USA — National Space Security Strategy Outlines Rules of the Road

WASHINGTON, Feb. 11, 2011 — Depart­ment of Defense’s strate­gic approach to space must change. This is the mes­sage of the Nation­al Secu­ri­ty Space Strat­e­gy recent­ly approved by Sec­re­tary of Defense Robert Gates and Direc­tor of Nation­al Intel­li­gence James Clap­per.

Dur­ing the Cold War, space was the pri­vate reserve of the Unit­ed States and Sovi­et Union. It was the “high fron­tier,” from which we could sup­port nation­al defense and pow­er pro­jec­tion with near impuni­ty. Space capa­bil­i­ties were essen­tial to such strate­gic tasks as mon­i­tor­ing com­pli­ance with arms con­trol treaties and pro­vid­ing ear­ly warn­ing of nuclear attack. 

Today, space capa­bil­i­ties sup­port a much broad­er range of domes­tic and glob­al needs. Space sys­tems ben­e­fit the glob­al econ­o­my, enhance our nation­al secu­ri­ty, strength­en inter­na­tion­al rela­tion­ships, advance sci­en­tif­ic dis­cov­ery, and improve our way of life. 

Many nations have rec­og­nized the ben­e­fits derived from space, and the Unit­ed States increas­ing­ly shares the domain with more and more space-far­ing coun­tries — both close allies, like France and Japan, and poten­tial adver­saries. And space is increas­ing­ly con­gest­ed, com­pet­i­tive, and con­test­ed — chal­lenges that we refer to as “the three C’s.”

U.S. pol­i­cy must first adapt to increased con­ges­tion in space. There are over 1,100 active sys­tems in orbit and an addi­tion­al 21,000 pieces of debris lit­ter­ing the skies and pos­ing a threat to our satel­lites. Radio fre­quen­cy inter­fer­ence is also a con­cern, with more than 9,000 transpon­ders relay­ing com­mu­ni­ca­tions between space­craft and the ground expect­ed in orbit by 2015. Either radio inter­fer­ence or col­li­sion with a piece of debris could ren­der a satel­lite use­less, depriv­ing mil­i­tary forces and nation­al deci­sion-mak­ers of the infor­ma­tion it col­lects and transmits. 

Space is also the object of increased com­pe­ti­tion between nations. When the space age began, only the Unit­ed States and the Sovi­et Union had the tech­nol­o­gy and indus­tri­al capac­i­ty to devel­op space capa­bil­i­ties. In recent years, how­ev­er, grow­ing inter­na­tion­al inter­est in space capa­bil­i­ties has spurred space indus­tries in many more nations. The U.S. share of world­wide satel­lite exports has dropped from near­ly two-thirds in 1997 to one-third in 2008. Eleven coun­tries are oper­at­ing 22 launch sites. More than 60 nations and gov­ern­ment con­sor­tia cur­rent­ly oper­ate satel­lites. In sum, the U.S. com­pet­i­tive advan­tage in space has decreased as mar­ket-entry bar­ri­ers have low­ered, and the U.S. tech­no­log­i­cal lead is erod­ing in sev­er­al areas as exper­tise among oth­er nations increases. 

America’s assets in space are also increas­ing­ly con­test­ed by its rivals and adver­saries. Chi­na demon­strat­ed a direct-ascent anti-satel­lite capa­bil­i­ty in 2007 and is devel­op­ing oth­er capa­bil­i­ties to dis­rupt and dis­able satel­lites. Iran and oth­ers have demon­strat­ed the abil­i­ty to jam satel­lite sig­nals. Our reliance on space tempts poten­tial adver­saries to see it as a vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty to be exploited. 

To con­front these chal­lenges, the new Nation­al Secu­ri­ty Space Strat­e­gy begins the process of out­lin­ing the rules of the road when it comes to space. 

The cur­rent body of inter­na­tion­al space law resides in the 1967 Out­er Space Treaty (OST) and its asso­ci­at­ed con­ven­tions. While the OST is a good depar­ture point, a clear­er def­i­n­i­tion of respon­si­ble behav­ior can help min­i­mize the chances for mishaps, mis­per­cep­tion, and mis­trust in space. 

Rules can help the Unit­ed States min­i­mize the chance of col­li­sions in space, reduce unin­ten­tion­al radio fre­quen­cy inter­fer­ence, max­i­mize the use of crowd­ed orbits, and dis­cour­age desta­bi­liz­ing behav­ior such as inten­tion­al inter­fer­ence with space sys­tems in times of cri­sis. Rules encour­age good con­duct but also pro­vide a way to hold account­able those who would engage in malign acts. 

As a first step in devel­op­ing rules, we are work­ing close­ly with the State Depart­ment to eval­u­ate the Euro­pean Union’s pro­posed code of con­duct for the use of space and are encour­ag­ing oth­er space-far­ing coun­tries, includ­ing Rus­sia, Chi­na, and India, to do the same. We are con­sid­er­ing what fur­ther mea­sures of trans­paren­cy, ver­i­fi­ca­tion, and con­fi­dence-build­ing can enhance the sta­bil­i­ty of space. And we are work­ing with the State Depart­ment to estab­lish and con­duct bilat­er­al and mul­ti­lat­er­al space secu­ri­ty dia­logues with exist­ing and emerg­ing space-far­ing nations to encour­age increased trans­paren­cy and con­fi­dence build­ing measures. 

Rules of the road need to be accom­pa­nied by prac­ti­cal mea­sures to sup­port imple­men­ta­tion and mon­i­tor com­pli­ance. U.S. Strate­gic Com­mand, the mil­i­tary com­bat­ant com­mand with respon­si­bil­i­ty for space, is already doing impor­tant work to help oth­er coun­tries avoid col­li­sions by pro­vid­ing Space Sit­u­a­tion­al Aware­ness ser­vices. Just as the Air Force through USSTRATCOM is the world’s pre­mier provider of glob­al posi­tion­ing data, USSTRATCOM is becom­ing the world’s pre­mier provider of col­li­sion warn­ing. Fos­ter­ing broad­er shar­ing of space sit­u­a­tion­al aware­ness infor­ma­tion to avoid col­li­sions is a first step toward shared respon­si­bil­i­ty for the safe­ty, sta­bil­i­ty, and secu­ri­ty of the space domain. 

(Gre­go­ry L. Shulte serves as Deputy Assis­tant Sec­re­tary of Defense for Space Pol­i­cy. This arti­cle was first pub­lished Feb. 9, 2011, in “For­eign Affairs” magazine.) 

U.S. Depart­ment of Defense
Office of the Assis­tant Sec­re­tary of Defense (Pub­lic Affairs) 

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