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US Nixes Euro Space Code; Builds Own ‘Sweet Spot’

Posted by Colin Clark on



WASHINGTON: In an important policy shift, the United States will not adopt a European Union code governing space activities, space debris and international data, a senior State Department official said today.

At the tail end of a breakfast today with reporters, Ellen Tauscher,undersecretary of State for arms control and international security, said that the U.S. had reached the decision recently.

“We’ve made very definitive that we’re not going to go along with the European code of conduct,” Tauscher said.

Basically, it looks as if the Pentagon and State Department decided the EU code of conduct would be too restrictive. AOL D readers got a hint of this during our coverage of the space and cyber conference in Omaha just before Thanksgiving. We reported then that the Joint Staff had “recently completed an analysis of the proposed Code of Conduct, said Greg Schulte, deputy assistant Defense secretary for space policy. Shulte, speaking after Rose at a panel here, said ‘there are some changes we’d still like to make.’ The Pentagon wants to make sure we understand ‘when the code applies and when it doesn’t apply,’ Shulte said. Also, the U.S. needs to ‘make sure that internally we know when the code applies and when it doesn’t apply.'”

China has resolutely refused to discuss a code of conduct. Even when the United States warned China of a possible collision between debris generated by their anti-satellite test and one of their own satellites in 2010, they stayed mum and we never knew if they listened to us.

Tauscher said this morning that the administration had found a new “sweet spot” from which negotiations could start. We believe this would be a combination of the EU code and existing US space policies, a conclusion State Department officials did not disabuse us of.

The new approach drew a cautious comment from officialdom. “We consider this a good starting point for international discussion on a code of conduct,” said an administration official
familiar with the issue. The EU code arose largely as a counter to fairly ridiculous proposals from Russia and China and to help fill a fairly striking policy silence from the United States.

Joan Johnson-Freese, an expert on military space and the Chinese military who teaches at the Naval War College, was unhappy with the administration’s decision.

“U.S. acceptance of a Code of Conduct certainly would have been a step forward in working with the other countries of the international spacefaring community, but instead it appears that the U.S. is going to go its own way by rejecting such a code. While it’s has long appeared that those in the Pentagon interested in protecting assets were on board, once again politics seems to have reared its ugly head to prevent anything getting done on a multilateral basis. If that is the case, then it becomes imperative for the US to step up with its own ideas — and actions — to show the rest of the world that it is not being obstructionist, but actually has new ideas to offer. And ideas need to turn into actions to move forward, rather than being stuck in the past,” said Johnson-Freese, a member of the AOL Board of Contributors.

Bob Butterworth, a respected expert on intelligence and space policy issues, was much more caustic. Butterworth has long been skeptical of the EU code’s provisions.

“Has the laboring elephant finally delivered a bouncing baby mouse? Is the State Department belatedly trying to recover authorities it had long abandoned to OSD Policy? Is the United States itself edging toward reasserting a modest leadership role in the world space community?” he asked rhetorically. “Nah.The can is just being kicked further down the road. Finding themselves unable to commit the country by executive fait accompli, and facing a knot of serious issues that seems to tighten every month (including the cross-national denotation of central terms, the implied commitment to unratified treaties, and the recognition of the Senate’s practical, if not legal, responsibilities), the code aficionados in the administration are just saying ‘wait ’til next year.’ And, of course, we will.”

Instead, Butterworth says the U.S. should continue: sharing space data with allies and other spacefaring nations as it does now, through the Inter-Agency Space Debris Coordination Committee); providing conjunction analysis and collision warning through the Air Force Joint Space Operations Center;, and adopting best practices for space operations in general “through multiple bilateral and multinational diplomatic venues.”

A formal announcement of the administration’s position on this issue should be forthcoming pretty soon. Many details should emerge then, unless State changes its mind. The reaction from allies and other space powers will be revealing.

What do you think?