US President George W. Bush has approved a new national space policy aimed at denying "adversaries'" the use of space capabilities deemed hostile to US interests.
Bush authorized the new policy on Aug. 31 and the document, which replaces a 1996 space policy, was published quietly by the White House on Oct. 6.
"[US] national security is critically dependent upon space capabilities, and this dependence will grow," the strategic document says.
"The [US] will preserve its rights, capabilities, and freedom of action in space; ... and deny, if necessary, adversaries the use of space capabilities hostile to [its] national interests," it says, adding that freedom of action in space is as important to the US as air and sea power.
The text also rejects any treaties forbidding space weapons: "The [US] will oppose the development of new legal regimes or other restrictions that seek to prohibit or limit [its] access to or use of space."
The US government assured this new policy was not a first step toward a weaponization of space.
"It's not a shift in policy," White House spokesman Tony Snow told journalists.
"The notion that you would do defense from space is different than the weaponization of space," he added.
The new policy, however, has raised some eyebrows.
"While this policy does not explicitly say we are not going to shoot satellites or we are going to put weapons in space, it does, it seems to me, open the door toward that," said Theresa Hitchens, director of the Center for Defense Information.
According to Hitchens, this reading was confirmed by a series of US Army documents that clearly express interest in space weapons.
She noted the new policy also represents a significant shift from its predecessor initiated under then-president Bill Clinton.
"This is a much more unilateralist vision of space. The [US] in this policy seeks to establish its rights but fails to acknowledge the rights of other countries in space, where the Clinton policy was very careful to acknowledge the rights of all nations in space," Hitchens said.
The US currently enjoys supremacy in space, while Russia has lost most of its means and China is still in the development phase.
The US is the only country capable of using satellites for combat operations and is doing it better and better if one compares the two wars in the Gulf and wars in the Balkans, Afghanistan and Iraq, Michael O'Hanlon, a researcher at the Brookings Institution, testified during a congressional hearing in June.
But the US supremacy in space faces threats from other countries.
"The [US] is in particular concerned about China," Hitchens said.
"While both China and Russia have been promoting a space weapons ban, it is clear to me that the Chinese at the same time are considering ways to do damage to US space assets," she said.
Before becoming Bush's secretary of defense, Donald Rumsfeld had warned against a "Space Pearl Harbor" and insisted US interests needed to be better protected.