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.”
Retired Air Force Lt. Gen. Thomas McInerney also expressed concerns about the arms-control plan.
“U.S. military activities in space are a key strategic advantage for the United States,” Gen. McInerney said. “Any agreements that limit or constrain military space activities must be approached with extreme caution.”
Two U.S. national security officials said the new talks are part of the administration’s arms-control-oriented national security policies, which place a priority on international agreements instead of developing military capabilities.
Whether Strategic Command is concerned about the arms initiative was not certain.
A State Department official confirmed that the administration will pursue an international code of conduct for space. An announcement is expected soon, the official said.
Congress has not been briefed on the space-arms initiative.
Several House and Senate members are expected to ask the administration hard questions about the initiative in the coming weeks. Critics in Congress are likely to view the initiative as a way to circumvent the Senate’s treaty-making powers by concluding executive agreements that do not require ratification by the Senate.
Mrs. Clinton’s announcement will say that the Obama administration is committed to avoiding an international space code of conduct that would constrain U.S. defense capabilities, one official said, adding that the administration plans only to implement an international code that would not be legally binding or impose limits on U.S. or allied missile defenses.
However, critics say such preconditions would not long survive protracted negotiations or affect how the deal would be implemented.
For example, one official opposed to the space code said a foreign government recently called the U.S. military’s use of the Space Based Infrared Satellites a space-weapons program because U.S. missile defenses use the satellites for both warning and tracking.
Ms. Tauscher, the undersecretary of state for international arms control, told defense reporters last week that the U.S. had rejected the draft EU code of conduct for space.
“It’s been clear from the very beginning that we’re not going along with the code of conduct,” Ms. Tauscher said at breakfast with reporters.
“We made it very definitive that we were not going to go ahead with the European code of conduct; what we haven’t announced is what we’re going to do, but we will be doing that soon.”
Ms. Tauscher has had a mixed record in arms-control negotiations. She was the key figure in drafting an agreement with Russia on missile defenses last year that the White House rejected because it would have imposed legally binding limits on U.S. defenses.
The agreement had been drafted for signing by President Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev at the Group of Eight summit in May, but White House attorneys rejected the draft because of a provision that would have included legally binding restrictions on the targeting of missile defense interceptors.
The U.S. military relies heavily on space satellites for reconnaissance, surveillance and intelligence in a region that is becoming increasingly contested as China and other nations develop space weaponry or the systems that will facilitate their use, such as small, maneuvering satellites.
China’s military last year conducted an operation that involved moving a satellite within a short distance of another satellite. Analysts said such an exercise would be useful in conducting a space attack.
China last year rebuffed Pentagon officials’ requests to hold talks on space, along with strategic-nuclear issues, missile defense and cyberwarfare.
Russia and the U.S. have had technical talks on space security issues since 2010 with the goal of developing transparency and confidence-building measures on military activities.
The talks were held after a 2009 collision between U.S. and Russian satellites in orbit that U.S. officials said highlights the growing hazards in space.
Several satellites and a space shuttle have been forced to alter course because of concerns about orbiting debris, which moves so fast that even small bits can do serious damage. Just last week, the International Space Station moved about 1,000 feet to dodge a softball-size piece of debris from a U.S. communications satellite, its 13th such maneuver since 1998.
• Bill Gertz is a national security columnist for The Washington Times and senior editor at The Washington Free Beacon (www.freebeacon.com).