Stratcom Could Negotiate Data Sharing Agreements

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WASHINGTON — The White House is looking to give U.S. Strategic Command (Stratcom) the authority to negotiate orbital data sharing agreements with other nations as part of a broader effort to ensure safety of operations in the increasingly congested space environment, a senior U.S. Defense Department official said.

Ambassador Gregory Schulte, deputy assistant secretary of defense for space policy, also said the United States and China have agreed in principle to hold regular military space consultations. He cautioned that no such meetings have been scheduled yet but said the two sides have an ongoing military dialogue and share a common interest in preserving the space environment and ensuring that it does not become a flash point in their relations.

Speaking July 19 at a Defense Writers Group breakfast here, Schulte said U.S. President Barack Obama’s National Security Space Strategy, released in January, recognizes that space is becoming increasingly congested, contested and competitive. International cooperation, even among competitors, he said, is one of the keys to preserving the space environment, and orbital data sharing is an important feature of such collaboration.

The U.S. Air Force operates the world’s most sophisticated space surveillance network; it tracks some 22,000 objects in Earth orbit, 14 percent of which were created by a Chinese anti-satellite test conducted in 2007, Schulte said. Stratcom, which oversees U.S. Air Force space activities, regularly warns other spacefaring nations of impending close encounters — known as orbital conjunctions — between their satellites and other orbital objects, and has provided some 150 such notifications to China alone, he said.

Formal agreements with spacefaring countries would facilitate regular exchanges, with data flowing in both directions, Schulte said. For example, other countries could notify Stratcom in advance of plans to move their satellites, he said.

Schulte said Stratcom already has authority to negotiate orbital data sharing agreements with commercial satellite operators and has more than 20 such arrangements in place.

Schulte said he envisions space surveillance data becoming a global service, similar to what the U.S. GPS satellite navigation system is today.