21 January 2009
Obama White House Signals New Tack on Space Militarization
By Victoria A. Samson
Senior Analyst,
Center for Defense Information


President Obama has pledged to seek a "worldwide ban" on weapons that could be used against military or commercial satellites, according to a new defense agenda released yesterday by the White House.

The goal represents a break with the policy of the Bush administration, where officials had little appetite for multilateral agreements governing military actions in space, according to experts.

“This is a definite change in direction,” said Victoria Samson, a senior analyst at the Center for Defense Information. “Previously, the administration refused to discuss the idea of any multilateral agreement, arguing [these agreements] were unnecessary.”

The president's stated willingness to pursue such a pact comes as officials at the Defense Department and in the Office of the Director of National Intelligence are gearin! g up for the congressionally mandated Space Posture Review. The results of the review, due to Congress in December, are expected to contribute to the formulation of the Obama administration's first national space policy.

While not entirely ruling out military action to defend U.S. spacecraft, Obama's statement emphasizes the importance of “diplomatic” means to do so. In his statement, the president also pledges to establish “contingency plans” that would allow U.S. forces fallback access to data from space assets. In addition, programs aimed at hardening U.S. satellites against attacks will be accelerated, the statement reads.

“I think [Obama administration officials] are realizing that there are many tools in the toolkit to deal with threats to U.S. space assets . . . [other than] putting weapons up to shoot down anything that you think might be coming at your satellites,” Samson said.

A test by the Chinese militar! y two years ago, in which a missile-launched interceptor destroyed one of Beijing’s aging weather satellites in low-Earth orbit, sparked an intense debate in Washington about the significance of the test for U.S. national security. Chinese officials have said the test was not meant as a threat.

After the test, some experts argued the military should accelerate the development offensive space weapons to protect America's satellites in a domain already contested militarily by several countries.

“The entire setting for [Obama's] policy statement, in my judgment, borders on a non-sequitur, in that it assumes space is not already weaponized, when in fact it already is,” Heritage Foundation research fellow Baker Spring said today.

Others said the Chinese test showed the need for an international agreement on the prohibition of anti-satellite weapons.

Obama administration officials could find it difficult to hammer out a verifiable agreem! ent because it is “virtually impossible” to reach an international consensus on what constitutes a space weapon, Spring said.

Meanwhile, delegates convened this week in Geneva for a meeting of the United Nations Conference on Disarmament. Officials have used the forum to discuss the issue of space weapons -- albeit without much agreement.

In a Jan. 20 message delivered at the meeting, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon urged participants to “intensify their efforts” toward establishing a ban on space weapons

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