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New U.S. National Space Policy

Wednesday, Oct. 18, 2006

I wanted to flaga story from Inside the Pentagon about whether the Chinese are aiming to interfere with U.S. military space capabilities.

The article quotes U.S. Strategic Command Chief Gen. James Cartwright as saying that China has not yet actually interfered with U.S. operations in space. However, it's also clear from the article that U.S. military officials believe China is actively pursuing weapons that could be used to counter U.S. space-based capabilities, upon which the modern military heavily relies for communications, navigation and intelligence gathering.

The article is timely because the Bush administration recently released a new National Space Policy that defines how the United States aims to use space both militarily and commercially. A summary of the document is available here (.pdf file), from the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.

The document defines seven principles of U.S. national space policy, but the most controversial are bound to be the following two:

  • The United States considers space capabilities -- including the ground and space segments and supporting links -- vital to its national interests. Consistent with this policy, the United States will: preserve its rights, capabilities, and freedom of action in space; dissuade or deter others from either impeding those rights or developing capabilities intended to do so; take those actions necessary to protect its space capabilities; respond to interference; and deny, if necessary, adversaries the use of space capabilities hostile to U.S. national interests; and
  • The United States will oppose the development of new legal regimes or other restrictions that seek to prohibit or limit U.S. access to or use of space. Proposed arms control agreements or restrictions must not impair the rights of the United States to conduct research, development, testing, and operations or other activities in space for U.S. national interests.
Arms control advocates will no doubt see these principles as a recipe for sparking a new arms race in space and will say the United States should refrain from "weaponizing" space. Advocates of space capabilities will counter that ensuring U.S. dominance in space is vital to U.S. national security. They will also argue that if the United States doesn't take the lead in space, others, such as the Chinese, will, and could use space capabilities to quickly gain a dangerous military advantage.

The argument about weapons in space resembles very closely the debate about nuclear arms control during the latter part of the Cold War.

To get a flavor of the arguments on the arms control side, you can listen to this Washington Post Radio segment about the new national space policy that includes Teresa Hitchens of the Center for Defense Information, one of the most active arms control groups in Washington. Or read this CDI analysis of the new policy.

For the other side of the argument, see this July 2005 column, originally published in the New York Post, by Peter Brookes, and this 2002 report by Richard Fisher of the International Assessment and Strategy Center on China's Space Agenda.