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National Space Policy Attacked as 'Star Wars'

The new National Space Policy is now in the process of being assailed in the same tone as Strategic Missile Defense was characterized as ‘Star Wars’ in the 1980’s and since. Those concerned with National Security issues should consider the policy before digesting various media accounts and comments on its meaning.

On the front page of today’s Washington Post appears the headline: Bush Sets Defense As Space Priority. That is correct, but the direction the article takes is immediately clear through the Post’s subtitle, “U.S. Says Shift Is Not A Step Toward Arms; Experts Say It Could Be.”

Immediately following are quotes from those who are clearly presented as at least suspicious of the new policy, if not directly opposed to it. But carefully consider first the principles of the new (31AUG2006) US National Space Policy and note that it recognizes the rights of “all nations” to use space for peaceful purposes and that it speaks of defense against threats to US assets in space, military or civilian. This is just as we would expect our government to protect US assets, military or civilian, at sea from attack.

The conduct of U.S. space programs and activities shall be a top priority, guided by the following principles:
  • 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;
  • 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 right of the United States to operate in and acquire data from space;
  • The United States will seek to cooperate with other nations in the peaceful use of outer space to extend the benefits of space, enhance space exploration, and to protect and promote freedom around the world;
  • 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 purposeful interference with its space systems as an infringement on its rights;
  • The United States considers space capabilities -- including the ground and space segments and supporting links -- 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 United States will oppose the development of new legal regimes or other restrictions that seek to prohibit or limit U.S. access to or use of space. Proposed arms control agreements or restrictions must not impair the rights of the United States to conduct research, development, testing, and operations or other activities in space for U.S. national interests; and
  • The United States is committed to encouraging and facilitating a growing and entrepreneurial U.S. commercial space sector. Toward that end, the United States Government will use U.S. commercial space capabilities to the maximum practical extent, consistent with national security.

The benefits of precision guided munitions and real-time battlefield communications and coordination are clear and welcomed by all. But those weapons that permit precision strikes and nearly eliminate the specter of a ‘Dresden-like’ operation rely upon an Achilles heel: Satellite communications. Our defenses are superior globally with lesser troop levels for this reason. Allow it to be eliminated and our advantages are primarily lost. This is precisely why the fifth bulleted principle states that the “United States considers space capabilities -- including the ground and space segments and supporting links -- vital to its national interests.” Because they most certainly are.

The clearly vital nature of these interests is why the policy directly states that, just as with all other national interests, the United States will “deny, if necessary, adversaries the use of space capabilities hostile to U.S. national interests.” Consider that China has been firing lasers to disable US satellites. As stated in the new policy, America is doing no more than clarifying that it will defend itself, its assets and its interests, which do not stop at the edge of our earthly atmosphere. China, Russia and even satellite-hungry Iran hold the same view for themselves, as do others. They simply hold far less developed capabilities.

To subscribe to the space-restrictionist thinking of critics is to rely upon the good nature of Russia, China and others to act in a parallel manner once their systems and capabilities more closely rival our own.

But the key to understanding the intent of the new space policy comes from a key sentence: “The United States will oppose the development of new legal regimes or other restrictions that seek to prohibit or limit U.S. access to or use of space.” To take any other position towards international agreements would be to suggest that 18th-century England should have also then entered into an international agreement that restricted its dominant navy access to the seas because other navies were not as developed.

But, contrary to the coming commentary and criticism of the new National Space Policy – now set in motion by the Washington Post - opposing ‘new legal regimes’ that would restrict our activities is absolutely not “a step toward arms.”

Refusing to have your hands tied behind your back is not the same as the intent to punch someone in the face.