More on the National Security Space Strategy

February 10, 2011 | 11:02 am
Laura Grego
Research Director, Senior Scientist

The unclassified summary of the newly released National Security Space Strategy (NSSS) marks the first time the Defense and Intelligence departments have issued such a document. (An NSSS was produced during the G.W. Bush administration, but ultimately never released.) It sets out the space security strategy for the next decade.

It’s a thoughtful document, with a broader approach than I had anticipated. It touches on a number of the issues we discussed in our report Securing the Skies.  For example, the NSSS includes an approach to security with an improved balance of commercial, civil, and military views of space; emphasizes international cooperation; and uses a multilayered approach to securing satellite capabilities, including norms and building resilience into U.S. space systems.

As expected, the NSSS focuses on ensuring that the space capabilities important for defense and intelligence work will be securely available:

Our objectives are to improve safety, stability, and security in space; to maintain and enhance the strategic national security advantages afforded to the United States by space; and to energize the space industrial base that supports U.S. national security.

However, it also takes the opportunity to state that:

Achieving these objectives will mean not only that our military and intelligence communities can continue to use space for national security purposes, but that a community of nations is working toward creating a sustainable and peaceful space environment to benefit the world for years to come.

This is important language—emphasizing that the benefits of security in space accrue to all nations, not just the U.S.

It has become clear over the last few years that important parts of the DOD policy-making bureaucracy realize that durable space security isn’t achievable via unilateral or purely military means. The National Space Policy hinted at this, but that policy laid out more detailed objectives for Defense and Intelligence than it did for State, and it was not clear what role diplomatic efforts and negotiated agreements would be playing. The NSSS doesn’t provide a lot more on this count, but is a bit clearer about what the objectives of norm-building are:

We will support establishing international norms and transparency and confidence-building measures in space, primarily to promote spaceflight safety but also to dissuade and impose international costs on aggressive behavior.

One hopes that the U.S. can use norms (and other signals) not only to dissuade aggressive behavior, but also to assure other countries about responsible intentions on the part of the U.S., and so reduce incentives to develop weapons in the first place.

This leads to the question of whether Defense and Intelligence would be willing to exchange some “freedom of action” for mutual restraint and improved security. For example, how close is the U.S. to foregoing a space-based ballistic missile defense system and destructive ASAT weapons because their costs outweigh their benefits? The U.S. is currently pursuing a hedging strategy, trying to increase security via norms and cooperative engagement while retaining the options to build weapons.

Deputy Secretary William Lynn shed little light on this when he was asked about this at the NSSS press conference on February 4:

Q:  And does the strategy say anything specific about space weapons, either weapons to attack space or weapons from space or, indeed, weapons through space?

MR. LYNN:  It doesn’t address those issues.

Q:  So what is the policy, then, in terms of space-based weapons or anti-satellite weapons?

MR. LYNN:  I mean, we’ve retained our ability for self-defense, but we have been restrained in how we would exercise that in space.

Q:  What’s the self-defense capability regarding space?  What are you referring to specifically?

MR. LYNN:  In other words, if attacked, we retain the right to respond in whatever we would choose to be the appropriate means.

While the NSSS emphasizes “active leadership” on the part of the U.S., it looks unlikely the U.S. will lead in pursuing stronger limits on the most dangerous technologies. The language on arms control is the same as the National Space Policy:

We 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.

Because norms and other less formal types of cooperation are easier to negotiate and are less constraining, the temptation to rely primarily on them may be hard to avoid. However, formal agreements have important benefits. They are binding and more durable, can include more extensive verification provisions, and are more likely than informal agreements to provide the confidence and predictability that are key benefits of diplomacy. In the NSSS press conference, Ambassador Schulte said that it’s not the DOD’s job to set arms control policy. However the DOD will be constrained by any negotiated agreements and will have considerable influence in creating the plans that follow from this strategy. I hope in the implementation of the NSP and NSSS possibilities beyond norms are vigorously explored.