Flashpoints | Security

The Trump National Space Policy: What’s New in Principles and Goals

The new space policy differs from the one issued by the Obama administration in interesting but unsurprising ways.

The Trump National Space Policy: What’s New in Principles and Goals
Credit: Flickr/Ana Sofia Guerreirinho

The Trump administration issued a new U.S. National Space Policy (NSP) document on December 9, which supersedes one that was released by the Obama administration in June 2010. Unsurprisingly, the Trump administration document highlights the importance of the U.S. Space Force, which will celebrate its first anniversary on December 20, as the primary means through which the U.S. would organize its space military activities. A U.S. Department of Defense statement about the new NSP quotes Chief of Space Operations General John W. Raymond as saying: “The National Space Policy guides the efforts of the United States Space Force as we continue to deliver capabilities and forces in defense of our nation’s interests in space.”

The accent on the military aspects of U.S. space policy was further heightened with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s statement on the new NSP on December 10, which noted: “While the United States would prefer that the space domain remain free of conflict, we will be prepared to meet and overcome any challenges that arise, while promoting burden sharing and marshaling cooperative responses to threats.” Per Pompeo’s statement, the first role of the U.S. State Department in furthering the new NSP will be demonstration of “U.S. leadership in international fora to strengthen deterrence and contribute to international security and stability.”

Beyond the accent on military space activities, the document also codifies U.S. space policy changes over the last couple of years, including an executive order signed by Trump in April this year that would allow the United States to mine the moon and otherwise extract resources in space. As one of the principles guiding U.S. space policy, the Trump NSP notes: “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.”

Another interesting difference between the “principles” in new NSP and the one issued by the Obama administration is the reference to “democratic values, respect for human rights, and economic freedom” when it comes to space exploration, as well as an explicit reference to Moon and Mars as destinations for U.S. space missions, the former flowing from Trump’s commitment to great power competition with China and Russia as the key goal of US national security strategy.

But the most interesting, though unsurprising, difference between the two NSPs is when it comes to U.S. military space activities, particularly in the event of deterrence failure. While the Obama NSP simply notes that “if deterrence fails, [the U.S. commits to] defeat efforts to attack them [space assets of U.S. and allies],” the Trump NSP states “Any purposeful interference with or an attack upon the space systems of the United States or its allies that directly affects national rights will be met with a deliberate response at a time, place, manner, and domain of our choosing [emphasis added].”

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To unpack this further: The addition of “directly” affecting “national rights” seem to suggest a principle — more focused and expansive at once — of what would merit retaliatory military action; focused and narrow, because unlike the Obama NSP, this suggests that the redlines for the same, direct threats to national rights as enunciated, are clear. But it is the promise of retaliation in a domain of the United States’ choice that truly situates space as “fifth domain” for the military. It is consistent with principles that have so far been advanced for other domains, such as reserving the right to respond to an attack in one domain in another, for example by meeting a cyber-attack on critical infrastructure through a kinetic strike.

Comparing the “goals” outlined in both NSPs, the addition of an explicit commitment to “extend human economic activity into deep space” by establishing a permanent human presence on the moon and exploration of Mars in the Trump NSP is a key difference, the others being a commitment to implement “diplomatic, economic, and security capabilities” to deter state behavior that threatens the rights of nations to explore space peacefully, as well as the absence on any explicit commitment to unmanned robotic missions in the Trump NSP. The Trump NSP also reemphasizes the need to maintain U.S. space leadership, both as a principle as well as a goal.