Earlier this month, the State Department learned that debris from the Chinese weather satellite destroyed in their 2007 anti-satellite test would be coming uncomfortably close to another -- functioning -- Chinese satellite.
So, like any good neighbor, State told China about the possibility of a collision. In technical terms, the US shared conjunction analysis with our PRC brethren. But, as often happens with the fabulously opaque Chinese government, the US isn't sure if China heard us or believed us. At a conference on space debris last week in Germany, a U.S. military officer spoke with someone presumed to be a PLA officer and asked this person if they had heard of the US information. None of the three Chinese attending the conference admitted to knowing about this. (Of course, they also said they didn't know much English but were spotted avidly reading policy papers handed out at the conference...)
But the fact that the US shared that information with China demonstrates clearly how much has changed since the Bush administration on this front. U.S. policy is now to work closely with all space powers on matters of mutual interest, such as space debris, possible collisions and other issues.
For example, for the first time in almost half a dozen years, State Department officials are speaking with their Russian colleagues about space policy issues, including TCBMs -- transparency and confidence building measures -- according to Frank Rose, deputy assistant secretary of State for space and defense policy. Rose spoke Friday at a conference on space policy sponsored by George Washington University. An important spur to those talks was the collision in February last year between a Russian satellite and one owned by Iridium. The Iridium satellite was destroyed.
In addition to the Speaking with the Russians on such issues is occurring in part because Russia is a country with which the United States has a relatively long and explicable set of relations over space issues. Rose noted that when we and the Russians send each other signals about or via space we tend to understand each other quite well. "We don't have that kind of relationship with China," Rose said. A space expert with detailed knowledge of PRC space capabilities and its military told me the US knows very little of how the PLA is structured, who actually makes decisions about space operations and policy or how the PLA and Ministry of Foreign Affairs work together (if at all).
In addition to Russia and China, Rose said it is "key" that the US work closely with the merging space powers of India, Brazil and South Africa to ensure TCBMs are as widely practiced as possible.
On the military side, the US is considering what would have been heretical a few years ago -- opening its space operations center -- the JSPOC -- to allies, fully integrating them into its structure and operations, said Gregory Schulte, deputy assistant secretary of Defense for space policy. British and Australian officers are already attached to the JSPOC but current training and doctrine means that what they can know and do is circumscribed.
Schulte's remarks are likely a preview of what should be released in November when the first-ever national security space strategy is published. (This used to be known as the space posture review.) It is largely finished and is currently undergoing review by the intelligence community, we hear.
Schulte said the US may expand access to the JSPOC, making at a C(oalition) SPOC. Likely candidates would be the NATO-plus countries. "There may be difficulties getting everybody in the same space," he said. Most difficult to overcome will be the deeply-ingrained culture that no one foreign should know about classified U.S. space capabilities.