A Spoon Full of Sugar Makes the Medicine Go Down? An analysis of the Obama administration’s ‘new’ National Space Policy
On 28 June 2010, US President Barack Obama released a new, and much anticipated National Space Policy (NSP) document. In contrast to the bellicose and unilateral tone of George W. Bush’s 2006 policy, the 2010 document is replete with references to ‘international cooperation’ and ‘responsibility.’
When taken with Obama’s campaign promise to pursue a “world-wide ban” on space weapons(1) and overtures to the Conference on Disarmament that the US is prepared to negotiate international arms control agreements regarding space, those opposed to the weaponisation of space might have some cause for optimism that the US has stepped back from setting a dangerous precedent.
But while the change in White House policy is welcome, especially in relation to a greater emphasis on debris mitigation, to assume that space weapons are no longer on the US agenda because of the NSP may be a mistake, and claims that the Bush policy has been reversed are overstated. The NSP remains paradoxical and ambiguous in places, and the policy outcomes remain tied to other conditional political factors such as Ballistic Missile Defense (BMD) and nuclear policies, technology developments, and the US political landscape. This article will address each of these items in turn.
Paradoxical and Ambiguous Rhetoric
The language of the ‘new’ NSP reverts to that in past policies: it is, on the one hand, more cooperative, emphasising traditional language regarding the peaceful use of space. In contrast to the Bush NSP, which was upfront in identifying space as vital to US security interests, the 2010 policy symbolically deemphasises hard security issues by including them last in the document.
But, on the other hand, consistent with previous policies including that of Bush, it also directs the Department of Defense (DOD) to pursue the necessary means to ensure that it has the "capabilities, plans, and options to deter, defend against, and, if necessary, defeat efforts to interfere with or attack U.S. or allied space systems” and to “maintain the capabilities to execute the space support, force enhancement, space control, and force application missions.”(2)
Despite the change in tone, the 2010 NSP does not explicitly support a treaty banning weapons in space, instead stating that the US will “consider proposals and concepts for arms control measures if they are equitable, effectively verifiable and enhance the national security of the United States and its allies.” State Department officials strongly reiterated the use of the word “consider” in an interview discussing the policy and stated that arms control proposals needed to have “very, very strict criteria”,(3) a point also emphasised by Peter Marquez, the space policy director at the National Security Council.(4) Instead, the preference of US policy makers’ appears to be the proposed EU code of Conduct – a non-binding agreement emphasising transparency and confidence building, but not formal arms control.
Frank Rose, the US Representative at the UN Conference on Disarmament, stated in July that the US would “support the inclusion of a non-negotiating or discussion, mandate in any CD program of work” regarding the ‘Prevention of an Arms Race in Space’ (PAROS).(5)
While this rhetoric is a welcome change from Bush’s 2006 policy that explicitly opposed “new legal regimes or other restrictions” that sought “to prohibit or limit U.S. access to or use of space”, the recycling of language from previous policies means that the definitional stumbling blocks that have prevented the negotiation of international law and treaties on the issue for decades still exist.
Importantly, the CD has remained deadlocked for the last decade, unable even to agree on a program of work. While the US refusal to negotiate space arms control issues may have been an issue here (for years US officials have been claiming that there is no problem in space for arms control to solve), a cynical observer may argue that this rhetoric is politically expedient and likely to actually incur little substantive cost in real political action given the inability of previous policies to transcend the definitional dilemma or the slim chance of the CD progressing to a program of work.
Rhetorical continuity, redolent of Bush administration views, is apparent in other quarters. On announcing the NSP, Defense Secretary Robert Gates reiterated the view held during the Bush Administration that space is contested, competitive and congested as opposed to cooperative (a view that allegedly also underlies the forthcoming Space Posture Review(6)), emphasising the primacy of US “leadership” in space, and stated US intentions to “pursue activities consistent with the inherent right of self-defense.”(7)
BMD, Nuclear Issues and DOD doctrines
BMD, nuclear issues, and space weaponisation are intrinsically linked. The paradox of the push towards BMD capacity is that it deepens the US military’s already acute dependence on space systems for their operational requirements, subsequently increasing their sense of vulnerability.
And, while the nuclear taboo has resulted in the ever-increasing lethality of conventional weapons, it is also spurring the development of near-space and space-enabled programs. An example is the Advanced Hypersonic Weapon, an integral component of the ‘Prompt Global Strike’ capacity - which envisages the US being able to strike a target anywhere on Earth within sixty minutes.
Additionally, although he has not explicitly linked his disarmament agenda to BMD, Obama’s push for a nuclear-free world has the same motivation and justification as Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative. On the other hand, US BMD systems potentially neutralise the nuclear deterrence of states such as China, thereby providing an incentive for them to pursue weaponisation.
Tied to these developments is the fact that Obama is the first Democrat to take up a Presidency where the narrative of BMD is well entrenched; that is, the discourse about BMD is no longer about whether or not to support the program, but rather, what form of BMD to support.(8) The change in the base level of narrative becomes more important considering the linkage between space weapons and BMD; progression in BMD technology, and its acceptability in political and public discourse increases the chance that space weapons may become a solution.
State Department officials admit that the space policy “is not a revolutionary document,”(9) and technology development is certainly an area where continuity can be observed. In recent years there has been a push towards less contentious pathways to protect US vulnerabilities such as hardening of US satellites and research into non-permanent methods to deny space to others such as jamming.
However, there are still a number of advanced technologies besides the hypersonic vehicle that could “potentially lead to the development of space-based weapons”, including research into space-based interceptors, air- and ground-based laser programs, and the mysterious X37B military unmanned space plane which is currently in orbit performing classified missions.(10) Added to the uncertainty are the space-related technological developments being funded in the DODs black budget, which some estimate to be over $50 billion US dollars annually in total.(11) For many countries other than the United States, it is the Rumsfeldian “known unknowns” that are particularly troublesome.
Domestic Political Factors
The change in language may contribute to calming the nerves of international audiences, who reacted with alarm at the unilateral tone in the Bush administration’s 2006 document. But the international audience is only part of this story. As the political backlash currently playing out regarding changes to the civil space program shows, there is considerable domestic political concern regarding space issues. And, although many of the policy entrepreneurs that pushed for the weaponisation of space during the Bush administration have moved out of policy circles, many of the ideological drivers for space weaponisation remain.
The desire to remain the world’s pre-eminent space power is bipartisan, and the NSP reinforces the ‘leadership’ directive across all areas. Yet, while the Democrats have historically shown restraint in their commitment to BMD, the Republican Party remains committed to developing multilayered BMD systems that include space-based weapons.
Peter Marquez indicated to news reporters that reversion to language of past policies meant that the Obama administration was “bringing [arms control language] back to a bipartisan agreed-upon position.”(12) By linking this policy to Republican icon Ronald Reagan, and that of Bush Snr, the administration may have cleverly defused the partisan wrangling that arguably contributed to the six year delay in releasing the 2006 policy. However, if the apparent trend towards conservatism in the US is confirmed in the up-coming mid-term elections, it may all be a moot point.
Overall, the deliberate change of tone and style in the NSP clearly indicates that the Obama administration learned much from the reaction to the Bush NSP, and attempted to differentiate itself from it. There may be more clues about the likely direction of US space policy in the forthcoming Congressionally-mandated Space Posture Review which will provide the basis for a separate national security space policy. However, given the tensions within the NSP document itself, the BMD-Nuclear-Space link, and the uncertain political future of the Administration beyond 2012, the outcomes of the policy may be more tenuous and there may be less hope for optimism than a mere change in rhetoric portrays. Like deceiving your tongue with a spoonful of sugar before taking an abhorrent tasting medicine, the policy may in fact be merely a sweetener to sweep away the ugly taste of what is to come.
2 - National Space Policy of the United States of America, June 28, 2010, p. 14. Archives show that generally unclassified space policies are accompanied by a classified addendum tasking the DOD to develop anti-satellite (ASAT) capabilities. e.g. In 1978, in the midst of treaty negotiations with the USSR, President Carter directed the DOD to “vigorously pursue the development of ASAT capabilities.” Reagan of course directed ASAT capabilities be developed and deployed at ‘the earliest practical date.” George H.W. Bush explicitly stated that “United States will develop and deploy a comprehensive capability including both kinetic and directed energy weapons.” However Clinton’s instructions were that space control capabilities be developed operated and maintained “consistent with treaty obligations.” These now unclassified NSC documents can be found in R. Cargill Hall (compiler), “Presidential Decisions: NSC Documents: Supplement: Newly Declassified Excerpts”, Washington D.C.: The George C. Marshall Institute. pp. 6, 8 20, 26.
3 - United States Department of State, “Briefing by Senior Administration Officials on the President’s National Space Policy Via Teleconference, 06/28/10” available at http://www.globalsecurity.org/space/library/news/2010/space-100628-state01.htm
4 William J. Broad and Kenneth Chang, “Obama Reverses Bush’s Space Policy”, New York Times, June 28, 2010.
5 - Marcia Smith, “U.S. Tells U.N. Conference on Disarmament It Seeks Stability in Space,” Spacepolicyonline.com, 15 July, 2010.
6 - Remarks made by Deputy Secretary of Defense William Lynn as quoted in “Is GPS Vulnerability Leading the U.S. Towards a More Cooperative Space Posture? Inside GNSS, May 26, 2010.
7 - US Department of Defense, “Defense Secretary Robert Gates Statement on the National Space Policy”, No 545-40, June 28, 2010. Available at:
8 - Although General James Cartwright, Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff recently noted that the question was not whether or not to develop BMD but “how fast can we produce?” See “Officials Outline Missile Defense Goals”, Global Security Newswire, March 23, 2010. Available at:
9 - United States Department of State, “Briefing by Senior Administration Officials on the President’s National Space Policy Via Teleconference, 06/28/10” available at http://www.globalsecurity.org/space/library/news/2010/space-100628-state01.htm
10 - “The Obama-Biden Plan”, Website of the Office of the President-Elect, see http://change.gov/agenda/defense_agenda/ accessed 30 August 2010.
12 - As quoted in William J. Broad and Kenneth Chang, “Obama Reverses Bush’s Space Policy”, New York Times, June 28, 2010.
11 - For example see Noah Shachtman, “Pentagon’s Black Budget tops $56 Billion”, Wired, 1 February 2010.
1 - “The Obama-Biden Plan”, Website of the Office of the President-Elect, see http://change.gov/agenda/defense_agenda/ accessed 30 August 2010.
Image Source: NASA Goddard Photo and Video
Posted on 8/09/10