White House Unveils New Space Policy, But Does It Matter?

First meeting of the reborn National Space Council, Oct. 5, 2017

WASHINGTON: Outgoing President Donald Trump has issued a new National Space Policy that, in essence, seeks to put an official stamp on the administration’s previous decisions, from asserting that space is a warfighting domain to pledging a permanent US presence on the Moon to supporting industry efforts to mine celestial bodies.

The big question is: does it matter?

“I just think it’s a little too late for trying to put a stamp on something. It is just trying to say that they did something,” said veteran space policy wonk Erin Neal, founder of Velocity Government Relations and staffer to former Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson of Florida.

Space isn’t expected to have a high profile in the administration of incoming President Joe Biden, given the pandemic, the flailing economy, the climate crisis and a number of foreign policy challenges — many, such as the prickly relations between the US and its NATO allies, of the Trump administration’s own making. That said, Biden — like every other president before him — likely will eventually want to put his own stamp on space policy.

For example, the new Trump policy seeks to enshrine the role of the National Space Council, led by Vice President Mike Pence and used, in large part, as a bully pulpit for advocacy of administration decisions. But, word on the street is that while the Biden administration is unlikely to get rid of the council, given VP Kamala Harris’s lack of interest in the subject and the time sink it’s proven to be for agency heads the White House may simply let it languish.

Similarly, Biden isn’t expected to try to undo the creation of Space Force, since it was created with strong bi-partisan backing and is now enshrined in law. (As Breaking D readers know, the concept was originated in 2017 by Democrat Rep. Jim Cooper and Republican Rep. Mike Rogers, at the time the ranking member and chair of the House Armed Services Committee’s Strategic Forces subcommittee; Rogers has been elevated to HASC ranking member and Cooper chairs the Strategic Forces subcommittee.) Rather, independent policy experts expect the new administration to tone down Trump’s chest-thumping rhetoric on the need for US military space dominance while quietly going about efforts to beef up military space capabilities.

And regarding NASA, observers are expecting a ratcheting back of the current emphasis on American ‘boots on the Moon’ in exchange for a keener focus (and more money) on Earth science and climate monitoring efforts that Trump tried unsuccessfully to cut. Indeed, the new Trump space policy strips all references to climate change that had been in past policies.

In reality, experts say, the new Trump policy doesn’t deviate that much from historical US approaches to space activities, including the most recent National Space Policy put out by President Barack Obama in 2010.

“It largely repeats many of the same long-standing principles seen in previous national space policies,” said Secure World Foundation’s Brian Weeden. Secure World last week released a policy guide for the incoming administration, which among other things calls for a greater emphasis on diplomacy.

In the national security realm, the Trump policy’s foot-stomping on space as a warfighting domain is an exception to historical precedence, although the pivot toward countering worrisome Chinese and Russian military space developments began under Obama.

The new policy also adds brand new and somewhat odd language on the need to couple classic deterrence with so-called “compellence.” Coined by legendary game theory pioneer and nuclear warfare strategist Thomas Schelling in 1966, the concept of compellence refers to taking direct action against adversaries to persuade them to give up actions deemed counter to one’s own interests. National security scholars have long argued over exactly what compellence means. For example, can economic sanctions compel, or does compellence require the use of provocative military moves to bring home to an adversary that it is vulnerable.

The new policy’s section on national security space states that the US must develop:

“Synchronized diplomatic, information, military, and economic strategies that:

    • Deter adversaries and other actors from conducting activities that may threaten the peaceful use of space by the United States, its allies, and partners; and
    • Compel and impose costs on adversaries to cease behaviors that threaten the peaceful use of space by the United States, its allies, and partners.”

At the same time, the policy explicitly charges the State Department to lead efforts at setting international norms of behavior and even to pursue arms control, with the usual caveats that treaties must be “equitable, effectively verifiable, and enhance the national security of the United States and its allies.”

Other brand new policy language would codify US rights and intentions to pursue space resource extraction, such as harvesting water from the Moon and rare earth minerals from asteroids — a policy that while somewhat controversial abroad, has enjoyed bipartisan backing in Congress.

The policy says: “The United States will pursue the extraction and utilization of space resources in compliance with applicable law, recognizing those resources as critical for sustainable exploration, scientific discovery, and commercial operations.”

Trump administration insiders say the new Trump space policy was actually crafted quite carefully not to color too far outside traditional US lines, but at the same time to allow the administration to take a kind of victory lap. It also was partially aimed, sources say, at providing a last minute push to administration efforts during congressional conference deliberations on federal appropriations for DoD, NASA and the Commerce Department.

For example, the policy seeks to cement Space Policy Directive-2 (SPD-2) and SPD-3 into long-term US policy.  SPD-2 set out a number of initiatives to de-regulate commercial space activities and sought to give the Commerce Department a larger role in that regulation. SPD-3 called for Commerce to take over from DoD the mission of providing space situational awareness (SSA) data to commercial companies and foreign entities. Congress has been less than willing to give Commerce the new authorities and provide the necessary funding, so this may be moot.

The new policy has been in the works for almost year. So, unlike some recent administration moves, observers say, it doesn’t have a whiff of revenge (think firing Defense Secretary Mark Esper), or deliberate obstruction of the incoming Biden team.

“It was done through the normal inter-agency [process] with deputies committees, and all those other things,” one source said.