The Obama administration is working on setting up international rules for space launches and satellite operations that critics say will limit the Pentagon’s ability to deploy military systems to protect satellites from space weapons being developed by nations such as China.
According to a strategy report produced jointly by U.S. intelligence agencies and the Defense Department, the administration is seeking “responsible” rules for space operations.
The National Security Space Strategy (NSSS), made public Friday, states that “the United States will support development of data standards, best practices, transparency and confidence-building measures, and norms of behavior for responsible space operations.”
“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,” the 14-page report states.
The administration has signaled that it is preparing to accept the European Union’s draft Code of Conduct for Outer Space Activities with minimal changes to the document. An administration interagency review concluded last month that the code of conduct — aimed at reducing the amount of space debris that could collide into satellites — would not damage U.S. national interests in space or limit research and development into classified programs.
The United States and France are expected Tuesday to sign a bilateral agreement to share data on space debris.
Peter Marquez, who served as National Security Council director of space policy for President George W. Bush and for President Obama until Sept. 29, raised concerns about the U.S. strategy. He said it could lead other states to set limits on U.S. defenses in space.
“Implementation of the space strategy is going to be key. International norms could unintentionally limit U.S. deployment and development of satellites that track orbital debris and other satellites in space,” he said.
“It leaves open the door also for the United States to be forced to disclose the nature of its intelligence collection activities and capabilities from orbit.”
Rick Fisher, a senior fellow at the International Assessment and Strategy Center, said the strategy fails because it does not adequately account for the Chinese threat to U.S. satellites.
“One gets the impression from this document that the Obama administration simply wants to ignore the Chinese threat in hopes it will just go away,” he said. “There is apparently no consideration of developing U.S. active defenses for space that would more effectively deter China.”
The Pentagon has worried about space-based debris for years. However, those concerns increased in 2007 when the Chinese military tested a ground-based anti-satellite missile that successfully destroyed a weather satellite, creating tens of thousands of pieces of debris.
Ambassador Gregory Schulte, the deputy assistant secretary of defense for space policy, told reporters Friday at a Pentagon briefing that the debris created by the Chinese missile test in space is still a problem.
“A good amount of the debris up in space is actually from the weather satellite that they struck,” Mr. Schulte said. “And there have been any number of times when we’ve had to maneuver, for example, the International Space Station to avoid debris from this weather satellite.”
“The investment that China is putting into counterspace capabilities is a matter of concern for us,” he added. “It’s part of the reason why the secretary of defense wants to talk about space as part of the stability dialogue with the Chinese.”
In recent months, the United States has reached out to the Russian and Chinese governments to discuss rules for launching and maintaining satellites, said U.S. officials familiar with the diplomacy. The Chinese have spurned offers to discuss space issues with the United States, while the Russians have started technical talks.
At the Friday briefing, Deputy Secretary of Defense William J. Lynn III said the Pentagon embraced international norms for space because space has become more “competitive” and the risk for creating space debris that would collide into satellites has increased as well.
“We thought we needed a multilayered approach to deterrence that involved international norms, involved partnerships with allied nations, so as to induce restraint in space activities,” he said.
The strategy also asserts that the United States retains the right to self-defense in space.
It says, “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 long-standing principles of international law, treaties to which the United States is a party, and the inherent right of self-defense.”
Republicans, meanwhile, question the administration’s intentions to sign on to the EU code of conduct.
“We are deeply concerned that the administration may sign the United States on to a multilateral commitment with a multitude of potential[ly] highly damaging implications for sensitive military and intelligence programs (current, planned or otherwise) as well as a tremendous amount of commercial activity,” 37 Republican senators said in a letter to Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.
Among those who signed the letter were Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl of Arizona.
The lawmakers asked 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 the Obama and Bush administrations have opposed as being unverifiable and counter to the U.S. national interest.