The release of the U.S. National Space Policy (NSP) on October 6 has worried many experts, who say the policy marks a strategic shift toward a more military-oriented, unilateral approach to space for the United States. They fear that the policy, if followed, could begin an arms race leading to catastrophic space warfare.
The NSP reads, in part, “The United States considers space capabilities… 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.”
The policy clearly conveys that the United States considers itself accountable to no one for its military actions in space, says Michael Krepon, cofounder of the Henry L. Stimson Center, a nonpartisan Washington think tank that promotes international security. It also rejects nonmilitary initiatives that include some form of arms control, even if such initiatives would improve the safety and security of U.S. satellites.
This is not the first time the United States has asserted what it terms an “unhindered” right to act in space. The 1996 NSP, drafted by the Clinton administration, had the same central theme. The difference, according to Theresa Hitchens, an analyst with the Center for Defense Information, is that the new policy not only dismisses the rights of other space-faring powers but is actively hostile to the concept of collective security. It signals that the United States no longer regards space as a cooperative environment, she says, undercutting 40 years of tradition that has kept competition and conflict in space at a minimum.
A paradox of the policy, experts say, is that it leaves U.S. satellites, which are indispensable to the nation’s communications and security, vulnerable to attack and destruction by other nations. “Currently, the American military makes enormous use of space to help empower our forces on the ground at sea and in the air,” says John Arquilla, a military expert and professor at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, CA. “If we lose those satellites, it would simply level the playing field and take away the space element that gives American forces an advantage.”
In September, DefenseNews.com, a reliable source of military news, reported that China had fired high-powered lasers at U.S. spy satellites flying over its territory. What the Chinese military’s intentions were, and what effect the lasers had, is not known. Publicly, U.S. officials appeared unalarmed. But the idea that China may be testing, or is about to be begin testing, offensive space technologies may have been one factor in shaping the unilateralist language of the NSP.
“The simple problem is that it is a lot easier to knock things down from space than it is to protect them up there,” Arquilla says. “Frankly, the kinds of weapons that can be used, like a high-altitude electromagnetic pulse, can be very, very destructive and cripple satellites.”
The loss of satellites is not the only troubling possibility. The destruction of satellites creates orbital debris fields that can render regions of near space unusable. Some of those regions, like low Earth orbit, are where most manned space flights and space station missions have been conducted. The new NSP calls on government and nongovernment operations to “seek to minimize the creation” of such fields.
If satellites became targets, the only way for the United States to protect them would be to put defensive systems in space. But “weaponizing” space could lead other nations to follow suit, Krepon says.