A July 2021 memo from U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin outlines core tenets to guide how the Department of Defense acts in space, which may forecast the direction in which the secretary wishes to take the department. While the new guidance reaffirms points included in the 2020 Defense Space Strategy under former president Donald Trump, such as calling for responsible behavior and attention to safety, Austin’s memo adds four key tenets to U.S. space policy:

  • operating with due regard to others,
  • limiting long-lasting space debris,
  • avoiding harmful interference,
  • and improving the stability of the domain by improving communications (notably, not just with allies).

These concepts are not groundbreaking. Some are not even necessarily new considerations for the department. But this is perhaps the first time that the Pentagon has packaged formal instructions to adhere to specific principles of normative behavior in an unclassified document. In this, Austin’s declaration contrasts with key elements of the previous administration’s 2020 Defense Space Strategy (see table 1 below).

Benjamin Silverstein
Benjamin Silverstein is a research analyst for the Space Project at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
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Establishing Good Manners In Space

First and foremost, the memo makes no reference to space superiority, great power competition, deterrence, or winning a conflict in space. Without specifically promoting superiority, the memo emphasizes that continued U.S. space leadership is predicated on exhibiting responsible behavior and that obligations to behave responsibly are key elements of preserving U.S. military advantages in space.

Second, the memo signals a revived commitment to working with others. This commitment presumably includes strengthening communications and the notifications process not only with allies and partners but also with competitors and even potential adversaries.

Table 1. The Pentagon’s Evolving Policy on Space Norms
Key Tenet Secretary of Defense Austin’s July 2021 Memo 2020 Defense Space Strategy
Responsible behavior “It is incumbent on the Department to continue space leadership through demonstrating and acknowledging responsible behavior in space.” “In cooperation with allies and partners, DoD will maintain persistent presence in space in order to: … uphold internationally accepted standards of responsible behavior as a good steward of space ...”

“… Promote standards and norms of behavior in space favorable to U.S. allied, and partner interests.”
Safety “Maintain safe separation and safe trajectory.” “DoD will maintain persistent presence in space in order to … provide for safe transit in, to, and through space”
Due regard “Operate in, from, to, and through space with due regard to others and in a professional manner.” X
Long-lived debris “Limit the generation of long-lived debris.” X
Harmful interference “Avoid the creation of harmful interference.” X
Communication and notifications “Communicate and make notifications to enhance the safety and stability of the domain.” X

Third, the memo formally sets the table for limitations on the creation of what is termed “long-lived debris” and other potential sources of “harmful interference.” The suggested interest in working with other space actors to limit the creation of debris is a major step toward improving predictability, stability, and sustainability in space.

Next Steps for Space Policy

The memo indicates that the Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Colin Kahl will soon produce more expansive guidance regarding “specific behaviors for [Department of Defense] operations in the space area of responsibility.” To the extent that these future guidelines are made public, they will provide invaluable insights into how the Pentagon interprets critical, but traditionally ill-defined, concepts like “due regard,” an international principle established in the 1967 Outer Space Treaty that needs to be defined more clearly now that the number of states and businesses acting in space is growing rapidly.

The United States now may be on a path to serve as an entrepreneur of space norms, but the Department of Defense will have to coordinate with other domestic partners, including those inside government (such as the Department of Commerce and NASA) and outside (such as industry leaders), to clarify the evolving concepts and expand on these important tenets. Such efforts are urgently needed to improve the security and stability in space.