The New U.S. Space Policy: A Turn Toward Militancy?

The blunt and even confrontational language of the new policy puts the United States at odds with the priorities of the other space-faring nations.

At first reading, the Bush administration’s new National Space Policy looks much like the Clinton policy enunciated a decade ago. Supporters of the Bush policy in fact state that it is little different, except that the language is perhaps a bit less diplomatic. On closer examination, however, and more importantly, in the context of actions taken during the past six years, the changes are dramatic. Some ambiguous language and departures from current policies and programs reveal a kind of incoherence and disingenuousness—and militancy—about U.S. space policy in the 21st century.

Released by the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy late on a Friday afternoon before the 2006 Columbus Day weekend, the policy provides overarching guidance for the United States’s multiple space programs. Initially, there was little reaction, which was almost certainly the point of burying the story on a slow weekend. The document was actually signed by President Bush on August 31 but then held for a few weeks and released with as little fanfare as possible, thus continuing the administration’s approach of maintaining a low-profile space policy to avoid too much scrutiny and controversy. But why?

First and foremost, the Bush policy describes a U.S. space program that is focused on security. Although this makes obvious sense, the blunt and even confrontational language of the new policy puts the United States at odds with the priorities of the other spacefaring nations. For many countries, space assets are regarded primarily as tools of globalization. To be fair, the new policy recognizes that “those who effectively utilize space will enjoy added prosperity and security and will hold a substantial advantage over those who do not.” But this is almost a throwaway sentence, given that the rest of the document emphasizes the military uses of space. “Freedom of action in space,” the authors write, “is as important to the United States as air power and sea power.” Well, yes, but does that mean that other countries can then demand similar rights and expectations regarding their security in space as well? To assert a right in the international community is to assume that others can assert a similar right.

Consider this language from the new space policy: “The United States rejects any claims to sovereignty by any nation over outer space or celestial bodies, or any portion thereof, and rejects any limitations on the fundamental rights of the United States to operate in and acquire data from space.” This is a firm and unwavering warning, perhaps one desperately needed, to the Russians or the Chinese that they should forget about colonizing Jupiter. Well and good, but closer to home, the U.S. language begs an important question: If the United States can claim complete freedom to operate in space, does this right then extend to every other nation on Earth as well?

A key principle in the new policy states: “The United States considers space systems to have the rights of passage through and operations in space without interference. Consistent with this principle, the United States will view the purposeful interference with its space systems as an infringement on its rights.” In other words, the United States considers space to be something like the high seas. And yet, when it is in the U.S. national interest, the United States acts against vessels in the maritime commons, as when it— rightly—forces North Korean ships to submit to inspection. But does such an absolute declaration of sovereign right really help the cause of cooperation in space? Even on Earth, the high seas are not immune to international governance; why should space be any different?


In response to questions from the press and in related public statements at the United Nations and elsewhere, the administration does clarify that these rights of passage apply to all nations, not just the United States. However, the United States is emphatic that these rights it asserts cannot and will not be guaranteed by international law but by the threat of force, thereby providing a rationale for the development of new enforcement capabilities. Additionally, in other parts of the document, the section on right of access is apparently superseded, or contradicted, by other policy priorities.

Perhaps most revealing is that the very first principle in the administration’s policy states: “The United States is committed to the exploration and use of outer space by all nations for peaceful purposes, and for the benefit of all humanity. Consistent with this principle, ‘peaceful purposes’ allow U.S. defense and intelligence-related activities in pursuit of national interests.” Let us imagine, for a moment, what the U.S. reaction would have been in, say, 1972, had the Soviet Union made a similar declaration. National interests are, of course, whatever governments deem them to be, and in the Soviet case, those interests might have including spying on the United States. This is not to say that the United States does not have a good case for arguing for the unimpeded use of space for the kind of observation and communication that would hamper rogue states and terrorists. (It does, and it should make it clear that it will not accept limits on its ability to protect itself.) But to state flatly that all defense and intelligence purposes fall under the “peaceful use of space” is to invite other nations to claim exactly the same right. The peaceful uses of space do in fact include observation and warning of attack, but the language of the administration’s policy is so broad that it reads more like a blanket claim to hegemony in space than a reasonable demand that it, like any nation, be allowed to traverse the skies in its own defense.

Perils of ambiguity

The new policy also suffers from ambiguous language that, intentional or not, seems designed to hide important issues under a canopy of imprecision, perhaps in an attempt to tamp down potential objections from those in Congress and others interested in the direction of U.S. space policy. To take one example, the policy demands that the United States preserve its rights, capabilities, and freedom of action to “dissuade or deter others from either impeding those rights or developing capabilities intended to do so.” But what does that mean? Given the dual-use nature of space technology, almost anything shot out of the atmosphere might qualify, and it is not clear what capabilities demonstrated by other nations might specifically be targeted as threats. Or to take the worst case, given the broadness of the policy’s language, what can other countries do in space that will not be considered threatening by the United States? Indeed, should any nation violate this overly broad construction of a threat, the administration vows to “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.” This language is contradictory with the passage on rights. Although the specific language is not all that new, other nations could be forgiven, in light of recent U.S. actions, for viewing statements like that not as an assertion of defense but as a promise of aggression. In fact, the policy directs the secretary of Defense to “develop capabilities, plans, and options to ensure freedom of action in space, and if directed, deny such freedom of action to adversaries.” The presumed assumption is that in time of war, the United States reserves the right to violate the rights of others. It would be useful, though, if that were made explicit, in the same way that rules of war in other international mediums, specifically air, land, and sea, are made explicit. And although the words “space weapons” are never uttered, they can be heard if one listens closely.

The 2001 Space Commission report (chaired by Donald Rumsfeld) sees space becoming a battlefield along with land, air, and the seas. If you agree with this premise, then the United States would be remiss not to prepare for that inevitability. The Joint Doctrine for Space Operations, published by the Office of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in August 2002, states that,“The United States must be able to protect its space assets and deny the use of space assets by its adversaries.” The 2004 U.S. Air Force Counterspace Operations Doctrine document states that, “U.S. Air Force counterspace operations are the ways and means by which the Air Force achieves and maintains space superiority. Space superiority provides freedom to attack as well as freedom from attack.” Even as recently as June 2006, John Mohanco, the State Department’s deputy director of multilateral nuclear security affairs, told the Conference on Disarmament that, “The high value of space systems for commerce and in support of military operations long has led the United States to study the potential of space-related weapons to protect our satellites from potential future attacks, whether from the surface or from other spacecraft. As long as the potential for such attacks remains, our government will continue to consider the possible role that space-related weapons may play in protecting our assets.”

Less than a week after the new National Space Policy was released, Robert Luaces, the alternate representative of the United States to the United Nations General Assembly First Committee, made a statement on the policy. He said: “The international community needs to recognize, as the United States does, that the protection of space access is a key objective. …It is critical to preserve freedom of action in space, and the United States is committed to ensuring that our freedom of space remains unhindered. All countries should share this interest in unfettered access to, and use of, space, and in dissuading or deterring others from impeding either access to, or use of, space for peaceful purposes, or the development of capabilities intended to serve that purpose.” Although the words may be intended to persuade other countries of benign U.S. intentions, actions sometimes speak louder.

The Missile Defense Agency, in its fiscal year (FY) 2007 budget documentation, cited plans to ask for $45 million in FY 2008 to begin research on a test bed for space-based interceptors. Presented as purely defensive, that characterization is based on intent rather than technological capability, and clearly “intent” can change. Space-based interceptors add to the inventory of space technology R&D programs with potential military applications, including several microsatellite programs as well as some gee-whiz efforts such as “Rods from God,” which would develop the capability to hurl metal rods from space with such force that it would create the equivalent of a radiation-free nuclear weapon.

Other countries, Russia and China in particular, are interested in many of the same technologies as the United States, especially ground-based, laser antisatellite weapons (ASATs), co-orbital microsatellites, air-launched direct-ascent ASATs, and missile defenses. Threat assessments of other countries’ capabilities and intents in these areas vary widely, with exaggerations being common and possible because the technological difficulties involved are not well understood. Although the United States adamantly rejects arms control as a limitation on what it could do, arms control would constrain others from doing things that place important U.S. assets at risk. If the United States proceeds with development of these technologies, at staggering cost, others can and will do the same, only in a cheaper, easier, defensive mode.


Hence, the real danger of the new space policy could well be the perpetuation of the false belief that space assets can be defended. In reality, it is impractical if not impossible from a technical perspective to defend space assets. They are easily seen objects traveling in known orbits and hence much easier to target than the incoming missiles that the United States seems convinced it can shoot down with missile defense. The only way to protect assets is to outlaw attacks and the technologies that enable attacks, and to try to implement a regime under which attacks can be verified. But the new policy specifically rejects new legal regimes or other restrictions that would inhibit U.S. access to space. Attacks on satellites should be strongly stigmatized, in the same way that the use of chemical or biological weapons is stigmatized, with assurances of severe retribution sanctioned by the international community.

Noteworthy additions

Beyond the more sensational areas of the new policy, there are other new, noteworthy areas of emphasis. The policy states the need to develop space professionals, addressing the kind of workforce issues raised in a 2005 study by former Johnson Space Center director George Abbey and former presidential science adviser Neal Lane. It also expresses much-needed support for enhanced space situational awareness, a goal that might receive the attention it deserves because of support from General James Cartwright, commander of U.S. Strategic Command.

Additionally and somewhat curiously, considerable attention is given to support for space nuclear power. This probably refers not to the large propulsion systems of the past used to send spacecraft to the outer solar system and beyond, but to specialized equipment used in microsatellites and therefore of considerable potential military value. The need to improve development and procurement practices that have resulted in space projects routinely running over budget and behind schedule is addressed, as is the need for more interagency space partnerships. The latter can be expected to yield more partnerships between the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and the Department of Defense, which is probably the only way in which the NASA budget will be increased. On that note, the policy offers support for a “human and robotic program of space exploration” but fails to note that the administration is not requesting a NASA budget adequate to fulfill the vision of reaching the Moon, Mars, and beyond.

International cooperation is given a nod, with the secretary of State given the lead in “diplomatic and public diplomacy efforts, as appropriate, to build an understanding of and support of U.S. national space policies and programs and to encourage the use of U.S. space capabilities and systems by friends and allies.” Unfortunately, the more those friends and allies hear and understand the U.S. policy, the less inclined they might be toward working with the United States. The Times of London perhaps summed up the international perspective best in its October 19, 2006, article entitled “America Wants it All—Life, the Universe, and Everything,” in which it stated that space was no longer the final frontier, but the 51st state of the United States. It went on to say that, “The new National Space Policy that President Bush has signed is comically proprietary in tone about the U.S.’s right to control access to the rest of the solar system.” Although the ambiguities and contradictions of the U.S. policy statement make it difficult to characterize its purpose so bluntly, this negative perception certainly exists.

In a period when the importance of strategic communications is increasingly recognized in the fight against terrorism, that same importance must be recognized as extending to other policy areas as well. Although the policy does not include blatant language about space weapons and U.S. intentions to dominate space, the echo of such sentiments can be heard. Because space is inherently not the purview of any one country and is increasingly becoming globalized, setting unattainable goals with thinly veiled threats as the implied means for carrying them out is not in the best interests of the United States. The country would be better served by convincing others that it is not in their interests— economic, societal, or political—to interfere with space assets, and by using the rule of law to its benefit by establishing codes of conduct for space that would identify nefarious actors and prescribe sanctioned action against them.

A unilateral declaration that the skies belong to the United States is not the answer. Space is too important to be left to debates behind closed doors and reports released after hours to avoid attention and scrutiny. Space may well be a battlefield in the 21st century, but U.S. responses to that reality, including diplomatic as well as military measures, need to be debated openly and with a full understanding of U.S. responsibility to its citizens and its partners in the international community. Friday afternoon press releases and incoherent policy are no substitute for a realistic way forward in space. Americans—and the peoples of the world with whom we will share space, whether we like it or not— deserve better.

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Cite this Article

Johnson-Freese, Joan. “The New U.S. Space Policy: A Turn Toward Militancy?” Issues in Science and Technology 23, no. 2 (Winter 2007).

Vol. XXIII, No. 2, Winter 2007