Press reports today suggest the United States may have missed a critical opportunity to protect its future in space.
Bloomberg reports that Ellen Tauscher, Undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security, told reporters this morning that the Obama administration has decided not to sign the European-proposed Code of Conduct for Outer Space Activities because it is “too restrictive.”
If true, this would be a disappointing mistake—and would run counter to the security of the United States and the administration’s own statements about the value of developing practical rules-of-the-road for space.
As the importance of space and the number of countries using it increase, getting countries to agree to a set of best practices to avoid interference and conflicts and increase predictability is just as useful in space as it has historically been in the air and on the sea. Currently nothing like that exists for space. That is the goal of the Code of Conduct the European Union (EU) has been developing.
In developing its draft Code, the EU has been consulting with other spacefaring countries and soliciting feedback.
The draft Code, which consists of a set of voluntary activities intended to help coordinate activities in space, provides a good starting point for developing broad norms about how responsible space users should act. It is a very modest step—many say too modest—toward improving the safety of space operations and protecting the space environment, as well as setting expectations that space assets should not be the focus of aggression.
In fact, developing norms of behavior for responsible space operations is a key component of the administration’s National Security Space Strategy, both to promote the “responsible, peaceful, and safe use of space” and prevent and deter aggression against the US in space.
Deputy Secretary of Defense William J. Lynn III has said the Code is consistent with US space strategy goals and that the United States is “looking with great interest at this code of conduct and working with the Europeans.” An interagency experts group reportedly recommended the US sign the Code with minimal changes.
President Obama’s “Sustaining US Global Leadership: Priorities for 21st Century Defense” document released last month reiterated the importance of space to US security. It says regarding space and other parts of the “global commons”:
The United States will continue to lead global efforts with capable allies and partners to assure access to and use of the global commons, both by strengthening international norms of responsible behavior and by maintaining relevant and interoperable military capabilities.
A rejection of this modest step would be a puzzling and and short-sighted turnaround.
Because of the nature of space, true and lasting security requires the cooperation of all space users. Establishing norms and rules of the road is a useful way to start. The US should not only take a lead role in crafting these, but should also work to ensure all space-faring nations are on-board.