US signals flexibility on space weapons treaty

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The United States would consider a new global treaty to ban deployment of weapons in space if it meets its security concerns and includes safeguards against cheating, a US arms control official say. Frank Rose, deputy US assistant secretary of state, also indicated that any future pact must prohibit land-based anti-satellite systems — a technology favoured by countries including China.

“We have not seen a space arms control treaty to date that meets the criteria that I laid out of equitability and effective verifiability,” Rose told a news briefing in Geneva after addressing the UN-backed Conference on Disarmament. But he said that under the Obama administration’s new space policy, the United States would “consider space-related arms control concepts and proposals” that meet such criteria.

Diplomats and analysts welcomed the new US position as a small but significant departure from policy under George W. Bush which opposed any space arms control. Brazil’s ambassador Luiz Filipe de Macedo Soares called it real progress. “It is a nuance, but a significant one,” an expert on US space policy told Reuters. “There is wiggle room, I am more optimistic than I have been for 15 years.”

Rose said US officials were holding bilateral talks with space-faring countries including Russia and China to build trust and transparency so as to strengthen security in space. A 1967 international treaty bans deployment of weapons of mass destruction in space, but experts say it has been overtaken by a new generation of technologies for space weaponisation.

China and Russia have been at the forefront of efforts at the Geneva-based forum to launch negotiations on a treaty to prevent an arms race in outer space, known as PAROS. The two countries submitted a draft treaty text in February 2008, but Rose dismissed it as having “serious flaws”, including a failure to prohibit terrestrial anti-satellite systems. China demonstrated anti-satellite technology in 2007 when it smashed one of its own defunct weather satellites.
“It is not only the Chinese working on these technologies, the Indians have said they are and the Pakistanis could soon too,” the expert said. “It is the easiest method and also the dirtiest because it creates all the space debris.” Washington does not intend to pursue land-based anti-satellite technology, following a test in 1985, but was concerned that other countries were looking into such capabilities, according to Rose. It was prepared for the Geneva conference to hold discussions on space, but not full-blown treaty negotiations at this time, he said.

The 65-nation forum has been deadlocked since 1998, unable to start substantive work, including proposed negotiations to halt production of nuclear bomb-making fissile material. The national space policy unveiled by Obama on June 28 calls for greater international cooperation. It offers an expanded role for foreign governments and private companies in monitoring Earth’s climate, tracking and removing orbital debris and protecting satellites.

Rose said he would hold further talks on space security with Russian officials in Moscow next month, adding: “Everybody has an interest to have a stable space environment and not have a lot of space debris running into satellites.”



Russian diplomat Victor Vasiliev took the floor to welcome the new U.S. space policy, which he said had been influenced by the Feb. 2009 collision of a Russian military satellite and a privately owned Iridium Communications satellite.