WASHINGTON — The United States would not be prohibited from deploying any type of space system by adopting a code of conduct for space activities that has been proposed by the European Union (EU), the U.S. Defense Department’s top space policy official told lawmakers May 11.
The Pentagon is still reviewing the code of conduct but believes it is well aligned with the new U.S. National Space Policy and would help ensure new spacefaring nations act responsibly in space, Gregory L. Schulte, U.S. deputy assistant secretary of defense for space policy, said during a hearing of the Senate Armed Services strategic forces subcommittee.
Schulte was responding to the subcommittee’s ranking member, Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), who raised concerns that the draft Code of Conduct for Outer Space Activities proposed by the EU in October would prevent the United States from deploying certain systems or conducting certain activities in space related to national security.
“We have the most capable [space] program in the world by far, I think,” Sessions said. “We’ve advanced further technologically in development and actual deployment of these systems than anyone else, and agreements [and] codes of conduct tend to … constrain our military.
“Our military’s fundamentally configured so it depends on space capabilities. So I would be a bit nervous and am a bit nervous and want to examine carefully whether or not through some agreement we’ve constricted our ability to effectively defend our interests.”
Schulte sought to distinguish the code of conduct, which he said is voluntary and nonbinding, from an arms control agreement. The National Space Policy issued by U.S. President Barack Obama in June 2010 states that the nation will consider arms control agreements that are equitable, verifiable and enhance the national security of the United States and its allies.
“So far we haven’t found an arms control agreement that does that,” Schulte said. “There’s one on the table that has been proposed by Russia and China. We have declared it … fundamentally flawed because it’s not verifiable and it doesn’t capture many of the Chinese counterspace systems that worry us.”
Schulte was referring to a ban on space weapons that has been proposed numerous times by Russia and China at the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva. The Obama administration — like the administration of George W. Bush before it — has rejected the proposal.
Rather, the EU code of conduct is a series of so-called transparency and confidence- building measures by which the United States already generally abides, Schulte said.
“Our goal isn’t to constrain ourselves — we think we act pretty responsibly in space — the goal is to try to constrain new and emerging space powers to ensure they adopt procedures that would, for example, mitigate the creation of debris and avoid mishaps and instability in space,” Schulte said.
Sessions asked specifically about whether the code of conduct would prevent the United States from developing or deploying kinetic anti-satellite weapons or space-based missile interceptors.
“It would not do that,” Schulte responded. “It doesn’t constrain capabilities, it constrains behaviors.
“It would discourage any activities that would create a lot of debris.”
Sessions pointed out that anti-satellite weapons that the United States may want to deploy would necessarily create debris, and thus the code of conduct would in effect prohibit their use.
Schulte responded that “you can necessarily impact all satellites without creating debris,” an assertion that was met with skepticism by Sessions.
Sessions also sought a guarantee that the Pentagon would consult with Congress in advance of agreeing to any multination agreement such as the EU code of conduct. Schulte responded that decision would be up to the State Department.
“We have briefed the Armed Services Committee, Foreign Relations and Intelligence committee staffs on the code, and we intend continue to consult with Congress as we move forward,” a State Department official said May 13. “The Department of State, along with representatives from other appropriate departments and agencies, will continue our briefings to the relevant congressional committees on the code.”