Space policy sets rules for the final frontier

National Security Space Strategy sets terms for working with allies and countering foes in space

Space may be the final frontier, but the nearest reaches of it are pretty darn crowded. The space just outside the Earth's atmosphere brims with communications and reconnaissance satellites, orbiting telescopes and at least one space station.

A new space policy document outlines how the United States will operate in this increasingly international space environment. The National Security Space Strategy stresses the role of cooperation and partnership in sharing and managing space assets, such as communications and reconnaissance satellites, between allied and coalition nations. The document also outlines steps to defuse any potential issues over the use of space before they escalate into conflicts.

Speaking at a Pentagon press briefing late last week, Ambassador Gregory Schulte, deputy assistant secretary of defense for space policy, noted that the document was the first of its kind, adding that the Defense Department worked very closely with the intelligence community to put it together.

Schulte said the old Cold War duality that had governed space policy is no longer relevant. Instead, the United States works with many allies and partners — as well as potential competitors. “There are more allies, more countries that are launching satellites, which provides challenges to our industrial base, but also provides opportunities for cooperation,” he said.

However, the nation must still defend its space-based capabilities, the space operational environment and its industrial base. “Space has changed, so must our strategy. ... Ten years ago we could take space for granted, we could take our industrial base for granted. We can’t do that any more,” Schulte said.

The NSSS outlines a set of five interconnected strategic approaches:

  • Promoting the responsible, peaceful and safe use of space.
  • Providing improved U.S. space capabilities.
  • Partnering with other nations, international organizations and companies.
  • Preventing and deterring aggression against space infrastructure supporting U.S. national security.
  • Preparing to defeat attacks and to operate in a degraded environment.

Schulte said that the United States also wants to promote responsible behavior in space while increasingly sharing data to promote spaceflight safety. He added that the U.S. would like to use more foreign capabilities to augment its own core systems and to increase the resilience of its satellite constellations.

Another worry is the increasing number of countries using counter-space techniques and their implications on the peaceful use of space. Schulte noted that other nations, such as China, are developing a variety of counter-space weapons, including anti-satellite missiles, directed energy weapons and jamming of satellite transmissions. He added that Iran and Ethiopia had recently conducted counter-space operations by jamming commercial satellite transmissions.

“If Ethiopia can jam a commercial satellite, you have to worry what others can do,” he said.

The NSSS also proposes several new approaches to deter potential aggression in space. These include international norms, international partnerships, linking nations together for security, the ability to continue to operate in space despite an attack and the option to respond to a space-based attack. Schulte observed that a response to a counter-space attack does not have to be space-based. He added that the NSSS offers a more nuanced, layered approach to deterrence.

Regarding the use of space assets, Schulte said the strategy does not address specific programs. However, rather than having DOD provide all of its required bandwidth for communications satellites, he said more commercial bandwidth must be acquired.

“We need to think more innovatively about how we gather and share this information from multiple sources, both commercial and allies,” he said.

The strategy also states that the U.S. should take advantage of allied nations’ space-based capabilities. Schulte cited the example of Afghanistan, where there are a variety of communications and reconnaissance assets in orbit that could be shared with U.S. forces.

 “We want to assure the ability to deliver essential services to the warfighter, whether it’s communications, navigation or surveillance — even if our space systems come under attack,” he said.


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