When the Bush administration published its National Space Policy in August of 2006, it set off a minor uproar among the high priests of the Church of Arms Control. The text, which took the administration more than five years to put together, was for the most part a strong restatement of America's abiding commitment to preserving its freedom of action in space -- the same commitment that the US has kept to preserve the freedom of the seas.
The world now depends on space-based communications, navigation, and remote sensing for everything from entertainment to agriculture to finance to weather prediction and more. In 2009, global space activity was estimated to be worth more than $257 billion dollars -- which may well be an underestimate. Anything this valuable, and this vulnerable, can and will be attacked.
A high-level commission in 2001 on National Security Space Management and Organization stated: " We know from history that every medium -- air, land and sea -- has seen conflict. Reality indicates that space will be no different. Given this virtual certainty, the US must develop the means both to deter and to defend against hostile acts in and from space. This will require superior space capabilities." Unfortunately, one of the principal authors of that report, Donald Rumsfeld busy with a few problems due to the September 11th attacks, failed to effectively implement this recommendation.
The Bush administration's 2006 statement of principal that "The United States considers space capabilities -- including ground and space segments and supporting links --- vital to its national interests. Consistent with this policy,the United States will : preserve its rights, capabilities, and freedom of action in space; dissuade or deter others from either impeding those rights or developing capabilities intended to do so; take actions necessary to protect its space capabilities; respond to interference; and deny if necessary, adversaries use of space capabilities hostile to U.S. national interests" was perceived as saying that the US would not allow an enemy to use space capabilities against its forces in time of war.
Some extreme interpretations of this policy saw it as a US claim of space supremacy. The policy's goal, however, was to make clear that the US government took the concept of war in space seriously. The Chinese test of an anti satellite (ASAT) weapon in January 2007, which produced a large cloud of debris, showed just how real this prospect had become.
Predictably, many arms control advocates blamed the Chinese test on the Bush administration's policy. The idea that China may have been acting according to its own set of plans and priorities seems not to have occurred to them. Space is, like it or not, an active theater of war. In recent times, the US has attacked enemy ground based space systems, Iran has continually jammed satellite signals, and China has been subject to a hacker-attack on one of its satellites. Things will only intensify as the economic and military utility of space assets increases.
The 2006 policy took this fact into account, even if the Bush administration failed, for the most part, to follow up its declarations with action. It did, however, use a sea based SM-3 missile to shoot down in very low Earth orbit a derelict US intelligence satellite that posed a minor pollution threat . This action, taken in February 2008, was widely interpreted as a US response to the Chinese ASAT test, even though China's operation had been against a target much higher up.
Today, US satellites are still just as defenseless as they were in 2006. The suggestion in the new space policy that "The United States will consider proposals and concepts for arms control measures if they are equitable, effectively verifiable, and enhance the national security of the United States." Neither the laws of physics nor the basic technology has changed since the Bush administration rejected this idea precisely because of the inherent unverifiability of such agreements. Virtually any satellite or space launch vehicle can be turned into an ASAT weapon with ease. Either the administration is setting up a jobs program for displaced arms controllers or it sufferers from a bad case of naiveté.
Worst of all, the policy does say that we will "..consistent with the inherent right of self defense, deter others from interference and attack, defend our space systems and contribute to the defense of allied space systems, and if deterrence fails, defeat efforts to attack them." In the context of the administration's overall viewpoint, this means that we shall try to move our satellites out of the way of enemy ASAT weapons that may be launched against them; try to prevent enemy- jamming from blocking our use of the electromagnetic spectrum and, if we can, warn our allies that something bad may be about to happen to their satellites. It does not mean that we shall shoot down their ASAT weapons or that we shall retaliate for an attack on our space assets.
In 2006, the US government threatened to "deny" enemy use of space systems; in 2010. the idea that we will fight to win a war in space is not something our government even wants to think about.
Part of the problem is that within the Defense bureaucracy there is little incentive to think seriously about satellite defense, let alone to spend any money on it. It will take a sustained push from the highest levels of government, most likely from the President himself, to force a change in attitude. Bush, like his father, had at least some reasonable understanding of the danger, but never gave it the priority it deserved; the current president shows no sign that he understands this at all. This administration also does not want to get into a major fight over a treaty to ban space weapons, something about which Obama speculated during the campaign.
So for now, we get a weak document with which no one who pays attention to these issues is happy.
As Jeff Kuter of the Marshall Institute pointed out, the new Space Policy is full of ambiguous phrases that could mean anything. It is the intent of the administration and how this will be translated into actions, both in the budget and inside the Pentagon that will determine if this policy is truly a danger to American national security or just another set of empty words.