United States Nears Decision on Space Code of Conduct

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WASHINGTON — The United States government expects to decide soon whether to sign onto a draft code of conduct for space activities that is being finalized by the European Union, a U.S. State Department official said Dec. 1.

U.S. President Barack Obama in June issued a new National Space Policy that promotes a conciliatory approach to working with other spacefaring nations to improve the security of the space environment. U.S. delegations since July have traveled extensively to discuss with other nations possible opportunities for cooperation and collaboration in space, Frank Rose, U.S. deputy assistant secretary of state for space and defense policy, said at a Stimson Center event here.

While the administration has produced an “exemplary” National Space Policy, it has so far failed to act to implement the policy, though it has had some opportunities to do so, Stimson Center co-founder Michael Krepon wrote in a Nov. 10 white paper presented at the event. The United States in October twice abstained from votes on space security issues at the United Nations out of concerns that they could derail the New START nuclear arms reduction treaty that is awaiting ratification by the Senate, Krepon said.

The first measure was a proposal by Egypt to create a working group on the prevention of an arms race in outer space, which the United States and Israel abstained from voting on. The second measure was proposed by Russia to create a group of government experts to begin studying in 2012 transparency and confidence-building measures for outer space, and it included a draft treaty to ban weapons in outer space. The United States, which in previous years rejected this type of treaty as unverifiable, was the only abstaining vote. Both nonbinding resolutions were struck down.

In the U.S. Senate, Republican resistance to New START has focused in part on nonbinding language in the treaty’s preamble linking arms control to the deployment of missile defense systems. Krepon said the abstentions at the United Nations show the lengths to which the State Department will go to avoid giving further ammunition to the treaty’s Senate opponents.

The European Union’s proposed code of conduct for space establishes practices for reducing collisions in outer space, bans the disruption or destruction of other nations’ satellites and increases the amount of data nations would be required to share related to space launches and orbital maneuvers.

Krepon said the United States should demonstrate the international leadership espoused in the National Space Policy and sign the code of conduct.

One venue for working out an acceptable code of conduct is the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva. However, activities in that forum have ground to a halt amid a dispute over a resolution related to nuclear materials, Krepon said. The international community must find a new venue to hold space security discussions, he said.

Rose, meanwhile, said U.S. delegations have been working hard with both established and emerging spacefaring nations to come up with transparency and confidence building measures for space that could be agreed upon.

“Overall, we have been very pleased with the positive response to the policy, especially regarding the policy’s emphasis on expanding international cooperation in space,” Rose said. “Since early July, my interagency colleagues and I have traveled extensively to meet with our allies, friends and space partners to explain the president’s policy and discuss opportunities for cooperation and collaboration.

“We’re continuing to lead the development and adoption of international standards to minimize debris and we are pursuing technologies and techniques to mitigate on orbit debris, reduce hazards, and increase our understanding of the current and future threat environment.”

The U.S. diplomats have had close relations with their Russian counterparts in recent months trying to figure out ways to work together. The United States appreciated the Russian resolution to create a group of government experts to study transparency and confidence-building measures, but again the proposed ban on space weapons prevented the U.S. from agreeing to it, Rose said.

The United States hopes to open up a dialogue with China on space security issues, Rose said. Though the United States and China may have differing views on space security, it is important to have a forum for making those views well known, he said.

Rose also noted that the United States maintained a dialogue with the Soviet Union on strategic issues throughout the Cold War. 

“We did not necessarily change each other’s minds, but the Soviets understood what made the United States tick and they understood if they took certain actions, there would be certain reactions,” he said. “We are very much interested in developing that type of dialogue with the Chinese on space security issues as well as others. We will continue to pursue that.”