Republican opposition in the Senate could scuttle the Obama administration’s plans to sign on to the European Union’s Code of Conduct for Outer Space Activities, an agreement that critics say could limit U.S. development and deployment of anti-satellite weapons.
Key Senate Republicans are urging Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton to consult with the relevant Senate panels before signing the agreement.
The Obama administration is expected to unveil Friday the U.S. National Security Space Strategy, a classified document outlining how the Defense Department and the intelligence community will implement the administration’s space policy.
An unclassified summary of that strategy obtained by The Washington Times says the United States will pursue more confidence-building mechanisms and transparency measures with regard to its activities in space.
“We will consider proposals and concepts for arms control measures if they are equitable, effectively verifiable, and enhance the national security of the United States and its allies,” the summary states. “We believe setting pragmatic guidelines for safe activity in space can help avoid collisions and other debris-producing events, reduce radio frequency interference, and promote security and stability in the space domain — all of which are in the interests of all nations.”
However, the strategy also reserves the right to respond to aggression in space.
“The United States will retain the right and capabilities to respond in self-defense, should deterrence fail. We will use force in a manner that is consistent with longstanding principles of international law, treaties to which the United States is a party, and the inherent right of self defense,” it says.
In recent months, the United States has reached out to the Russian and Chinese governments to discuss rules of the road for satellites, said U.S. officials familiar with the diplomacy. The Chinese so far have spurned offers to discuss space issues with the United States; the Russians have started technical talks.
In 2007, the Chinese military successfully tested a ground-based missile that destroyed one of its own satellites. In 2009, a communications satellite owned by satellite-phone maker Iridium crashed into a Russian satellite over northern Siberia.
Last month, an interagency group of U.S. experts concluded that the United States should sign the EU code of conduct with minimal changes to the document. Their recommendation is awaiting approval at the National Security Council.
This has Republican senators worried.
“We are deeply concerned that the Administration may sign the United States on to a multilateral commitment with a multitude of potential highly damaging implications for sensitive military and intelligence programs (current, planned or otherwise), as well as a tremendous amount of commercial activity,” the senators said in a letter to Mrs. Clinton.
The letter was signed by 37 Republican senators, including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl of Arizona.
Specifically, the lawmakers ask what impact the code of conduct would have on “the research and development, testing and deployment of a kinetic defensive system in outer space that is capable of defeating an anti-satellite weapon, such as the one tested by the People’s Republic of China in 2007.”
Proponents of the EU code of conduct praise the agreement as a way of minimizing space debris that can disable intelligence, military and commercial satellites. The code of conduct is also an alternative to a space arms control treaty supported by China and Russia that both the Obama and Bush administrations have opposed as being unverifiable and counter to the U.S. national interest.
The senators say in the letter that they are unaware of any efforts to brief members of Congress on the agreement. “If this draft code is truly in the national interest, there can be no legitimate reason for concealing its negotiation from the Senate,” they wrote.