, the report said. The problem is complex and entrenched, and thus will require a high level of effort by the White House and Congress to address it in a way that balances the concerns and needs of the military and those of the commercial and civil space communities, the report said.
  • Take steps to initiate more international dialogue related to space security. The administration should place a high priority on identifying the most productive venue and agenda for conducting negotiations on space security and sustainability, the report said. The nation should also assemble a team with the diplomatic, technical and legal experience necessary to support these kinds of negotiations and encourage other nations to do the same. Until these types of teams are in place, participants are unlikely to come to the table with feasible and carefully considered positions, the report said.
  • Hammer out a program for verifying international agreements. While many experts have said space-based arms control treaties are unverifiable, some verification could be accomplished if the United States and other participants agree to share data and submit to some form of inspections, the report said.
  • Deliver on the National Space Policy’s promise to develop and implement transparency and confidence-building measures to a greater extent. The White House has made a positive first step in this area by announcing that it will provide prelaunch notification of commercial and civil government satellite launches and the majority of intercontinental and submarine-based ballistic missile launches. Further steps the United States should make include providing orbital data for all satellites that are difficult to track or that are classified but not operational, the report said. For example, the United States should reveal the position of the Defense Support Program-23 missile warning satellite, which failed in 2008 and is adrift in the geostationary orbit arc, where it could pose a hazard to other spacecraft.