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U.S., French Military Pact Leverages Space Debris Detection Technology

By | February 8, 2011

      [Satellite News 02-08-11] U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates and French Defense Minister Alain Juppe signed a statement of principles Feb. 8 outlining a bilateral agreement between the two countries to share data on space debris and cooperate on reducing the risk of accidents and collisions in space.
          The agreement will see the U.S. military accept the European Union’s Code of Conduct for Outer Space Activities aimed at reducing the amount of space debris that could collide into satellites. The agreement will leverage technology produced by recent U.S. Air Force contract awards to Raytheon and Lockheed Martin to design the Pentagon’s Space Fence, which will replace its 50-year-old VHF Space Surveillance System to detect space objects and debris in low-Earth orbit – a concept the two companies have been working on with Northrop Grumman since June 2009.
          Both companies were awarded an initial $20 million under the 18-month contract, with a potential $107 million in additional orders. Lockheed Martin its prototype design would be based on its Aegis naval weapons S-band radar. Raytheon said it would focus on expanding the range of objects the system could track, including objects that threaten space shuttles and the International Space Station.
          U.S. Deputy Assistant to the Secretary of Defense Gregory Schulte said the agreement between the United States and France would not limit or endanger U.S. interests. “We’re looking at how do we increasingly share this information both with close allies to enable coalition operations but more broadly to promote a stable and safe domain in space,” he said in a press conference. “Space has changed in fundamental ways, and that requires us to change our strategy … You have more debris in space and you have countries that are developing counterspace capabilities that can be used against us. That’s why this strategy emphasizes the need to protect our capabilities, protect our industrial base and protect the space domain itself.”
          The U.S. space strategy program National Security Space Strategy (NSSS) “draws on all elements of national power and requires active U.S. leadership in space, It will include establishing partnerships with responsible nations, international organizations, and commercial firms and will promote responsible, peaceful, and safe use of space,” according to a Pentagon NSSS program summary.
          However, the Obama administration’s National Security Space Strategy has faced criticism. The Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) said that the plans, which include sharing Space Fence technology with allies, are unlikely to address “broader ways to approach space security and sustainability issues,” according to UCS Senior Global Security Scientist Laura Grego.
          Grego said that while the strategy emphasizes certain steps to strengthen space security and foster international cooperation, it likely would fall short of the Union’s expectations. “For example, the document is unlikely to recommend that the United States take the lead on space diplomacy. Diplomatic engagement could help relieve suspicions among countries, reduce incentives for building anti-satellite systems and other space weapons by establishing negotiated limits, and avert space disputes. The strategy document is likely to encourage bilateral discussions, confidence building and transparency measures, which is a good start. But strong U.S. leadership could reap even greater rewards,” she said.
          But the strategy’s supporters believe that the United States’ participation in global diplomatic space partnerships is a must if it wants to remain a relevant world space leader. In February 2009, a collision between an inoperable Soviet-era Russian Cosmos satellite and an Iridium commercial satellite brought about 60 countries and governments operating about 1,100 satellites to the table on this issue.
          Since then, the United States has entered into various international partnerships, including one with the United Kingdom and Australia in October as a result of a defense trade cooperation treaty passed by Congress. The treaties were part of the Obama administration’s plan to modernize export controls and adjust outdated restrictions on American companies to equip allies with military technology.
          “Ratifying these treaties will provide important benefits to both our national security and our economy. Aerospace Industries Association (AIA) has long advocated that we should do everything possible to ensure that their troops and our troops are able to fight shoulder-to-shoulder with the best equipment available,” AIA CEO Marion Blakey said in a release following the bill’s passage.
          Ian Godden, chairman of the U.K. aerospace, defense and security trade organization ADS, welcomed the passage of the treaties and said the acts should deliver clear benefits for allied troops. “The United Kingdom is the largest international supplier of defense equipment to the United States and is second only to the United States in the global defense export market. Therefore, the long-term significance of this new defense export control regime should not be underestimated.”
          The latest agreement between the United States and France also follows a pledge made between U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates and French President Nicolas Sarkozy last year in Paris to cooperate more in aeronautics and space.
          “The National Security Space Strategy represents a significant departure from past practice,” Gates said following the agreement. “It is a pragmatic approach to maintain the advantages we derive from space while confronting the new challenges we face.”
           Schulte said the U.S. space security strategy’s most important function is to show world governments that the United States is thinking differently about how it operates in space. “We have to think about how to encourage other countries to act responsibly in space and how the United States can provide leadership in that regard. Secondly, we have to think about how we can better leverage the growing amount of foreign commercial capabilities that are now in space. And third, we need to think differently about how to deter others from attacking our space assets,” Schulte said.
          Enhanced space security cooperation also was driven by China’s launch of a missile to destroy its Fengyun-1C spy spacecraft out of orbit in 2001, sending thousands of shards of debris in all directions. Despite WikiLeaks publishing documents by the U.S. Department of State on Feb. 4 showing that the U.S. Navy destroyed its own satellite in February 2008, U.S. Deputy Secretary of Defense William Lynn said the act was a wake-up call for the United States and its international allies.
          “The president’s space strategy brings a move toward the sustainability and stability of the space domain; a new emphasis on international cooperation; an expansion of how we protect space systems in a contested environment; and, finally, the improvement of our space acquisition process,” said Lynn.

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