U.S. Officials Clarify Stance on Proposed EU Space Code

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HERZLIYA, Israel — The lead U.S. negotiator on space policy and the Pentagon’s principal steward of space assets validated a draft European Union (EU) space code as a good starting point toward an international set of rules governing responsible space behavior.

Both expressed concerns with the EU’s Code of Conduct for Outer Space Activities in its current draft form, and insisted that all relevant parts of the U.S. government are involved in a coordinated push for broader and less-limiting guidelines.

“We are very interested in continuing to promote responsible uses of space,” Gen. William Shelton, commander of U.S. Air Force Space Command, said in response to a Space News query on the draft EU code.

But Shelton struck a cautionary tone with respect to the code following his address at an international space conference here. “We are certainly concerned about anything that would limit our so-called freedom of action in space,” he said. “We want to continue to use space for our purposes both economically and for national security, and any limitations on that use would be of concern to us.”

Speaking Jan. 29 at the seventh Ilan Ramon Space Conference at the Fisher Institute for Air & Space Strategic Studies, Shelton said Air Force Space Command is working “with all parts of our government” to maintain a coordinated front on the matter. “I think things like debris mitigation, things like providing advanced warning of launches in space, things like operating satellites responsibly and not assuming that the ‘big sky’ theory will continue to work ad infinitum” are what the U.S. government is interested in promoting, he said.

Frank Rose, U.S. deputy assistant secretary of state for space and defense policy, said Washington’s objections to the draft EU code were more procedural than substantive. In a Jan. 29 interview, Rose reiterated U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s call for an international code that does not constrain U.S. national security-related activities in space.

“We have a few changes we’d like to see in the EU’s draft, but we think it’s a really good foundation to build upon,” Rose said.

One of Washington’s suggestions is to change the name of the code to make it more attractive to all major space powers, including Russia and China. “One recommendation we made is not to call it the EU Code of Conduct, but rather the EU’s proposed International Code of Conduct. … It’s important to ensure major participation by all major spacefaring nations,” he said.

In addition, “minor changes” may be needed to allow Washington to more successfully manage its commitments to the voluntary code without impinging on future space-related operations.

On the domestic front, Rose said the administration of U.S. President Barack Obama would continue to keep industry and Congress apprised of developments related to the code.

Rose dismissed assertions put forth in a Jan. 18 letter from U.S. lawmakers to Obama that an international agreement on space behavior “could establish the foundation for a future arms control regime that binds the United States without the approval of Congress.”

The letter was signed by two House subcommittee chairmen, a ranking member of a Senate Armed Services subcommittee and the Republican Whip of the U.S. Senate. “It is therefore our assessment that there can be no binding effect on the United States of a Code of Conduct for Outer Space Activities, or a similar agreement, without the express approval of Congress,” the letter said.

Rose likened the envisioned code to the Hague Code of Conduct signed in 2002, the U.N. Debris Mitigation Guidelines of 2007 and the 1987 Missile Technology Control Regime; all of those, he said, are voluntary and nonbinding in the legal sense. “This is not a treaty. The U.S. government does not support a space arms control treaty for a number of reasons, starting with the fact that it’s not verifiable,” he said. “So this is not the first time we have done this. These are politically binding, not legally binding, agreements. No administration sends legally nonbinding agreements to the Senate for advice and consent.”

Rose said industry has asked to be kept up to date on the code, but noted that the envisioned pact would help commercial satellite operators by minimizing space debris. ”Remember, you only have a limited amount of fuel in satellites, and the more you have to maneuver those satellites out of harm’s way, the more you weaken your investment. And that’s really what this code is about,” he said.

He said he intended to offer more detail during an upcoming commercial space transportation conference hosted by the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration. “We’re very early in the process, but we aim to be deeply engaged with industry,” he said.

The EU, meanwhile, has agreed to convene a series of expert meetings later in the year with an eye toward hammering out an international code using the EU’s draft as a base.

The goal, Rose said, is to have a diplomatic conference by the end of this year.

“It’s a good goal, but it may take longer,” he said.