[FPSPACE] President Obama seeks space weapons ban
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Tue Jan 27 10:28:02 EST 2009
Challenges loom as Obama seeks space weapons ban
Sun Jan 25, 2009 11:14am EST
By Andrea Shalal-Esa - Analysis
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama's pledge to seek a worldwide
ban on weapons in space marks a dramatic shift in U.S. policy while posing
the tricky issue of defining whether a satellite can be a weapon.
Moments after Obama's inauguration last week, the White House website was
updated to include policy statements on a range of issues, including a
pledge to restore U.S. leadership on space issues and seek a worldwide ban
on weapons that interfere with military and commercial satellites.
It also promised to look at threats to U.S. satellites, contingency plans to
keep information flowing from them, and what steps are needed to protect
spacecraft against attack.
The issue is being closely watched by Lockheed Martin Corp, Boeing Co,
Northrop Grumman Corp, the biggest U.S. defense contractors, and other
companies involved in military and civilian space contracts.
Watchdog groups and even some defense officials welcomed the statement,
which echoed Obama's campaign promises, but said it would take time to
hammer out a comprehensive new strategy.
Enacting a global ban on space weapons could prove even harder.
For instance, it was difficult to define exactly what constituted a "weapon"
because even seemingly harmless weather tracking satellites could be used to
slam into and disable other satellites, said two U.S. officials involved in
the area who were not authorized to speak publicly.
Michael Krepon, co-founder of the private Henry L. Stimson think tank on
space, cited recent reports that the Pentagon was using two smaller
satellites launched in 2006 to fly near a dead missile-warning satellite and
investigate what happened. The Defense Support Program satellite, DSP-23,
built by Northrop, failed on orbit in mid-September.
"This incident clarified how important it is to have rules of the road for
technologies that could have many different applications," Krepon said.
"There are lots of benign reasons to have a closer look at an object in
space. But we all know that when satellites make close passes they could
also do things that are not benign."
Two years ago, China used a missile to destroy one of its own satellites in
a test that raised worries about a new arms race in space. The incident may
have created thousands of pieces of debris. Last year, the United States
also destroyed one of its own satellites, saying its toxic fuel tank could
pose a danger if it fell to Earth.
A defense official, who also asked not to be named, said the Obama
administration had not yet held briefings for top officials working on
military space issues, but it was clear that the focus would shift toward
more diplomatic initiatives.
Work on classified projects involving an "active" military response to
attacks against U.S. satellites might be halted in favor of more monitoring
and passive protection measures, he said. He declined to give any more
The Obama administration also faces tough decisions on many
multibillion-dollar satellite programs facing cost overruns and schedule
delays, particularly at a time when rapid increases in military spending are
grinding to a halt.
"There's still a lot of wiggle room" in the administration's statement on
military space, said analyst Victoria Samson with the private Center for
Defense Information. "But just the sheer fact that they are discussing it
represents a real shift from the Bush administration."
"It's not going to happen immediately, but it seems as though the wheels are
in motion to initiate some sort of cooperative measure," Samson said.
Another defense official, who asked not to be named, said the new
administration would work through the complex military space issues during a
defense review to be completed by September, and as part of a space report
due in December.
The new policy language used by the Obama administration was "impossibly
broad," the official said. It also failed to acknowledge recent work by U.S.
officials on guidelines for space debris and conduct by nations active in
Even Obama acknowledged during his election campaign that achieving a global
treaty banning weapons in space could be a daunting challenge. A simpler and
quicker solution, he suggested at that time, might be a "code of conduct for
responsible space-faring nations."
In response to questions from the Council for a Livable World, Obama said
one key element of any such code would be "a prohibition against harmful
interference against satellites."
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