- - Monday, January 16, 2012

The Obama administration is launching a new space arms-control initiative that critics say will lead to restrictions on U.S. military activities in space, a key U.S. strategic war-fighting advantage.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton is expected to announce the initiative as early as Tuesday. The plan will be built on work contained in a European Union draft code of conduct for space that the Pentagon and State Department have criticized as too restrictive.

“The United States has decided to enter into formal consultations and negotiations with the European Union and other spacefaring nations to develop an International Code of Conduct,” said an administration official familiar with the announcement.

The U.S. government has rejected space-arms talks promoted by Russia and China at the United Nations as a covert attempt to limit U.S. military space operations, but the administration official called the EU draft code an improvement.

“We believe the European Union’s draft Code of Conduct is a solid foundation for future negotiations on reaching a consensus international code,” the administration official said, noting that signing a code is not imminent and that negotiations are expected to continue throughout this year and possibly into next year.

Change of plans

The comments contradict those of Ellen Tauscher, undersecretary of state for international security and arms control, who told reporters last week that the U.S. had rejected a draft EU code of conduct as “too restrictive.”

A Dec. 9, 2009, State Department cable on the draft EU code said the United States “continues to have significant concerns about the widespread use of language connoting binding obligations, such as ‘shall’ and ‘will,’ in the proposed non-binding Code of Conduct.”

“The use of such language in a non-binding document is contrary to established practice; for example, The Hague Code of Conduct, which is not binding under international law, does not use such binding language,” the cable said.

According to a recent assessment of the EU draft by the Pentagon’s Joint Staff, U.S. adherence to the code’s provisions would hurt the U.S. military’s space operations in several areas. The unclassified portion of the report did not provide further details.

The initiative will seek to outline international norms for non-threatening behavior in space; to increase transparency among nations that use space; and to reduce the hazards of debris, such as more than 10,000 pieces of space junk left by China’s 2007 anti-satellite missile test that are orbiting Earth.

A 2008 draft of the EU space code calls for the signing states to “refrain from any intentional action which will or might bring about, directly or indirectly, the damage or destruction of outer space objects, unless such action is conducted to reduce the creation of outer space debris and/or justified by imperative safety considerations.”


John R. Bolton, a former U.N. ambassador who held Ms. Tauscher’s post during the George W. Bush administration, said the initiative is symptomatic of the Obama administration’s ideological commitment to arms talks.

“This is mindless,” Mr. Bolton said in an email. “The last thing the United States needs is a space code of conduct. The ideology of arms control has already failed in the Russian ‘reset’ policy, and it is sure to fail here as well.”

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