How a Trump space policy could transform outer space security

The surprising election of U.S. President-elect Donald J. Trump touched off numerous presuppositions about the future of international diplomacy and the foreign policy of the United States.

The topic of space policy has not been spared this uncertainty. While op-eds and speculation abound about the effect President-elect Trump’s approach to space policy may have on civil and commercial space, little has been discussed about what its future national-security space policy may look like.

Of course, any glimpse of a policy would be prognostication based on the President-elect’s statements and posturing post-election, yet the potential exists for the incoming administration to formulate a space policy that will enhance outer space security.

The Trump administration will approach national-security space policy based on the worldview of geopolitics instead of globalism. That is not to say the U.S. won’t embrace international cooperation and interaction, but the Trump administration will put U.S. interests first — instead of giving priority to the politically favorable optics of international “cooperation” at the expense of U.S. interests.

The nexus between policy towards the creation of norms for security in outer space, the security of space assets and the current body of international space law is fundamental. Consequently, how the Trump administration positions itself in its National Space Policy and/or National Security Space Strategy is important since both the documents will communicate U.S. positions to allies and geopolitical adversaries alike. Opening with the National Space Policy, the Trump administration can learn from both President George W. Bush’s 2006 policy and President Barack Obama’s 2010 policy. Consider the stance these two policies take on the issue of the creation of norms.

First, Bush’s 2006 National Space Policy:

The United States considers space capabilities — including the 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 those actions necessary to protect its space capabilities; respond to interference; and deny, if necessary, adversaries the use of space capabilities hostile to U.S. national interests.

 The United States will oppose the development of new legal regimes or other restrictions that seek to prohibit or limit U.S. access to or use of space. Proposed arms control agreements or restrictions must not impair the rights of the United States to conduct research, development, testing, and operations or other activities in space for U.S. national interests.

 The Bush administration chose an nationalist posture and drew a red line where the United States would deter, and if necessary, deny the use of space by adversaries. This elicited geopolitical and soft-power outrage, not only from China and Russia but also from the lesser developed and non-spacefaring nations. The soft-power indignation was compounded with the 2006 National Space Policy closing the door to any international legal accord that was designed to limit U.S. access to or use of outer space and arms control measures that would impair U.S. national security activities without offering another avenue of negotiation.

The Obama administration’s 2010 policy swung the pendulum from the Bush administration’s nationalist posture to a globalist approach by eliminating the National Security Space Strategy found in the 2006 policy and creating a passive approach to space security by centering on international cooperation. This approach to a “cooperative” environment to create space security culminates with the use of transparency and confidence-building measures (TCBMs) to address outer space security issues and the willingness to consider legally binding treaties:

The United States will pursue bilateral and multilateral transparency and confidence-building measures to encourage responsible actions in, and the peaceful use of, space.

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 and its allies.

While both policies address their stance on deterrence (or non-deterrence as the case may be), each finds itself addressing the concept of arms control in outer space as opposed to behavior with the Bush policy specifically rejecting arms control measures and the Obama policy embracing arms control through TCBMs and an openness to legally-binding treaties.

The Trump administration is distinctively primed with the willingness to change the paradigm of arms control in the international community as it relates to outer space and promote an activity-based policy much in the same way it changed the archetype of U.S. presidential elections. The Trump administration could accomplish this by taking the Bush and Obama space policies as bookends and promote not only a security stance that emphasizes deterrence, but also opens the door for the creation of norms and dialogue with the international community. Consider this potential policy stance:

The use of and access to outer space is critical to the national and economic security of the United States and its allies. The U.S. will deter a potential adversary — and any non-governmental entities under the adversary’s jurisdiction — from interfering with that access.

The United States will pursue a bottom-up approach to norms that encourage responsible actions and the peaceful use of outer space. The United States will consider legally binding and non-legally binding bilateral agreements and multilateral agreements if they are equitable,  effectively verifiable, and do not harm the national security and economic activities of United States and its allies, or inhibit U.S. and allied use of outer space.

The United States recognizes technologies used for outer space activities are dual-use in nature and will henceforth reject international norms and measures, legally binding or otherwise, that are designed to limit technologies as opposed to how those technologies  are utilized by state actors.

 This posture towards outer space security would allow the Trump administration to strike a geopolitical tone towards outer space policy, reestablish the concept of deterrence for outer space assets, take leadership in the creation of norms for outer space activities and close off the arms-control approach and the subsequent soft-power influence enjoyed by China and Russia. Supplementing this approach, the Trump administration could further enunciate in its National Space Policy, or its own version of the National Security Space Strategy, a U.S. focus on deterrence. Consider the “layered-approach” to “deterrence” in the unclassified summary of Obama’s 2011 National Security Space Strategy:

We will support diplomatic efforts to promote norms of responsible behavior in space; pursue international partnerships that encourage potential adversary restraint; improve our ability to attribute attacks; strengthen the resilience of our architectures to deny the benefits of an attack; and retain the right to respond, should deterrence fail.

 This passive approach to deterrence, which relies on unrealistic and otherwise ideological assumptions about potential adversaries, could be supplanted by the Trump administration with an approach that relies on a form of existential deterrence but also provides for open dialogue between state actors. A potential policy statement might read as follows:

The United States will assert its right to self-defense as permitted by international law in the event any of its space assets or space activities, including those of a non-governmental entity under the jurisdiction of the United States, are interfered with by a state actor or a non-governmental entity under its jurisdiction. The United States will monitor its space assets and space activities and respond with appropriate force if it determines a state actor, or a non-governmental entity under its jurisdiction, is interfering with U.S. space assets or space activities, including those of a non-governmental entity under U.S. jurisdiction. To ensure a state actor, or a non-governmental entity under its jurisdiction, does not unintentionally interfere with outer space assets or outer space activities and those of a non-governmental entity under U.S. jurisdiction, and thus trigger a response, the United States will open bilateral dialogue with space-faring nations to facilitate accord and communication with regards to norms and behavior as it relates to outer space activities and interaction with space objects under their respective jurisdiction.

The combination of the threat of force first followed by diplomacy is the antithesis of the “layered approach, ” which is passive “deterrence.” The layered approach depends on scattering a multitude of resilient-but-less-capable space assets and the hope an adversary’s willingness to test the United States’ resolve won’t outlast those assets — or will otherwise be discouraged by diplomacy.

Reinstating a policy of active deterrence and opening a diplomatic dialogue from a position of strength would reinforce the United States’ resolve and enable a channel to potentially prevent unintentional or even willful interference with space assets and space activities under its jurisdiction. This would result in effective space security for all state actors. In essence, the potential exists for a Trump administration national-security space policy to throw down the gauntlet and then build on diplomacy.

As with all policy positions of the soon-to-be Trump administration, the policy position for national security for space activities is speculative. However, the president-elect’s posture of ‘America first’ — combined with his experience and skills as an international businessman — provides a glimpse how his administration might approach the thorny issue of outer space security and provide an effective solution that has eluded prior policies thus far.

Michael J. Listner is an attorney and the founder and principal of Space Law and Policy Solutions, a think-tank and consulting firm. He is also editor of The Précis, a subscription space law and policy newsletter.