Defending the national space policy

On Wednesday afternoon Robert Joseph, Under Secretary for Arms Control and International Security at the State Department, gave a speech at the National Press Club about the new national space policy, the first time a senior administration official has spoken about the policy on the record since the policy’s release over two months ago.

Nor surprisingly, much of Joseph’s speech centered on the perception that the policy reflected a trend towards a more unilateral, militaristic approach to American activities in space. Joseph rejected that notion. “At its most basic level, US space policy has not changed significantly from the beginning of our ventures into space,” he said. “Consistent with past policies, the United States does not monopolize space. We do not deny access to space for people for peaceful purposes by other nations.”

The emphasis in that previous quote should be on the phrase “for peaceful purposes”. Not everyone, he said, is interested in accessing space for peaceful purposes. “But not all countries can be relied upon to pursue exclusively peaceful goals in space. A number of countries are acquiring capabilities to counter, attack, and defeat US space systems,” he said. He did not identify any of the countries that are doing so, and later, when asked in the Q&A session about reports that China has illuminated a US spacecraft with a ground-based laser, would only say that “as a matter of policy” he would not discuss specific threats or other vulnerabilities to US space systems.

During his talk, he explained how extensive US use of space systems, in both the commercial and government sectors, made the nation particularly vulnerable to efforts by both nations and “non-state actors” (i.e., terrorists) to “disrupt or destroy them”. While that’s traditionally been thought to mean attacks on satellites themselves, Joseph said that such efforts also include everything from publishing data on the orbits of US reconnaissance satellites to GPS jammers to attacks on satellite ground stations.

Because of that threat, the US must be prepared to “deter and defend” against any potential attacks on space systems. “The United States views the purposeful interference with its space system as an infringement on our rights, just as we would view interference with US naval or commercial vessels in international waters,” he said. “If these rights are not respected, the United States has the same full range of options, from diplomatic to military, to protect its space assets, as it has to protect other critical assets.”

But what about the perceived weaponization of space that this policy supposedly enables? “There is no arms race, and we see no signs of one emerging,” he said, adding that because of that, he sees no need for a new international agreement prohibiting weapons in space. “The national space policy doesn’t direct the development or deployment of weapons in space,” he said in response to a question, “nor does it preclude it.”

Joseph also suggested during the Q&A session that objections to weapons in space were rooted more in terms of hindering missile defense efforts, saying that “when you strip away the veil of the issue of the weaponization of space, an arms race in space, [there] is a desire to constrain US options for the development of our missile defense capabilities. I find this quite odd, because those missile defense capabilities are designed to counter offensive ballistic missiles that are traveling through space on their way to destroy military or civilian targets.”

In general, there were few new insights in this speech, and it’s unlikely to convince people who see the policy as a sign of growing US interest in space weaponization or related policies. It’s a little disappointing that it took this long to get a fairly standard administration statement on the policy, although in Mr. Joseph’s case, he and his office are rather busy these days…

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