WASHINGTON -- Senior Defense Department officials defended a recently proposed international space code of conduct against a steady assault by the House Armed Services Strategic Forces Subcommittee during a hearing on the fiscal 2013 Defense space budget (see GSN, Jan. 19).
An international treaty would "encourage responsible space behavior and single out those who act otherwise, while reducing risk of misunderstanding and misconduct," Gregory Schulte, assistant secretary of Defense for space policy, said in prepared remarks.
In his opening statement and throughout the hearing Thursday, subcommittee chairman Representative Michael Turner (R-Ohio) bashed the proposed space code as a threat to national security and said it usurped the role of Congress, as only the Senate can negotiate international treaties.
Although U.S. officials planned to use the European Union's draft space code, approved in 2008, as a model rather than adopting it outright, Turner voiced concern that a deal based on the European code "could establish the foundation for a future arms control regime that binds the United States without the approval of Congress, which would bypass the established constitutional processes by which the United States becomes bound by international law. Additionally, I have significant policy and operational concerns with the EU Code of Conduct with regard to national security."
Schulte maintained that the EU draft is a promising basis for an international code.
"It already reflects U.S. best practices and is consistent with current practices such as notification of space launches and sharing of space data to avoid collisions," he said. "Significantly, the EU's draft is not legally binding and recognizes the inherent right of self-defense. It focuses on activities, rather than unverifiable capabilities and better serves our interests than the legally binding ban on space weapons proposed by others."
China and Russia have both proposed alternative and legally binding codes. China, which conducted an antisatellite test in January 2007 that created at least 2,317 pieces of trackable, golf-ball sized debris, "continues to develop a broad range of counter-space capabilities . . . which could create debris," Schulte told Turner in response to a question. He said the Obama administration is even more concerned about countries new to space. The code of conduct will ensure "the long term viability of space." Schulte said.
In response to a question from Rep. Loretta Sanchez (D-Calif.), Schulte said the code "is not arms control by the back door . . . it can serve the interests of national security."
Turner doubted this assessment based on a letter he had received from the Joint Staff, which stated, "If the United States was to make a good faith effort in developing such a code, there may be an adverse operational impact on space operations." Turner, who read only a portion of the letter, did not disclose how signing on to the space code of conduct would affect operations.
Turner said he viewed the space code of conduct as a "serious" violation of the Constitution and said the House will work with the Senate on the issue, which "leaves no choice but to legislate in the National Defense Authorization Act."
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced the new International Code of Conduct for Space Activities in January, calling it an agreement that was needed to ensure "long-term sustainability of our space environment [which] is at serious risk from space debris and irresponsible actors."
Clinton said working with the European Union and other nations to ensure "the stability, safety, and security of our space systems is of vital interest to the United States and the global community."