Jeffrey LewisNew National Space Policy, Also Silly

Hey, I somehow missed that we have a new national space policy. (Unclassified version).

Last I checked, the thing was in Draft 30-something —30-something, by the way: not hyperbole—and another victim of the totally dysfunctional interagency process.

Anyway, the key paragraph is:

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.

Ladies and gentlemen, from the rocket scientists who compared treaties to terrorism.

I know, this isn’t exactly news—neither this administration nor probably any other was going to sign a treaty restricting the development of space-based strike weapons or space-based missile defenses. Nor it is the end of the world—a treaty won’t prohibit some magnificently dumb ideas nearly as well as do the laws of physics currently. No matter how much the space yahoos spend, orbiting death rays are more a waste of money, than a threat to peace.

But what irritates me about the policy is the shallow understanding of “freedom of action” expressed in the document, and the consequent revulsion to using diplomatic and other forms of US power to ensure our access to outer space.

I tried to make this argument in an article entitled, “Space Control Isn’t Freedom of Action” in Ad Astra online, which doesn’t appear on-line in any form. (Although this guy really hated it.)

I made what I thought were some important arguments about how strong states (like the US) can use international law to protect our own interests and build a more secure world:

The purpose of the space control mission is, first,” “to ensure freedom of action in space for friendly forces…” Space dominators oppose most international negotiations concerning outer space because new agreements might constrain some undefined, future capability. One fellow even mentioned pulling out of the Outer Space Treaty, which prohibits installations on the moon among other things.

Not that we have a plan for a moon-base, but we might—you know?

Speaking for the Rumsfeld Space Commission, Retired Air Force General Ronald Fogelman warned “one of the biggest threats to future space capability may be the unintended consequences of well-intentioned people signing up to certain treaties and restrictions today that in and of themselves seem to be very innocent. And as you go down the road,” Fogelman said (to mix a metaphor), “they could end up tying our hands in ways that would very much limit our ability to continue to be dominant.”


The skepticism of the space dominators, however, reveals a shallow understanding of the relationship between the rule of law and freedom of action. The Western tradition of governance—with the possible exception of the French Revolution—rests on the belief that the rule of law creates freedom. Freedom’s opposite is not law, but law’s absence: anarchy. Every first-year law student learns this lesson in his or her contracts class. Some of those lawyers represent the Bush Administration, which invoked the same principle to support ratification of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).


As the most powerful country in the world, the United States can ensure the rules reflect our interests. Chief of Naval Operations Vern Clark also testified that UNCLOS would increase freedom of action at sea, leading to a natural question: Why can’t law free the Air Force in space as it does the Navy at sea?

The prevailing trend in outer space is the growing number of states that can build and launch satellites. [snip] The real challenge posed by the growing number of space-faring states relates to more mundane problems such as the growth of debris and orbital crowding. Failure by new space-faring states to operate responsibly could challenge to US freedom of action in outer space.


The United States ought to play a leadership role in addressing these questions. Steps might include improving our compliance with the UN Convention on the Registration of Objects Launched into Space (we are the worst offenders in terms of unregistered objects), pressing India and Russia to drop objections to making voluntary debris mitigation guidelines mandatory and developing international space “traffic control” procedures.

Achieving these ambitious goals will require the United States to discuss our future military activities in outer space. But proposals by Russia and China to discuss military activities in outer space explicitly exclude current capabilities. In other words, we’d be talking about programs we won’t be deploying for decades—hardly a threat to our freedom of action.

Anyway, Michael Katz-Hyman at the Stimson Center has a nice line by line comparison of the new document with the 1996 Clinton Policy.

Update: A colleague notes that several NATO members are signatories to the Russian UN Resolution on Transparency and Confidence Building Measures in Outer Space.


  1. marko beljac (History)

    Interesting thing is that China has just released a space white paper as well. Comparing Beijing’s space policy with that of Washington’s makes for interesting reading, like which is the more militaristic? Answer is pretty obvious.

  2. Earl Kirkman (History)

    The real irony will be when the only working heavy lift booster is Chinese, because the Amerikan model designed and built by Lockhead is a dud. The US has ceeded any advantage we ever had in technology to crony politics and the quick rich monopoly finance schemes of Big Biddness. If there is any dictation of access to space, it will probably be China telling us to clean up that crap we call a space station.

  3. Theresa Hitchens (History)

    Considering that DoD and the commercial satellite industry are now in talks about a “code of conduct” for collision avoidance, the policy’s rejection of any limits on U.S. behavior in space seem contradictory at best. In addition, it is hard to follow the logic of a policy that asserts complete freedom of access to and freedom of interference in space, then turns around and asserts the right to “deny” the use of space. The NSP is not only insulting to other space-faring powers, but internally inconsistent. But what else is new with the Bush administration?

  4. Brent Logan (History)

    Michael Katz-Hyman’s line by line comparison is here.

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