Space policy advice for Biden: Tone down war rhetoric, fix military acquisitions

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The Biden administration should support U.S. space activities while abandoning divisive and antagonistic rhetoric, says a new report from the Secure World Foundation.

WASHINGTON — The Biden administration should not undo progress made in space policy during the Trump presidency, experts suggest. But they urge incoming leaders to tone down the militaristic rhetoric surrounding space and pay more attention to practical matters like the procurement of next-generation technologies.

“We urge the Biden administration to place a high priority on supporting U.S. space activities by building on recent national space policy decisions that reflect long-standing U.S. principles while abandoning the divisive and antagonistic rhetoric that has accompanied those policy changes,” says a new report from the Secure World Foundation released Dec. 2.

The 42-page report delves into a number of space policy issues and lists recommendations for the Biden-Harris administration.

“We don’t expect space to be the biggest Biden priority,” says Krystal Azelton, the foundation’s director of space applications programs. Ensuring space sustainability should be a concern, however, she says. “It’s important to get it right because space is essential to modern life.”

Azelton cautions against making space policy decisions based on anti-Trump backlash. Trump’s space initiatives such as the establishment of the National Space Council and NASA’s program to return to the moon have helped advance national interests, says the report. But it points out that Trump is leaving major unfinished business. “The rapid growth in new actors conducting space activities, an increasing number of active satellites and debris objects, and the growing potential for conflict create both opportunities and challenges that require timely policy responses.”

Space war rhetoric

Victoria Samson, director of the SWF Washington office, says the Trump administration’s politically charged rhetoric on the U.S. Space Force has alarmed civilian agencies and organizations around the world concerned about space security. 

Every discussion about the Space Force is centered around the idea of space “as a warfighting domain,” Samson says. Even though Space Force officials have insisted that their goal is to deter conflict, “for the average person, the rhetoric is about war … It reinforces a negative understanding of what the Space Force is trying to do.”

The White House’s insistence on American “space dominance,” which does not appear in the official policy documents, and linking the Space Force to human space exploration has “created consternation, confusion, and apprehension internationally about the intended goals of the U.S. Space Force,” the report says.

A key reason Congress pushed to establish a Space Force was growing frustration that space programs were scattered around many organizations across the military and the intelligence community, says Samson. She would like to see Biden’s Pentagon focus on “the problem the Space Force was created to solve,” which is the management of space procurements. 

“The biggest unresolved policy gap is how to ‘fix’ the way the military acquires new space capabilities,” the report says. “There is general agreement that the current process is too slow and rigid to respond to emerging threats, in part due to the lack of central authority.”

Another national security policy challenge is defining the future mission of the Space Force and how much it will focus on in-space activities versus supporting terrestrial military activities, says the report. 

Biden’s defense and diplomacy efforts should aim to “establish norms of behavior for military space activities,” says the report. “During the Cold War, the United States and Soviet Union agreed on how ships and aircraft would interact to reduce tensions and mishaps. The United States should work with other countries to establish similar agreements for military space activities, and particularly those that could cause misperceptions or increase tensions such as rendezvous and proximity operations and anti-satellite testing.”