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US Presses Russia, China On ASAT Tests; Space Control Spending Triples

Posted by Colin Clark on


Frank Rose, asst secretary of State for arms control

Frank Rose, assistant secretary of State for arms control, verification and compliance

COLORADO SPRINGS: The United States has tripled its spending on offensive space control and “active defense” weaponry since 2013 in the last two years. It plans to spend “a majority” of  $150-plus million pool of funding on them over the next five years, part of a broad and fast-moving shift in US space priorities.

The relevant budget line rose from $9.5 million in 2013 to $30.7 million requested in 2016. And that’s the funding that is not classified. I confirmed this spending level by asking Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James and Air Force Space commander Gen. John Hyten if they were complying with the law as stated in last year’s National Defense Authorization Act, which requires that “a majority of” the Space Security and Defense Program “shall be allocated to the development of offensive space control and active defensive strategies and capabilities.” Gen. Hyten replied “yes.” Hyten and James looked surprised by the question and the fact I didn’t follow up.

The Director of National Intelligence and the Pentagon are charged with spending that SSDP money, which means the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO), builder and operator of America’s top-secret spy satellites, is taking part. It’s unlikely we will know much about those capabilities unless the United States were to go to war in space.

This is part of what Doug Loverro, the Pentagon’s head of space policy, says is $5.5 billion the military will spend over the next five years to better protect the nation’ss space architecture, both ground and space assets. Space control is the pointiest edge of this, and the most diplomatically and politically sensitive part of it.

In conversations with more than a dozen Air Force officers and other senior government official here at the Space Foundation’s annual Space Symposium, it has been made very clear that there’s been a change in US policy because of the Chinese anti-satellite test of last July and Russia’s sudden shift from responsible space actor to aggressive opponent of US efforts to forge a common international code of conduct on space operations.

Arms control advocates worry that the US may be treading a path it will find difficult to veer from. But other space analysts — and clearly most of the Obama administrant’s national security team — believe the shift to active protection of US and allied space assets is only rational in the face of greatly increased aggression by the Chinese and Russians.

These actions are consistent with America’s National Space Policy, last revamped in 2010.

Deputy Defense Secretary Bob Work’s speech here yesterday about space control and the administration’s actions do not constitute “another of those pesky ‘red lines,'” wrote Bob Butterworth, a highly respected space and intelligence consultant who is a member of the Breaking Defense Board of Contributors, in an email to me about Work’s space control comments. The existing space policy “is a carefully reasoned guide to the practical steps required to maintain our ‘commitment to enhance the welfare of humankind by cooperating with others to maintain the freedom of space.’”

Several conversations with senior government officials here make it very clear that they agree with Butterworth. Work’s comments, and the fact that the Pentagon shared them with the media– even thought they were made inside a classified facility near here —  seem to clearly indicate this is a signal to China and to Russia.

In recent years, questions to Air Force and Pentagon officials about space control would be met either with a stony face, a wave of the hand, or a comment about how the respondent would not discuss classified issues. Hyten declined today to discuss offensive space control issues for just that reason. Now we have the Deputy Defense Secretary speaking about the issue in public. (DepSecDefs rarely attend the Space Symposium. I believe this is the second time in a decade.)

Even Frank Rose, assistant secretary of State for arms control, verification and compliance, told a Space Symposium audience this morning that “China’s continued development of anti-satellite weapons remains a major challenge to the space environment. He quoted the Space Policy, which says the US will “deter others from interference and attack, defend our space systems and contribute to the defense of allies space systems, and, if deterrence fails, defeat efforts to attack them.”

That last phrase is all about offensive space control and “active defense.” But Rose, knowing the likely reaction from the Russians and Chinese to his remarks, said it is “not in the international community’s interest to engage in a space weapons arms race.”

At the same time, he said in his speech that, “we need to continue to call out the disruptive actions of countries like Russia and China both publicly and in cooperation with our allies and partners.”

Theresa Hitchens, a space expert and arms control advocate at the University of Maryland’s Center for International and Security Studies, believes the US is trying to build trade space with the Russians and Chinese in our international talks with them.

“I have heard some U.S. officials comparing the current situation regarding the pursuit of counterspace capabilities as being analogous to the situation in the early 1980s regarding Intermediate Nuclear Forces [INF] in Europe. The U.S. and NATO made a decision to counter the introduction of the Soviet SS-20s with a dual strategy of seeking an arms control agreement to reduce U.S. and Soviet INF systems while deploying Ground-Launched Cruise Missiles and Pershing IIs in Europe,” she said in an email. “This led to the INF Treaty. While there is some logic to that line of thinking, the danger is that once new weapons programs are underway, they can take on a life of their own. That is, a subsequent administration may decide that arms control ‘trade offs’ are not a good idea, thus leading to a destabilizing counterspace weapons arms race.”

So you have a clear two-track pattern of the State Department continuing to push for international norms and standards for operating in outer space (see COPUOS, etc) and chastising the two offending countries, while the Pentagon presses ahead with a much-increased focus on space control and active defense while continuing to build more resilient space capability architectures at the same time that it presses to share more space situation awareness data with all space partners, including the Chinese.

And now we know there’s money — even if not much in the public domain — and intent behind it.

What do you think?