The Obama administration is shelving a controversial arms control initiative that would ban destructive tests of anti-satellite weapons following opposition from the Pentagon over concerns the ban would limit U.S. space activities, according to defense and congressional officials.
The arms control plan, first disclosed by the Washington Free Beacon last month, was confirmed by Rose Gottemoeller, undersecretary of state for arms control and international security, during a House subcommittee hearing last week. Gottemoeller said interagency talks were held on pursuing an agreement that would impose a moratorium on destructive testing of anti-satellite weapons.
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"We have looked at the option as perhaps a diplomatic option that we would like to pursue, but we are not placing any emphasis on it at this time," Gottemoeller said in response to questions from Rep. Doug Lamborn, (R., Colo.).
Lamborn first raised concerns about the anti-satellite (ASAT) testing ban last month in a letter to Frank A. Rose, deputy assistant secretary of state for space and defense policy. The letter was coauthored with Sen. David Vitter, (R., La.).
U.S. officials said the letter was prompted by concerns that Rose had conducted private talks with two U.S. allies in Asia, Australia and Japan, about joining the ASAT test ban.
"We need to make sure we’re not restricting ourselves, especially when China or Russia are pursuing access to weapons that could destroy U.S. satellites—putting us at greater national security risks," Vitter said in a statement to the Free Beacon.
"We were able to get a State Department agreement not to act unilaterally on this," Vitter said. "It’s clear that this was the wrong path to go down."
In response to the Lamborn-Vitter letter, State Department Assistant Secretary for Legislative Affairs Julia Frifield stated that the administration is "deeply concerned about the development of anti-satellite capabilities by countries like China and Russia." She added that the administration is pursuing "confidence-building measures" like a code of conduct for space.
"The United States has made clear to our partners that we will not enter into a code of conduct, or other agreement, that in any way constrains our national-security related activities in space or our ability to protect the United States and our allies," Frifield said in a Nov. 17 letter to Lamborn and Vitter.
Regarding an ASAT test ban discussed with U.S. allies, Frifield said "we have not made a specific proposal to allies for negotiation of a debris-generating ASAT testing moratorium."
The Pentagon was caught off guard and had not been consulted on the proposal at the time Rose approached the Australians and Japanese on the matter, the officials said.
"The Pentagon has said that stopping this initiative is a top priority," said a U.S. official close to the Defense Department.
Pentagon officials are concerned the arms initiative will be exploited by states such as China and Russia to constrain U.S. missile defenses, while both states continue to develop their own advanced missile defenses.
A U.S. SM-3 missile interceptor was used in 2008 to shoot down a failing National Reconnaissance Office satellite that potentially threatened to hit the earth. Under the ASAT ban, the action would be prohibited. The SM-3 intercept showed that U.S. missile defenses also have anti-satellite weapons capabilities.
The ASAT ban also is focused on China. In 2007, China’s military test fired a ground-launched ASAT missile that blew up an orbiting Chinese weather satellite, leaving tens of thousands of floating debris pieces that continue to threaten both manned and unmanned spacecraft.
China has not conducted a similar destructive ASAT test since 2007 but has carried out several space weapons tests, most recently one in July.
The administration’s proposed ASAT ban was discussed during a joint congressional hearing Dec. 12 on Russian treaty violations, mainly the 1987 Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty.
Republican members of the House Armed Services subcommittee on strategic forces and House Foreign Affairs subcommittee on terrorism, nonproliferation and trade, criticized the administration for not responding to numerous Russian arms treaty violations at the same time United States strictly adheres to the same treaties.
Brian McKeon, deputy undersecretary of defense for policy and a key Pentagon arms policymaker, told the hearing that while he had been in the senior Pentagon post for four months "I don’t believe we are considering or pursuing a moratorium of that kind."
Lamborn said he is concerned the Pentagon was left out of internal discussions on the topic.
"My concern is that there may have been a discussion in Department of State done unilaterally without talking to DoD because DoD would be, I think, less receptive to that kind of thing, knowing more what’s really at stake," Lamborn said.
"Sir, it’s a big government. There’s lots of people, lots of layers. And there may be people in different departments that talked about it but don’t believe that’s the position of the United States government at this time," McKeon said.
Gottemoeller said there had been "some discussion and consideration" of the ASAT ban but she said they were "fully interagency discussions."
"I do want to underscore that there were opportunities to fully discuss and consider the pros and cons and so forth on an interagency basis," she said. "There shouldn’t be [any] sense that this was something pursued unilaterally by the U.S. Department of State."
Both officials made no mention of Rose discussing the plan with Australian and Japanese government officials.
Japan currently has four guided-missile destroyers equipped with SM-3s which based on the U.S. satellite-shoot down are assessed to have some ASAT capabilities.
Australia has been cooperating with the United States in developing missile defenses and could outfit some of its warships with SM-3s in the future.
In their letter to Rose, Lamborn and Vitter, members of their respective Armed Services subcommittees on strategic forces, said they were "deeply concerned by the rising threats of anti-satellite weapons in the hands of states like the People’s Republic of China."
"We believe the administration would do better to focus on real solutions to these threats, as opposed to more feel good measures, such as the European Union’s (EU) Code of Conduct for Outer Space activities or other similar measures," they stated.
Rose suggested a space arms ban was being considered during a speech in September when he said current threats to space leave the U.S. government "no choice but to work with our allies and partners around the world to ensure the long-term sustainability of the space environment."
He also praised proposals for an international code of conduct for outer space and a United Nations space transparency proposal.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in 2012 sought to promote an international space arms control initiative that was opposed by the Joint Staff.
The Pentagon has been opposed to space arms control for years. An assessment conducted in 2012 by the Joint Staff into a European Union proposed code of conduct for space warned that U.S. adherence to the code would hurt U.S. military space operations in several areas.
A Joint Staff spokesman had no immediate comment.
Lamborn and Vitter, in their letter, said space arms control restrictions could present "a new threat to our ability to protect U.S. outer space capabilities, and, perhaps even to develop our missile defenses."
The congressman said in the letter that Rose has proposed a moratorium to U.S. allies that would restrict "debris-generating kinetic energy [anti-satellite] testing" and that the proposal was not coordinated with the Pentagon or military.