Senators Cool To Space Code of Conduct; GAO Praises DOD on Acquisition Progress

Senators Cool To Space Code of Conduct; GAO Praises DOD on Acquisition Progress

A large panel of witnesses from the Department of Defense (DOD), the three military services, and the Government Accountability Office (GAO) testified to the Senate Armed Services Committee’s (SASC’s) Strategic Forces Subcommittee on Wednesday on an array of space issues, but the wisdom of negotiating a Code of Conduct for space activities was center stage.  At the same time, GAO, usually a strong critic of DOD’s management and acquisition of space systems, praised DOD on its progress in changing the paradigm.

Subcommittee chairman Ben Nelson (D-NE) and ranking member Jeff Sessions (R-AL), the only Senators present, both made clear their reservations about negotiating a Code of Conduct for space — an agreement they believe could limit what the United States does in space and thus harm national security.  Madelyn Creedon, a former SASC committee staffer and now Assistant Secretary of Defense for Global Strategic Affairs, assured the Senators that the Code of Conduct would be a voluntary agreement, not a treaty, and would not limit U.S. options.  It is all about “behavior, not capabilities,” she stressed.  

The European Union (EU) drafted a Code of Conduct whose objective is to define responsible behavior for space-faring nations.  The idea is that countries cannot be criticized for poor behavior if good behavior has not been defined.  The perceived need for such a Code of Conduct is being spurred by two events that created a substantial amount of space debris — China’s intentional destruction of one of its own satellites in a 2007 antisatellite test and the 2009 unintentional collision of a U.S. commercial Iridium communications satellite and a defunct Russian satellite.   Key goals of the draft Code is convincing countries and commercial entities to refrain from creating more debris and establishing mechanisms to improve space situational awareness (SSA) so everyone knows where everyone else’s satellites are.

Opponents of the effort to develop a Code of Conduct assert that it is a backhanded way of creating an arms control treaty for outer space.   Russia and China have been attempting for years through the United Nations Committee on Disarmament to establish a space arms control treaty, without success.  Both the George W. Bush and Barack Obama Administrations have steadfastly refused to negotiate such a treaty, although discussions are OK.

However, the U.S. is willing to negotiate a non-binding, voluntary Code of Conduct that is not a treaty but a useful mechanism to deal with space debris and SSA.   Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced in January that the United States will work with Europe and other countries to finalize such a Code.  The U.S. position is that many more countries need to be brought into the discussion.   The EU will sponsor meetings to broaden the debate.  Creedon said at the hearing that the first “meeting of experts” would be in June and she anticipates it will take one or two years to finalize an agreement.   Other officials have suggested an even longer time period.

At the hearing, Senators Nelson and Sessions acknowledged that this is a State Department issue over which their subcommittee has no jurisdiction.  Nonetheless they sought and received assurances that the Senate would be consulted before any agreement was signed.   The Senate must provide advice and consent to ratification of any treaty, but since this is not a treaty, its role in approving or disapproving it is unclear.  Sessions said that Congress is “interested and watching” what the Administration does.

Other topics that were discussed extensively was the decision to terminate the Operationally Responsive Space (ORS) and Space Test Program (STP), how to lower the cost of launching satellites and bring new entrants into the marketplace, how to protect spectrum used by DOD, and how to assure that ground systems and user equipment associated with a satellite program are ready when the satellite is launched.

GAO, which usually has a long list of criticisms of DOD space acquisition, focused on the ground systems/user equipment issue this year.   Cristina Chaplain, GAO’s director of acquisition and sourcing management, noted how much has changed with regard to DOD space programs in the past few years.  “If I were here five years ago,” she said, “I would be talking about all the major programs having very large cost increases and schedule delays….resistance to implementing best practices…and lax oversight.”  Some space programs still have problems, she continued, but not to the same extent. 

One of the major concerns today is that ground systems and user equipment are not ready when satellites are launched.  “We’re seeing too many programs [where] the user equipment is just arriving years later than the satellites and you really have a situation where you’re wasting expensive capacity in space when that happens,” she said.  The Navy’s Multiple User Objective System (MUOS) was cited as an example today, and GPS III is of concern for the future.   


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