As concerns grow about military threats to U.S. satellites, DoD’s top space policy post remains unfilled
WASHINGTON — At the first meeting of the Biden administration’s National Space Council Dec. 1, Vice President Kamala Harris said a top concern is keeping space safe for military, civilian and commercial operations.
Harris said efforts to establish “rules and norms for responsible behavior in space” will be one of three main priorities for the council, along with using space to help combat climate change and expanding STEM education.
The Defense Department will have a prominent role shaping the discussion over space norms, which has gained significant attention following Russia’s Nov. 15 missile strike that blew up a satellite in orbit.
“From the Defense Department’s perspective, we would like to see all nations agree to refrain from anti-satellite weapons testing that creates debris, which pollutes the space environment, risks damaging space objects and threatens the lives of current and future space explorers,” Deputy Defense Secretary Kathleen Hicks said at the council meeting.
Broad guidelines were laid out by Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin in a July 7 memo that lists five tenets of responsible behavior: Limit the generation of long-lived debris, avoid the creation of harmful interference, maintain safe separation and safe trajectory, communicate and make notifications about space activities.
Austin assigned U.S. Space Command and DoD’s civilian-led policy office the job of implementing these guidelines and coordinating them with other agencies and international allies. This could be a challenge as there is currently no Senate-confirmed official at the Pentagon in charge of space policy.
Congress in the National Defense Authorization Act for fiscal year 2020 directed the Pentagon to establish a new office to oversee space policy and authorized the new position of assistant secretary of defense for space policy as the senior civilian with oversight of national security space issues.
Biden in July tapped Aerospace Corp. executive John Plumb to be assistant secretary of defense for space policy. The nomination was sent to the Senate but a confirmation hearing has yet to be scheduled by the Senate Armed Services Committee. It’s unclear when that might happen as the Senate is bogged down in legislative battles over federal spending and the 2022 National Defense Authorization Act.
DoD lacks a Senate-confirmed space policy leader at a time of heightened tensions over Russian and Chinese advances in counterspace technology. In a policy document released Dec. 1, the administration noted that foreign rivals of the United States view space as critical to modern warfare and anti-satellite weapons increasingly pose a threat to U.S. assets in orbit.
U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan said at the council meeting that there are many “stakeholders who come into play on the question of dealing with space governance and space norms.” This issue cuts across national security and civilian space, public and private sectors, and across countries, he said.
“Over the past few years the international community through the United Nations and elsewhere has made progress in developing norms to strengthen the safety and sustainability of space activities,” said Sullivan. “But frankly, we’ve fallen short in addressing the risks of inadvertent conflict arising from growing national security activities in space.”
Irresponsible military activities in space “undermine the peaceful use of space by all,” he added. Building on the work already done by DoD and the State Department, the National Security Council will start developing “new proposals for international norms that contribute to stability and security in space while also protecting the space environment.”