(Reuters) - The United States wants more global cooperation in space including joint war games and combined operations with allies, and is pushing for data-sharing deals with France, Japan and other countries, a U.S. defense official said in an interview.
Greg Schulte, deputy assistant secretary of defense for space policy, said in an interview on Wednesday that it made sense for countries to work together in space given tight defense budgets and the increasingly congested and contested nature of space.
He said even joint ownership of satellites would strengthen U.S. national security. The Obama administration has focused heavily on cooperation with allies as part of its approach to national security, but restrictions on sharing data from U.S. government satellites have complicated joint operations in Afghanistan and Iraq with even the closest U.S. allies.
Schulte said the Pentagon had already signed agreements with 30 satellite operators and companies to expand its knowledge of what is happening in space. General Robert Kehler, commander of U.S. Strategic Command, is reaching out to other countries to sign similar deals, Schulte said.
The growing amount of space debris is also fostering cooperation in space. The U.S. Air Force is tracking 1,100 active satellites, plus 21,000 pieces of debris, about 14 percent of which stem from China destroying one of its weather satellites in 2007. Even small pieces of fast-traveling debris can damage or destroy spacecraft and the International Space Station, which is about 240 miles above Earth.
Schulte, who is leaving his post at the end of June to teach at the National Defense University, said General Kehler was also turning the U.S. Joint Space Operations Center at Vandenberg Air Force Base, California, into a center that would allow participation by some U.S. allies, much like combined air operations centers.
Such centers could be used for operations such as when the U.S. military worked with Russia, France and other countries to track the re-entry of Russia's failed Mars probe, Phobos-Grunt, into the earth's atmosphere in January, Schulte said.
He said he and his staff were encouraging U.S. lawmakers to enact proposed export control changes required to allow some of the data-sharing wanted by the United States.
Until now, Washington has operated largely on its own in space, but the growing number of countries with satellite and space capabilities has changed that, Schulte said.
The United States is also working with the European Union to modify its proposed global code of conduct for space to preserve Washington's ability to defend its satellites, he said.
More than 100 participants from 40 countries met in Vienna on Tuesday to begin negotiations on the code of conduct. The next meeting is scheduled to be held in New York in October.
Cooperation was critical given actions by China, Russia, and Iran to develop weapons that could target Western satellites, Schulte said. In a recent speech, Schulte observed that Russia has talked about deploying anti-satellite weapons; Iran and Syria have jammed commercial communications satellites; and North Korea recently jammed signals from satellites.
"If you operate together you develop collective deterrence. An attack on one becomes an attack on many," Schulte said in the interview.
Last month, the United States signed a long-term partnership agreement with Canada that will give the United States access to data from a new space surveillance system Canada is building to track objects in deep space. In return, the United States will share its surveillance data with Canada, which is also one of six countries that have invested in the new Wideband Global System satellites built by Boeing Co and operated by the U.S. Air Force.
Washington wants similar agreements with France and Japan, and other countries willing to share data from surveillance satellites.
He said this spring the U.S. Air Force conducted a military space exercise with Britain, Canada, Australia and other members of NATO, the first international war game for space hosted by the United States.
"This was a real serious opportunity ... to think about how do we conduct coalition space operations in support of military operations on the ground," Schulte said.
(Reporting By Andrea Shalal-Esa. Editing by Carol Bishopric)