By Andrea Shalal-Esa
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States is pushing on multiple fronts for increased global cooperation in space, including joint war games, combined operations with allies, and moves toward data-sharing deals with France, Japan and other countries, a top U.S. defense official told Reuters.
Greg Schulte, deputy assistant secretary of defense for space policy, said it made sense to work together in space given tightening defense budgets and the increasingly congested -- and contested -- nature of space.
"The Department of Defense is stepping up cooperation in space," Schulte said in an interview with Reuters on Wednesday, noting that more data-sharing and cooperative efforts - even joint ownership of satellites - would enhance U.S. national security and improve the resilience of satellites in orbit.
The Obama administration has focused heavily on international cooperation as part of its overall approach to national security. The U.S. military already works closely with other countries on the ground, in the air and at sea, but cooperation in space -- and using data collected by satellites -- has largely been off limits until now.
Schulte said the Pentagon had already signed agreements with 30 satellite operators and commercial companies to expand its knowledge of what is going on in the heavens.
Now General Robert Kehler, commander of U.S. Strategic Command, was reaching out to an array of different countries to sign similar deals, said Schulte, who is leaving his post at the end of the month to teach at the National Defense University.
Kehler was also working to transform the U.S. Joint Space Operations Center at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California into a combined center that would allow participation by some U.S. allies, much like combined air operations centers do.
The U.S. military worked closely with Russia and other countries to track the re-entry of Russia's failed Mars probe, Phobos-Grunt, into the earth's atmosphere in January, with some of the most timely information coming from a French radar.
Schulte said the incident -- handled on an ad hoc basis -- provided a good demonstration of what such a combined operations center could be used for in the future.
He said he and his staff were meeting regularly with U.S. lawmakers to encourage them to enact proposed export control changes that are required to allow some of the data-sharing the United States wants to engage in.
Until now, Washington has operated largely on its own in space, partly because other countries did not have capabilities to offer. But that had changed now that a growing number of countries were launching satellites into space, Schulte said.
"ATTACK ON ONE BECOMES AN ATTACK ON MANY"
Cooperation was also critical given moves by China, Russia, and Iran to develop weapons that could target Western satellites and the critical services they provide, he said.
Russian officials have talked about deploying anti-satellite weapons; Iran and Syria have jammed commercial communications satellites; and North Korea has recently jammed signals from global-positioning satellites, Schulte said in a recent speech.
"If you operate together you develop collective deterrence. An attack on one becomes an attack on many," he told Reuters.
The United States last month signed a long-term partnership agreement with Canada that will give the United States access to data from a new space surveillance system that 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.
"This is a real example of how cooperation can enhance our overall picture of the heavens and at the same time share the burden of doing that," Schulte said.
Washington is looking to sign similar agreements with France and Japan, and other countries that are willing to share data from their surveillance satellites.
The U.S. military already warns countries and satellite operators -- even in China -- about potential collisions in space, but formal agreements would result in a more regular, two-way sharing of information, Schulte said.
He said the Air Force this spring also conducted a ground-breaking military space exercise that included Britain, Canada, Australia and other NATO members -- 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," he said.
(Reporting By Andrea Shalal-Esa. Editing by Carol Bishopric)