National Space Policy: Evolution by Stealth?

By Hitchens, Theresa | Arms Control Today, November 2004 | Go to article overview

National Space Policy: Evolution by Stealth?

Hitchens, Theresa, Arms Control Today

In recent years, Pentagon advocacy for pursuing a strategy of "space control" that includes war-fighting "in, from and through space"1 has reached a fever pitch. Top Pentagon and Air Force space officials have repeatedly testified to Congress and made public speeches about the need for the U.S. military to establish "space dominance" to counter enemies of the future. Some officials, such as General Lance Lord, chief of Air Force Space Command, have even declared that "war in space has begun."2

What remains uncertain, however, is whether such a strategy actually has been politically endorsed at the White House level and is consistent with national space policy.

Officially, the National Space Policy promulgated by President Bill Clinton in 1996 still stands, a policy that had previously been interpreted as eschewing the deployment of anti-satellite (ASAT) weapons and weapons in orbit, reflecting more than 40 years of informal restraint both by Republican and Democratic administrations.

National security adviser Condoleezza Rice in 2002 launched a review of space policy, but that review is still pending. Indeed, in the four years since the inauguration of President George W. Bush, no new public documents that explain overarching administration (or Department of Defense) policy toward space weapons have been released. The single new policy paper relating to the issue was approved at Pentagon level, "DoD Policy on Space Control," signed by Defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld in January 2001. That policy, however, is classified as secret.

Meanwhile, there has been a steady trickle of lower-level military planning and doctrine documents that seem to codify U.S. intentions to develop, deploy, and eventually use space weapons. The most recent is the Air Force's Aug. 2 "Counterspace Operations Doctrine."3 This precedent-setting document outlines Air Force guidelines for conducting ASAT operations, possibly pre-emptively, against satellite systems being used by enemies, whether they be dedicated military satellites; those with primarily commercial functions; or those owned and/or operated by third parties, whether governments or commercial entities.

Another document published in August by the Joint Chiefs of Staff similarly sets out operational guidelines for coordinating space operations across the services, including those to destroy enemy satellites and space systems.4

The situation begs a number of questions: What exactly is U.S. policy on the weaponization of space? Is the United States now determined unilaterally to break the taboo against arming the heavens that has stood since the dawn of the space age? Has such a policy and strategy been blessed, either formally or informally with a wink and a nod, by the White House? Is the Pentagon or Air Force simply trying to take advantage of a policy vacuum by rushing to quietly implement a more aggressive approach to military space?

One possible conclusion from reading the tea leaves, however, is that the White House and Pentagon are engaged in a clever political effort to avoid a controversial public argument on space weapons by reinterpreting Clinton-era policy or practice behind closed doors, that is, to reorient U.S. space policy in secret.

True, the Clinton policy itself is less than clear on the issue of space weapons and is open to a number of interpretations. Although it stresses the peaceful uses of space and downplays military applications, it also leaves the door open for the employment of ASATs for national security reasons. For example, the policy states that U.S. national security space activities should assure "that hostile forces cannot prevent our own use of space" and should "[counter), if necessary, space systems and services used for hostile purposes." It later states that, "[consistent with treaty obligations, the United States will develop, operate and maintain space control capabilities to ensure freedom of action in space, and, if directed, deny such freedom of action to adversaries.

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National Space Policy: Evolution by Stealth?


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