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January 19, 2011 

Obama Administration to Release New Space Security Strategy

The Obama administration is expected to release its National Security Space Strategy sometime in the next few weeks. The document will spell out how the Department of Defense and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence will carry out the president’s National Space Policy, which the administration issued last June.

Space is vital to U.S. national interests. For example, Americans depend on satellites for a broad range of critical civil and military services. The U.S. government, therefore, has a keen interest in maintaining satellite safety and security, protecting the space environment, and ensuring that insecurity in space does not threaten security on the ground.

Experts at the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) expect the space strategy document to consider security primarily from a military perspective. It is unlikely that it will address broader ways to approach space security and sustainability issues.

“While the strategy certainly will emphasize steps to strengthen the security and stability of space and foster international cooperation,” said Laura Grego, a senior scientist with UCS’s Global Security Program, “it also will likely miss some important opportunities.”

For example, the document is unlikely to recommend that the United States take the lead on space diplomacy, she said. Diplomatic engagement could help relieve suspicions among countries, reduce incentives for building anti-satellite systems and other space weapons by establishing negotiated limits, and avert space disputes.

The strategy document is likely to encourage bilateral discussions and confidence-building and transparency measures, what Grego called “a good start,” but strong U.S. leadership could reap even greater rewards, she said. For example, a more robust diplomatic initiative that includes the major spacefaring countries would have the potential to increase cooperation with countries that are not traditional U.S. military allies, and spur other countries to develop realistic proposals that could ensure a safe and sustainable future in space.

The new National Security Space Strategy, like the National Space Policy, will not emphasize the role that arms control agreements could play as part of a larger scheme for keeping space secure. Well-crafted arms control proposals could lower the risk of arms races or conflicts in space or on the ground, Grego said, and protect the space environment from the harmful debris caused when countries deliberately destroy satellites.

“Agreed-upon limits on weapons in space and interfering with satellites could strengthen stability and security in space and on the ground, and such limits should be part of the U.S. national security strategy,” Grego said. “Unfortunately, the National Space Policy had little to say about this issue, and it is unlikely that the new space strategy will urge the United States to take the lead on it.”

UCS recently released a report that offers a broader perspective on space security than what the organization expects to see in the National Security Space Strategy. The report, “Securing the Skies,” identifies 10 near-term, practical steps the Obama administration could take to safeguard U.S. satellites and protect the space.

The UCS report recommended that the Obama administration:

  • provide detailed guidance for U.S. policymakers that emphasizes international cooperation; reaffirm that all countries have equal rights to the peaceful use of space; and promote a balanced view of commercial, civil and military uses of space.
  • declare that the United States will not intentionally damage or disable satellites operating in accordance with the Outer Space Treaty, and pledge that it will not be the first country to station dedicated weapons in space. The administration should press other space powers to make the same pledge.
  • preserve valuable satellite capabilities -- and make them less tempting targets -- by making satellites more resistant to interference and developing ways to quickly replace them or compensate with other measures if they are disabled.
  • assemble a negotiating team with the appropriate expertise, work jointly with other countries to identify the most productive venue and agenda for negotiations, and engage in international discussions on space.
  • develop and implement transparency measures to improve safety and predictability in space, improve U.S. space surveillance capabilities, and develop options for verifying international compliance with potential space agreements.

“Because of the nature of space, its security and sustainability cannot be guaranteed unilaterally,” said Grego. “Given the United States’ superiority in space and its recent opposition to space negotiations, it will take vigorous U.S. leadership to make progress. While the Obama administration has been making some of the right moves, we’re still looking for it to play a more active role.”


The Union of Concerned Scientists puts rigorous, independent science to work to solve our planet's most pressing problems. Joining with citizens across the country, we combine technical analysis and effective advocacy to create innovative, practical solutions for a healthy, safe, and sustainable future.

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