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July 29, 2021
Notes from the Pentagon

Austin calls for ‘responsible’ space operations

By Bill Gertz
Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin earlier this month outlined key elements of “responsible behavior in space” in a memorandum to senior Pentagon and military leaders.

“As more actors come to space, the domain is changing, with an increased risk of collisions, as well as of miscalculations or misunderstandings,” Mr. Austin said in the July 7 memo. “It is incumbent on the department to continue space leadership through demonstrating and acknowledging responsible behavior in space.”

The memo directed all Pentagon and military agencies to conduct space operations in line with “tenets of responsible behavior.”

Space forces will operate in, from, to and through space with “regard for others” along with “a professional manner.” Activities also will limit producing orbiting trash that is long-lived. Space assets also must avoid the “creation of harmful interference, and maintain safe separation and safe trajectories for satellites and spacecraft.”

Communications and notifications also need to be carried out in ways that enhance the stability and safety of space.

The head of the new U.S. Space Command “will collaborate with DoD stakeholders to develop and coordinate guidance regarding these tenets and associated specific behaviors for DoD operations in the space area of responsibility, and recommend them to the secretary of defense for approval,” Mr. Austin stated.

Newly installed Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Colin Kahl will head up space behavior tenets throughout government and internationally, the memo states.

The new policy appears to be an attempt by the Biden administration to promote international norms for space activities, said Michael Listner, a space expert. Mr. Listner said that while the directive is meant to be internal guidance, the tenets could create positive geopolitical optics and push back against pressure for new and restrictive treaties for space.

“Caution needs to be taken, considering ‘norms’ is usually a feint for customary international law, which [nongovernmental organizations] will latch on to in an attempt to drive the conversation,” said Mr. Listner, founder of Space Law & Policy Solutions, a think tank.

The Austin memo also appears to be adopting the soft-deterrence approach contained in the 2011 National Security Space Strategy, one that seeks to encourage China and Russia not to use anti-satellite weapons.

“But the memo apparently takes into consideration lawfare tactics in its ‘all bets are off’ contingency in the event an adversary decides to ignore the rules or launch a preemptive ASAT strike,” Mr. Listner said.

The 2011 space strategy, signed by Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, states that defense policy aims to promote the responsible, peaceful and safe use of space. However, the strategy also acknowledges that war in space is possible.

“Our military and intelligence capabilities must be prepared to ‘fight through’ a degraded environment and defeat attacks targeted at our space systems and supporting infrastructure,” the report states. “We must deny and defeat an adversary’s ability to achieve its objectives.”

China was criticized for the irresponsible use of space warfare capabilities in conducting a 2007 anti-satellite missile test in space that left tens of thousands of pieces of debris orbiting Earth and threatening manned and unmanned spacecraft for decades. The test involved a direct-ascent anti-satellite missile that blew up a Chinese weather satellite.

The Austin memorandum was signed around the same time that Rear Adm. Michael Bernacchi, Space Command’s director of strategy, plans and policy, warned that China is engaged in a large-scale, rapid buildup of space warfare capabilities. Adm. Bernacchi said the speed of the deployment of anti-satellite missiles, electronic jammers and robot satellite killers is scary.

“The thing that scares me the most: If you go back six years ago, China had almost nothing,” he said. “Now you look at them, and the ability for China to exponentially grow their counter-space capability is scary. I mean, I don’t know how else to put it.”

U.S. military satellites are viewed by adversaries as the Achilles’ heel of American joint warfare capabilities.

Military forces are heavily reliant on satellites for communications, navigation and weapons targeting. Knocking out even a few satellites could cripple operations.

A bipartisan group of senators this week urged President Biden to order U.S. intelligence agencies to more vigorously pursue the investigation into the origin of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The threat to international health and security posed by the Chinese Communist Party’s repressive and opaque governance of the People’s Republic of China has become glaringly apparent over the past eighteen months, particularly given the PRC’s efforts to conceal the severity and scope of the outbreak of the SARS-CoV-2 virus that caused the COVID-19 -19 pandemic,” the senators stated in a July 27 letter to the president.

“The PRC’ s refusal to cooperate with the World Health Organization investigation into COVID-19 origins, the gag order it imposed on Chinese scientists and medical personnel, and its ongoing obfuscation and disinformation campaign regarding the pandemic have caused severe hardship worldwide.”

The letter was signed by Democratic Sens. Robert Menendez and Mark R. Warner, chairmen of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, respectively, and Sens. James E. Risch and Marco Rubio, vice chairman and ranking Republican members of those panels. The senators noted the May directive by the White House ordering U.S. intelligence agencies to seek a “definitive conclusion” regarding the pandemic origin.

To prevent another deadly and damaging pandemic, the senators asked Mr. Biden to ensure that spy agencies zero in on where the virus originated and how it first spread.

“If the 90-day effort you have announced does not yield conclusions in which the United States has a high degree of confidence, we urge you to direct the intelligence community to continue prioritizing this inquiry until such conclusions are possible,” they stated.

Intelligence agencies also need to examine virus research conducted at the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV), where the coronavirus may have escaped, as well as the Wuhan Center for Disease Prevention and Control and the Wuhan Institute of Biological Products.

“This investigation must evaluate evidence regarding WIV researchers who fell ill in the fall of 2019,” the senators stated. “It should identify other details of any researchers at the WIV who were working on coronavirus projects, and attempts by the PRC government to silence or disappear them; details of any WIV gain-of-function research specific to coronaviruses or other potential human pathogens; laboratory safety standards and practices for such research; and details of any research in synthetic biology and biotechnology connected to the ‘Military-Civil Fusion’ strategy, and other military work or funding at the WIV.”

Investigation of the spread of the virus from animals to humans also is needed, including specific zoonotic transmission chains, and the most likely timing, location and contributing factors related to any animal-to-human spillover events.

China’s efforts to block an international investigation into the virus origin and other actions taken by Beijing to obscure the nature of the virus and its transmission also should be part of the intelligence inquiry. The inquiry should include whether China’s government violated international agreements related to the handling of the virus outbreak and, if there are indications of a cover-up, the agencies should “analyze its motivations for doing so.”

Additionally, the senators want the U.S. government to lead an international forensic investigation inside China.

“In light of the PRC’s continued stonewalling of WHO efforts, the U.S. government should work with our allies and partners to use all available resources and tools to pressure Beijing to permit a serious investigation,” they stated.

American government funding of gain-of-function virus research in China also should be part of the intelligence probe.

“U.S. taxpayer funding should not support any collaboration with PRC entities that pose health, economic or security risks for the United States,” the senators said. “The PRC has demonstrated lax biosecurity standards, violated [international health regulations], attempted to steal intellectual property related to COVID-19 vaccines, and may be in violation of the Biological Weapons Convention.”

The formal review should determine whether there were direct or indirect taxpayer funds in China and the WIV, and whether the research was used by the Chinese military.

A State Department fact sheet put out by the Trump administration on the WIV said the Chinese military had been conducting research at the institute, including experiments, since at least 2017.

WIV officials have denied conducting any military-related research or that there was any possibility the coronavirus escaped from the lab.

A Marine Corps civilian who wrote an article for the Chinese Communist Party-affiliated outlet Global Times is under investigation by the Pentagon, according to a military officer.

Franz Gayl, a science adviser for the Marine Corps, also had his security clearance suspended pending the outcome of the counterintelligence probe, said the officer, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

Mr. Gayl, in a Global Times article published April 27, warned that the United States would lose a war with China over Taiwan. Pentagon officials said the article was published without authorization.

A Marine captain familiar with details of the case said after an initial review that the Gayl investigation was extended for 90 days. The probe is expected to be completed by Sept. 30.

As reported in this space in May, two Republican House members wrote to Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin asking how the retired Marine Corps major and now civilian adviser was allowed to write for Beijing’s most ardent anti-U.S. propaganda outlet.

“The fact that an administration official would so openly, brazenly and repeatedly promote [Chinese Communist Party] propaganda without repercussion is outrageous,” wrote Rep. Thomas P. Tiffany, Wisconsin Republican, and Rep. Scott Perry, Pennsylvania Republican. “The fact that he remains employed is frankly, mind-boggling.”

Mr. Gayl declined to comment.

He told The Washington Post that on June 1 he was informed he was the target of a counterintelligence investigation related to two articles he wrote for Global Times.

“I knew the things I was saying weren’t going to get approval, but … we are running out of time as a country,” Mr. Gayl said, adding that he plans to retire.

  • Contact Bill Gertz on Twitter via @BillGertz.

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