The End of Sanctuary in Space

War Is Boring
War Is Boring
Published in
33 min readJan 7, 2015


Why America is considering getting more aggressive in orbit


The U.S. national security space community is implementing its 2011 strategy for protecting space capabilities as a result of the perceived increase in threat posed by the development of counterspace capabilities among potential adversaries.

The strategy includes multiple elements for developing international norms of behavior, enhancing commercial and allied cooperation, increasing resilience and deterring and defeating attacks.

New evidence suggests that the implementation effort may be focusing primarily on deterring and defeating attacks, and may include the development of “active defenses” and new offensive counterspace systems.

While there may be a valid role for these capabilities, much depends on the details of how they are pursued, and how they will support other elements of the strategy.

Plus, there’s the larger question of whether a more aggressive approach is in the best interest of all of America’s space organizations, including the burgeoning commercial space sector.

We live in an age of proliferating anti-satellite capabilities. There is a growing body of evidence that China is actively developing at least two hit-to-kill ASAT weapon systems. The development process has included at least five tests of these systems, including one that created thousands of pieces of space debris.

Russia has fielded operational ASAT capabilities in the past, and Russian officials have recently stated that development work has started again on an air-based ASAT system. Not to be outdone, elements of the Indian government have also signaled interest in developing both missile defense and ASAT capabilities themselves.

The United States and many of its allies in Europe and Asia are fielding missile defense capabilities that have significant ASAT capabilities, as demonstrated by the United States’ use of the same missile defense system to destroy a non-functioning satellite in 2008.

The number of other countries that already possess ballistic missile and space launch technology—and could thus develop their own crude ASAT capabilities—is growing.

The U.S. national security space community sees this shift towards a more “contested” space environment as a very worrisome trend. There are currently more than 150 U.S. military and intelligence satellites in orbit, providing important national security capabilities such as precision navigation and timing, global communications, missile warning, and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance.

The proliferation of ASAT capabilities and the threat they are thought to pose to these space systems presents a serious challenge to the United States’ military and intelligence capabilities. The concern extends not only to the ability of the United States to defend its own national security interests, but also to its ability to continue to contribute to the defense of its allies.

The United States announced a new National Security Space Strategy in early 2011 that detailed five strategic approaches for dealing with a more “congested, competitive and contested space environment.”

The strategy includes a strong push for developing and promoting responsible norms of behavior in space, increased partnership and cooperation with allies and commercial firms and a shift toward making U.S. national security space capabilities more resilient to attacks.

The strategy also includes preventing and deterring aggression on U.S. national security space systems, and, should deterrence fail, defeating attacks on said systems. Since the release of the strategy, the U.S. government has been relatively public about how it will implement the first three approaches, but less so about the last two.

That has now changed. Congress has included language in the National Defense Authorization Act for the 2015 fiscal year, the primary piece of legislation that authorizes and directs the activities of the U.S. military, calling on the U.S. national security space community to report to Congress how it plans to deter and defeat adversary attacks on U.S. space systems.

The NDAA language requires the Secretary of Defense and the Director of National Intelligence to produce a study on the role of offensive space operations, and specifies that the majority of the $32.3 million that Congress gave to the Space Security and Defense Program in 2015 must be used for “the development of offensive space control and active defensive strategies and capabilities.”

The NDAA language does not stipulate what is meant by offensive or active defensive capabilities, but when combined with recent academic writings from within the U.S. military, it suggests that America’s strategy for protecting its satellites is taking a more aggressive turn.

This essay discusses the evolution of U.S. national security space community’s approach to using space and protecting space assets over the last several decades, and explains why some in the community are now contemplating a more aggressive approach.

It frames the discussion through four established schools of thought on the military uses of space: sanctuary, space control, high ground and survivability.

These schools were first developed as potential space power doctrines by David Lupton in an article for Strategic Review in 1983, and more fully fleshed out in his 1988 book On Space Warfare: A Space Power Doctrine.

They were re-conceptualized as schools of thought, rather than doctrine, by Peter Hays in his 1994 doctoral dissertation. In Hays’ view, the four schools of thought are less codified and have more overlap between them than a strict doctrinal definition.

U.S. policy on national security space is a conglomeration of the four schools of thought, with one school of thought usually prioritized over the others. This conglomeration is a result of the interagency process for creating policy on national security issues, and the bargaining that takes place between the different agencies involved in the decision.

The U.S. government is not a unitary actor, and the perspective of each of the many agencies within the interagency decision-making process usually reflects a preference for one of these schools over the other. As a result, decisions made by the U.S. government on national security space policy often reflect a compromise between multiple schools of thought, rather than a strict adherence to one over all the others.

Why choose to contextualize this issue from the perspective of the military when space activities encompass much more than just the military? The reason is that in the realm of policy, and space policy in particular, national security has dominated decision making since the very beginning of the Space Age, and still holds a privileged position in space policy debates.

This dominance is seen in the size of the U.S. national security space budget—nearly $27.5 billion compared to NASA’s $17.8 billion in 2012—but also in the use of the National Security Council process to make many space policy decisions.

Finally, it is important to understand why the focus of this essay is on the policies and activities of the United States and not on the other countries involved. The intent is not to place blame for the current strategic instability in space solely on the United States.

The situation is the result of the actions of several different countries, as well as the overarching geopolitical dynamics present in the world today. As a result of America’s democratic and pluralistic nature, its policies and actions are subject to more scrutiny and debate than others.

That should be seen as a virtue and not a defect. The United States is still the world leader in space, in terms of both soft and hard power. The intent of this essay is to encourage constructive debate on this important issue in the hope that it leads to policies and actions that continue to enable the United States to be a force for good and a world leader for the foreseeable future.

Above—NASA’s 1960s concept for an X-20 space bomber. At top—the U.S. Air Force’s X-37B space plane. Air Force photo

Space sanctuary

The first school of thought on military uses of space, and the one that has dominated the U.S. national security space community’s approach since the dawn of the Space Age, is that of space as a sanctuary.

The sanctuary school places utmost importance on the value of space systems for providing strategic information to decision makers—primarily through the collection of reconnaissance and intelligence data.

The demand for more information about military developments in the Soviet Union and the challenges in collecting intelligence from airborne platforms prompted the Eisenhower Administration to undertake classified efforts in the 1950s to develop reconnaissance satellites to collect intelligence on Soviet activities.

The Eisenhower Administration’s original push to develop an international regime where satellite overflight and reconnaissance were a legitimate part of the peaceful uses of space was continued by his successors, and culminated in the 1967 Outer Space Treaty.

Article I of the Outer Space Treaty states that the use and exploration of outer space shall be the province of all mankind, while Article III requires that States conduct such use and exploration in the interest of maintaining international peace and security.

These provisions form the core principles of space law, and are held by many legal scholars to have passed into the realm of customary international law, which would therefore make them widely binding.

Since the ratification of the treaty, most states have come to define peaceful uses of outer space as non-aggressive, which allows for the use of satellites for reconnaissance, surveillance, communication and a number of other national security capabilities.

As the Cold War progressed, additional space capabilities were developed to verify key elements of arms control agreements between the United States and the Soviet Union. These national technical means of verification, or NTM, helped to stabilize the relationship between the two superpowers.

This stability was further enhanced by the development of space-based early warning and launch detection systems, which could warn either side of an impending nuclear attack by ballistic missiles.

To help protect this stability and ensure the viability of both NTM and early warning, followers of the sanctuary school within the U.S. national security space community argued strongly that space should be kept free of offensive weapons or other military uses that could incentivize the other side to create and possibly use ASAT weapons.

The importance of NTM to top-level decision-makers on both sides and the threat of nuclear war helped that argument hold sway.

A U.S. Air Force F-15 tests an ASM-135 anti-satellite weapon in 1985. Air Force photos

Space control

In the 1970s, a second major school of thought, space control, began to gain prominence. In emphasizing the use of space for not only strategic reconnaissance and intelligence, but also for enhancing U.S. military forces on Earth, the space control school borrows heavily from air- and sea-power doctrines.

Followers of the space control school advocate that the U.S. must have superiority in space over its potential adversaries, just as it does in air, land, and sea domains. The end result of the increased influence of the space control school was major investment in satellite programs such as the Global Positioning System and the Defense Satellite Communication System.

To protect these force enhancement capabilities, the space control school advocates for assured access to space, including detecting and defending against attacks on friendly space systems. The space control school also emphasizes the need to develop counterspace capabilities such as ASATs to deter attacks on friendly space capabilities in peacetime and deny adversary access to space capabilities during conflict.

While the intelligence community has historically continued to embrace the sanctuary school, the U.S. military has shifted its focus over the last few decades to the space control school as its central approach to the space domain.

It has continued to invest heavily in space-based force enhancement capabilities and on integrating these capabilities with the warfighters in air, on land, and at sea to the point where space has become a critical part of U.S. military power.

In keeping with the space control school of thought, current U.S. military doctrine on space emphasizes the importance of space superiority through improving space situational awareness to better understand the space environment and potential threats, developing defensive space control capabilities to better protect space capabilities against attacks and developing offensive space control capabilities to deny adversaries the ability to use space against the United States and its allies.

The types of OSC capabilities pursued by the United States have shifted over the decades as a result of both the perceived threat and political pressure. Development and testing of a nuclear-tipped, air-launched ballistic missile ASAT system named Bold Orion and another named High Virgo began in 1958.

The first operational ASAT system was a nuclear-tipped, ground-based ballistic missile named Program 505 fielded in the early 1960s and replaced by Program 437 in 1964.

In the late 1970s, the Ford Administration conducted a study that concluded there was a need to develop a limited non-nuclear U.S. ASAT capability to counter Soviet low-Earth orbit satellites the Soviets used to target U.S. carrier battle groups.

Pres. Jimmy Carter gave the program the go-ahead, which became a conventional air-launched ASAT system called the ASM-135. The development program included a series of tests, one of which destroyed the U.S. Solwind satellite in 1985.

The ASM-135 program was cancelled in 1988 and since then, the United States has not had an officially recognized kinetic kill ASAT program. Instead, the United States has pursued development of so-called “temporary and reversible means” such as radiofrequency jamming and cyber warfare, that can degrade or disable adversary space systems without outright destroying the satellite.

The most well-known publicly of these is the Air Force’s Counter Communications System.

A U.S. Air Force rocket launch. Air Force photo

High ground

Throughout the Cold War, the third main school of thought—high ground—existed with varying levels of prominence. The high ground school emphasizes the use of space for projecting force to and dominating in engagements on Earth.

Adherents to the high ground school believe that future wars will be won or lost in space. Thus, proponents of this school advocate seizing unilateral control of access to space and building space-based capabilities for projecting force in terrestrial environments.

When the U.S. military first began to embrace space in the 1950s, the high ground school had a small but energetic following within the services, particularly the Air Force. Much of this following stemmed from the view that space was just an extension of the air domain, and the critical role strategic bombing played in developing air power doctrine.

This led some within the Air Force to argue forcefully for a range of high ground programs, including piloted orbital bombers and crewed military space stations. However, these notions conflicted with desires of the space sanctuary school that dominated the intelligence community, and also the budgetary needs of the flying portion of the Air Force.

The high ground approach was also seen by at least some in the international community as aggressive and potentially illegal under international law. As a result, the high ground approach failed to gain significant traction within the policy-making process.

The high ground school saw brief but ultimately failed resurgence during the 1980s. The Air Force had a sustained effort to develop formal military space doctrine for the first time and saw opportunities to set the theoretical basis for a more hands-on approach to space.

At the same time, the civilian leadership in the Reagan Administration sought to use space as a means to end the tyranny of mutually assured destruction with the Soviets through the Strategic Defense Initiative and development of space-based interceptors that could defend terrestrial forces against ballistic missile attacks, defend space systems against ASAT attack and attack adversary space systems.

However, these concepts were never truly embraced by the military bureaucracy, and lost steam when they ran up against significant economic and technological obstacles and political push-back from a skeptical Congress.

The late 1990s through early 2000s saw another failed resurgence of the high ground school. With the end of the Cold War, the United States perceived itself as the sole superpower with no clear rival.

In 2001, the Report of the Commission to Assess United States National Security Space Management and Organization, also known as the Rumsfeld Commission, warned a potential “Pearl Harbor in space” and urged the U.S. military to rethink its sanctuary approach to space.

The U.S. military openly advocated for “dominating” space on its way towards achieving full-spectrum dominance.

Others advocated for the United States to seize control of key orbits and create a space-to-ground strike capability that would enable America to continue to serve as a “peaceful hegemon” of the world. However, after the attacks on 9/11, the United States found itself engaged in wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere against the forces of extremist Islam.

These engagements drained away what political will or resources the U.S. military had to pursue the high ground school. The counterterrorism effort also reinforced the value of space for both strategic reconnaissance and force enhancement and as the foundation for the ability of the United States and its allies to pursue the fight against extremists.

If there had ever been a window of opportunity for the high ground school to be a realistic possibility for the United States, that window has almost certainly closed. Two major shortcomings of pursuing the high ground school are the massive cost of developing and deploying the necessary space-based infrastructures, and the assumption that the required infrastructures can be built without interference or disruption.

Assuming the technology can be made to work, the United States does not currently have the economic resources—or the political will to create those resources—to implement the high ground school.

Even if it did, the proliferation of ASAT capabilities, growing recognition of the strategic importance of space by other countries and surging economic resources of other countries virtually guarantees that the United States could not pursue such a path unopposed.

A small, cheap Cube Sat. Photo via Wikipedia


The fourth major school of thought—survivability—has recently been gaining prominence within U.S. national security space community as a way to deal with a more contested space environment.

The survivability school believes that space systems have fundamental vulnerabilities and will always be at a disadvantage compared to terrestrial forces.

As a result, advocates of the survivability school focus on making significant efforts to reduce both the vulnerability of space systems to attack and overall reliance on space systems. They deemphasize the role of space for force enhancement in favor of a more limited number of support capabilities that degrade gracefully and can be reconstituted quickly.

These include distributed constellations or disaggregated capabilities, cross-links between space-based capabilities and air- and ground-based capabilities and operationally responsive space capabilities.

Although the idea of survivability is not new, it has historically taken a backseat in U.S. national security space policy to other schools of thought. Many U.S. military satellites are designed today with some survivability features in mind, such as hardening against radiation, and jam-resistant radio frequency communications.

These features were largely developed to deal with environmental hazards, such as those created by nuclear detonations in space, and not for direct kinetic attacks on satellites. However, the survivability school’s focus on de-emphasizing the role of space capabilities has consistently lost out to both the strategic value of space systems to the sanctuary school and the warfighting value of space systems to the space control school.

At the same time, the continued high cost of space launch provides an economic and engineering incentive for both reducing the number of launches and packing as much value as possible into a single launch. Those incentives also tend to lead towards a space acquisitions and architecture design philosophy of building large, complicated and expensive satellites.

There is growing recognition that the current strategic situation in space between the U.S. and its potential near-peer adversaries is unstable. At the moment, the United States has the most well-developed space capabilities in the world and is far more reliant on space for national security and the projection of military power than any other country.

The previous dominance of the sanctuary school led the United States to develop national security space capabilities that are extremely vulnerable to a variety of attacks, particularly kinetic attacks. These capabilities are mainly concentrated in a limited number of large and very expensive satellites that take many years to build and launch.

Their importance to U.S. military power gives powerful incentives for potential adversaries to develop ASAT capabilities to take them out and to use those capabilities during conflict.

To many within the U.S. national security space community and Congress, the newly “contested” space domain is a serious problem because it undermines the ability of the United States to win a major engagement with a near-peer adversary.

Although the probability of an actual shooting war with a near-peer adversary is extremely small, there is a growing chorus of voices within the national security community about the need to prepare for a war with China.

Advocates point to the evidence that China is developing operational counterspace capabilities to hold U.S. national security satellites at risk, and potentially testing its ability to target and sink U.S. Navy carriers as evidence of a near-term threat.

They also point to recent actions by China such as the ramming of fishing vessels, and declaring a greatly expanded Air Defense Intercept Zone over disputed islands as the beginning of a Chinese shift towards being a more assertive, and possibly aggressive, regional power.

At some point in the future, the strategic situation may become more stable as a result of a return of the dynamics behind the sanctuary school of thought.

Russia is investing heavily in reconstituting its national security space capabilities. China is rapidly developing a full complement of national security space capabilities of its own, including its own global satellite navigation system and significant space-based ISR capabilities.

Eventually, there may be a new paradigm with multiple countries with the incentives, resources, and knowledge to use space for the full range of military and national security applications. If that happens, many of the same dynamics that led to overall stability in space during the Cold War will again be in place, and we may see a return to a geopolitical environment that is more conducive to a sanctuary approach.

However, even in the most optimistic scenario, it will be decades before these other countries fully develop their space capabilities and become as reliant on space as the United States. The sanctuary model, predicated upon shared reliance on space and strong incentives for stability, will therefore not hold true for some time.

A push for more arms control is also unlikely to be an effective solution to the growing instability due to a deep divide among the various players over what the true threats are in the space domain. Russia and China, along with many of the emerging and developing countries, continue to insist that the potential for an arms race in space is the most pressing security issue.

As a result, they have continued to push for negotiations of their proposed Prevention of the Placement of Weapons in Outer Space Treaty and have called for states to pledge “no first placement” of weapons in outer space. On Dec. 5, the United Nations General Assembly passed, with 126 affirmative votes, UNGA Resolution 69/32, entitled “no first placement of weapons in outer space.”

The U.S. was one of only four states that voted against it. For the United States, and a number of its allies, the most pressing issues are assured access to space and protecting existing space capabilities from threats—intentional and unintentional.

As a result, the United States has been pushing a range of initiatives aimed at promoting responsible behavior in space, minimizing the likelihood for accidents or misunderstandings and mitigating the threat from space debris.

The United States and its allies on one hand, and Russia and China on the other, are also fundamentally distrustful of each other’s motives and initiatives. The United States sees the PPWT and the no first placement pledge as fundamentally flawed, asserting that they are not verifiable.

Moreover, the proposals would only apply to weapons “placed in orbit,” a category that would include potential U.S. space-based missile defenses or orbital counterspace systems, but would not include the ground- or air-based ASAT capabilities being developed by China and Russia.

Some observers in the U.S. are also suspicious of recent co-orbital rendezvous and proximity operations demonstrations by both China and Russia as being tests of potential co-orbital ASAT capabilities.

As a result, a significant number of people in the U.S. national security space community see recent Russian and Chinese activities to develop and test counterspace capabilities as proof that the PPWT is no more than a political ploy.

At the same time, at least some in Russia and China see U.S. development of advanced on-orbit capabilities—such as the XSS-11 rendezvous and inspection satellite and the X-37B space plane—as nascent space weapons programs themselves.

The situation is made even more complicated by the desire of the United States, and a growing number of its allies, to develop hit-to-kill missile defense capabilities to protect themselves from rogue states such as Iran and North Korea and to field these systems overseas in Europe and Asia, extending their reach.

Russian and Chinese leaders have expressed concern over U.S. efforts to develop improved missile defenses, and perceive them as a strategic threat and potential hit-to-kill ASAT systems in their own right.

The U.S. national security space community eventually decided on a strategy that mixes elements of both the survivability and space control schools together.

On Jan. 19, 2011, the Defense Department and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence published the new National Security Space Strategy that laid out the initial, high-level concepts for how it plans to deal with what it described as an “increasingly congested, contested, and competitive” environment in space.

The strategy proposed the following set of interrelated strategic approaches for meeting U.S. national security space objectives:

  1. Promote responsible, peaceful, and safe use of space;
  2. Provide improved U.S. space capabilities;
  3. Partner with responsible nations, international organizations, and commercial firms;
  4. Prevent and deter aggression against space infrastructure that supports U.S. national security;
  5. Prepare to defeat attacks and to operate in a degraded environment.

On Oct. 18, 2012, the Defense Department published an updated space policy that expanded upon the National Security Space Strategy and provided direction on its implementation. The Pentagon’s space policy emphasized the importance of strengthening the safety, sustainability, stability, and security of the space environment.

It also outlined four elements that the United States will use to deter attacks on its own or allied space systems.

  1. Support the development of international norms of responsible behavior that promote the safety, stability, and security of the space domain.
  2. Build coalitions to enhance collective security capabilities.
  3. Mitigate the benefits to an adversary of attacking U.S. space systems by enhancing the resilience of our space enterprise and by ensuring that U.S. forces can operate effectively even when our space-derived capabilities have been degraded.
  4. Possess capabilities, not limited to space, to respond to an attack on United States or allied space systems in an asymmetric manner by using any or all elements of national power.

Since 2012, much of the discussion within the U.S. national security space community has been on what plans, programs and policies will best achieve the objectives of the NSSS—and there has been some limited progress in implementing the Defense Department space policy.

The United States endorsed the recommendations of the United Nations Group of Governmental Experts on Transparency and Confidence Building Measures in Outer Space Activities, and has been actively promoting discussions on the draft International Code of Conduct for Space Activities—ICOC—and the development of voluntary guidelines for the long-term sustainability of space activities as part of promoting the responsible, peaceful and safe use of space.

With respect to improving U.S. space capabilities and building coalitions, the Defense Department has signed bilateral agreements on space situational awareness with the U.K., France, Italy, Japan, Australia, Canada and recently South Korea; and is in the process of negotiating agreements with Germany, Israel and Brazil.

At the same time, the United States has entered into a partnership with Canada, Australia and the United Kingdom on combined space operations.

However, to date there is not much substance, in the form of whole-of-government commitment, behind the norm-building efforts. Although the Obama Administration has publicly supported the ICOC negotiations, there have been several leaks in the press aimed at undermining any negotiations from anonymous defense department officials that are clearly not supportive of the effort.

Moreover, key Republicans in Congress have been consistently distrustful of the ICOC. Part of this distrust is because they perceive it as a treaty in disguise, and labeling it as a voluntary code is an attempt by the Obama Administration bypass the Senate’s authority in ratifying treaties.

In 2012, the Republican-controlled House proposed authorization language that would block funding for implementing any agreement that was not ratified by the Senate, despite the ICOC not being a treaty requiring ratification.

Although that language was not included in the final bill, the 2013 NDAA did include language requiring senior U.S. officials to certify that any agreement would have no impact on U.S. military or intelligence activities in space.

Similarly, there is little publicly-available information on any meaningful progress on increasing U.S. national security space cooperation with international and commercial partners.

While the aforementioned SSA data sharing agreements are much less politically controversial than the ICOC, so far they have done little more than formalize already existing bilateral relationships where the U.S. military provides one-way analytical services to other governments and commercial satellite operators.

They do not appear to be a true partnership where information and data flows in both directions. Part of this can be traced to the technical limitations of the existing IT systems by the U.S. military, but part of it is also due to a cultural distrust of data collected from sources outside of the traditional U.S. military sources.

Efforts to develop a more substantial capability to share data and coordinate space operations between the U.S. and its allies, such as the Combined Space Operations Center exercised at the 2010 Schriever War Game, are making minimal progress.

As of yet there are no concrete plans for the U.S. military to include any of its allies in the development of new satellite systems or utilize allied space capabilities instead of developing its own.

With the notable exception of the Wideband Global satellite communications constellation, it appears that the U.S. military is still following the historical model of developing, funding and delivering space systems all by itself.

There is also scant information available on the progress being made on the third element of the 2011 NSSS, increasing the resilience of U.S. national security space capabilities.

Much of the discussion of how to implement “resilience” has focused on a shift away from having a few large, very expensive, “exquisite” space systems towards constellations of satellites where the overall capability is distributed among many smaller satellites.

The many functions and missions currently accomplished by one large satellite could also be disaggregated among separate platforms, but that would potentially require additional launches to place the systems in orbit. Distribution and disaggregation may even include air and ground systems in addition to space systems, which could significantly increase the complexity in integration and data fusion.

The 2015 budget is reported to contain some aspects of disaggregation. Specifically, the U.S. Air Force says it has delayed purchasing the next two satellites in the Advanced Extremely High Frequency communications constellation in order to examine how it might shift the program towards disaggregation.

The Air Force is also reportedly looking at incorporating disaggregation into the procurement of its new Weather System Follow-On program to replace the aging Defense Meteorological Satellite Program.

However, whether or not these are serious efforts, and can be sustained, remains to be seen. A 2014 Government Accountability Office report found that there are significant challenges to disaggregation that still need to be overcome, including developing metrics for measuring resilience and operational feasibility.

It appears that the development of an overall resilience strategy that would answer those questions is still in the formulation phase. Section 912 of the NDAA for fiscal year 2014 directed the Secretary of Defense and the Director of National Intelligence to jointly conduct a study, through the National Research Council, on increasing the resilience of U.S. national security space systems.

The initiation of that study was formally announced by the Defense Science Board on Dec. 1, 2014, and it’s likely the study won’t conclude until sometime in mid-2015. That means that any recommendations or outcomes from the study on improving resilience of U.S. national security space systems won’t be incorporated into the budget until 2017 at the earliest, more than six years after the NSSS was announced.

The U.S. Navy cruiser USS Shiloh launches an anti-missile missile. Navy photo

Is the best defense really a good offense?

Until recently, there was virtually no public discussion on how the U.S. national security space community would address the last elements of the 2011 NSSS—deterring and defeating attacks on U.S. national security space systems.

That has changed, somewhat, with the passage of the NDAA for 2015, which directs the Secretary of Defense and the Director of National Intelligence to jointly develop an update to the 2011 NSSS that includes space control and space superiority aspects. The 2015 NDAA also requires that the majority of the funds allocated to the Space Security and Defense Program be used to develop offensive space control and active defensive strategies and capabilities.

Active defensive capabilities go beyond passive defenses, such as hardening of satellites or creating plans for evasive maneuvers, to include taking action against a hostile object to prevent it from destroying a protected object.

Examples of active defenses from other domains include using flares to deceive heat-seeking air-to-air missiles, electronic countermeasures to jam radio-controlled improvised explosive devices, reactive armor to protect armored vehicles from shaped charges and missile defense to intercept ballistic missiles.

In the context of space, potential active defenses could range from using cyber or electronic warfare methods to interfere with the ability of an adversary’s ASAT weapon to target and track a protected satellite, to kinetic methods that involve destroying the adversary’s ASAT weapon before it reaches the protected satellite.

The boundary between active defenses and outright offense can be fuzzy at best. While the examples of flares, ECM and reactive armor are all mechanisms that are clearly defensive in nature, other types of active defenses are not.

To use another example from the air domain, aircraft that actively seek out and destroy anti-air missile emplacements—what’s known as the suppression of enemy air defenses or SEAD—may be characterized as a “defensive” action but could just as easily be seen as offensive because they are using weapons and systems that are also used for offensive operations.

In the same vein, “active defenses” for satellites that seek out and destroy a threatening object before it can attack are essentially offensive counterspace systems, and they would be treated as such by potential adversaries.

The inclusion of offensive space control capabilities in the Congressional language suggests that the United States may be considering threats of force against adversary space systems as a way to deter attacks on U.S. space systems. Although neither Russia nor China are as reliant on satellites as the United States, they still have space systems that are important for their own national security.

For example, a key element of China’s anti-access/area denial strategy for a potential conflict in East Asia includes using anti-ship ballistic missiles ASBMs to deter, or potentially attack, U.S. carrier battle groups. Chinese ISR satellites play a critical role in the “kill chain” for its ASBMs by providing tracking and targeting information on U.S. naval forces.

It is likely that some in the U.S. believe that developing offensive counterspace capabilities that could hold Chinese ISR satellites at risk, or destroy them during an actual conflict, could provide a deterrent to Chinese aggression or a significant military advantage in a conflict.

Proponents of developing new U.S. offensive space control capabilities argue that the previous decades of strategic restraint by the United States have not been matched by potential adversaries such as China, and thus continued restraint is pointless.

As mentioned earlier, the U.S. began development of the ASM-135 ASAT program in the late 1970s to address precisely the same concerns with Soviets using space-based surveillance to target U.S. naval forces. However, the program was ended in the late 1980s, partly out of concerns that it could spark an arms race in space.

Compared to the air, sea and land domains where the U.S. military has continued to develop and field weapon systems that are much more advanced and capable than its adversaries, the public evidence suggests that the United States has indeed been much more restrained in the space domain, if you don’t count hit-to-kill missile defense as a latent ASAT capability.

By contrast, the multiple ASAT tests conducted by China since 2005 have led some in the U.S. military to conclude that continued restraint by the United States will not be similarly matched, and will only serve to put it at a further disadvantage.

If the United States were to develop increased offensive counterspace capabilities, there would be significant drawbacks. The biggest drawback is that it will not halt the proliferation of counterspace capabilities and development programs in other countries, and may accelerate that proliferation even more.

Russia, China, and other countries already consider the U.S. missile defense program as evidence of a “stealth” space weapons program and proof of why they should develop their own hit-to-kill ASAT and missile defense capabilities.

A new U.S. effort to develop offensive counterspace capabilities to “defend” U.S. satellites is likely to only deepen these perceptions, potentially leading to an arms race instability scenario, and an all-out competition in space that the U.S. tried to avoid in the 1970s.

The end result would be increased threats to everyone’s space systems and increased tensions that could lead to or escalate conflict.

It is also hard to see how active defenses or offensive counterspace capabilities would be a credible deterrent unless they are accompanied by a dramatic shift in current U.S. space policy. The deterrent value of both offensive and defensive systems rests on the adversary’s belief that the systems will work.

That implies that adversaries would need to be aware of the active defenses and offensive counterspace systems, and that the systems would need to be tested to demonstrate their effectiveness.

However, testing destructive systems would seem to be contrary to what most countries, including the United States, would consider to be responsible behavior in space. Testing such systems would establish a precedent that it would be okay for other countries, such as Russia and China, to develop and test their own active defenses, which in turn would likely lead to the development of more threats by all parties.

A National Reconnaissance Office rocket launch. NRO photo

Swords and shields

At the moment, there are still a lot of unanswered questions about the implementation of the 2011 NSSS, and whether or not the U.S. national security space community has indeed decided to prioritize the development of what can be considered “swords and shields”—that is, offensive counterspace and active defensive—capabilities and deprioritize, or even ignore, norms, international cooperation and resilience.

Part of the challenge in divining the truth is that the publicly-available budget documents do not tell the whole story of how the national security space community is spending its money. In 2012, the unclassified spending on national security space amounted to only $11.55 billion out of the reported $27.45 billion total national security space budget, and the proportion has stayed roughly the same since.

If the 2011 NSSS is largely being implemented via the classified portion of the budget, that could explain some of the lack of clarity. Alternatively, it could also be the case that the implementation of the strategy is still being debated within the interagency process, and there is no resolution yet.

It is reasonable for the U.S. military to be thinking about ways to better defend its own satellites, and to be considering how to disrupt an adversary’s own space capabilities in the event of a conflict. As Marc Berkowitz has pointed out, the existence of ASAT capabilities does not necessarily lead to an arms race, nor does their existence automatically escalate conflict.

But much depends on the specifics of how the offensive counterspace capabilities are implemented. The Carter Administration used a two-track approach that included developing limited operational ASAT capabilities while also pursuing a verifiable ban on ASAT capabilities.

Regarding today’s situation with China, David Gompert and Phillip Saunders argue in “Paradox of Power” that U.S. offensive counterspace capabilities could be a useful deterrent against Chinese use of ASAT weapons, but only if they are paired with a mutual “no first use” agreement, and if they are decoupled from war-fighting plans.

This would place ASAT weapons in the same category of strategic deterrent as nuclear forces are today, but would also require the U.S. to change its policy of not making no-first-use declarations.

Although not certain by any means, the potential for deterrence to contribute to increased strategic stability in space is significantly increased when pursued in conjunction with the other elements of the 2011 NSSS.

Establishing norms of behavior and “transparency and confidence building measures,” such as those contained in a recent United Nations Group of Governmental Experts report, would help sensitize all countries to potential vulnerabilities and the dangers of conflict and build critical communication links for use during a conflict.

Building stronger international and commercial partnerships, and developing coalition space capabilities with key allies, would also reinforce deterrence, assuage allied concerns and potentially increase the resilience of U.S. national security space capabilities.

It is understandable why many in the U.S. national security space community prefer focusing on swords and shields over norms and cooperation. Many of those charged with defending the United States have a worldview, largely driven by the intelligence they see every day and the enormity of the task they have, that leads them to conclude that the threat or use of force is the only reliable motivator, and the outcome is too important to have other countries on the critical path.

Diplomacy and institution-building are seen as less decisive, more unreliable and weaker. The mere fact that Russia and China are two of the loudest champions of greater international regulation of space security has led at least some in the United States to conclude that diplomacy and agreements are a bad idea.

Similarly, it is also understandable why many in the traditional arms control community will want to reject the space control aspects of the strategy and just focus on the norms and cooperation. They see the swords and shields elements of the strategy as validation of their long-held fears about the weaponization of space, and a repeat of the same mistakes made in the nuclear arms race during the Cold War.

Arms control advocates would prefer those elements be dropped from the strategy, and the focus going forward be solely on diplomatic and cooperative efforts. That approach is just as unlikely to work as one that only includes swords and shields.

There are a number of steps the U.S. national security space community can take going forward to assuage concerns on all sides, and make the case for implementing the strategy as a whole.

First, more information needs to be available about the threats that are driving the push for more space control and the concern emanating from the intelligence community.

To date, the United States has been very reluctant to share many details on Chinese or Russian ASAT development or testing, and why it feels these activities pose such a significant threat to U.S. national security space systems. That must change, if the national security space community is serious about convincing the public that these are serious threats.

Second, there needs to be a better articulation of how the U.S. will implement all elements of the 2011 NSSS. The U.S. national security space community needs to show a stronger commitment to the development of responsible norms of behavior, and do a better job explaining to Congress why norms of behavior are an important of the overall strategy.

The community also needs to put forward concrete proposals for better leveraging allied and commercial capabilities, and improving the resilience of U.S. national security space systems. At the same time, it needs to explain what active defensive and offensive counterspace capabilities are being considered, why they will increase stability rather than instability, discuss pros and cons of doing so and how they support the other elements of the strategy.

Third, there needs to be an international discussion of what is meant by self-defense in the context of space capabilities, which would help define the boundaries between active defensive and offensive capabilities and actions.

The right to self-defense has consistently been part of U.S. national space policy since the Eisenhower administration, and is also enshrined in Article 51 of the United Nations Charter. The sticking point is how self-defense is defined, and that definition is linked to the debate in the broader international legal community on issues such as preemptive self-defense.

It is increasingly evident that the issue of self-defense and its definition with regard to space activities will play a significant role in any future negotiations. The lack of a definition of self-defense has already become a point of contention in the negotiations over the draft ICOC, and has also been raised as part of the discussions on guidelines for the long-term sustainability of space within the United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space.

As long as the definition remains ambiguous, any pursuit of active defensive or offensive counterspace capabilities is likely to fuel mistrust and misperceptions.

Fourth, the United States needs to take into consideration the perspectives of its allies in implementing a strategy for dealing with a contested space environment. Increased international cooperation and allied integration with U.S. space capabilities is crucial to protecting U.S. national security space capabilities.

Although most allies would likely be supportive of the concept of self-defense in space, many are also wary of the dangers of the weaponization of space and in the past have distanced themselves from U.S. activities in space because of weaponization concerns.

If the United States insists on a definition of self-defense that is overly aggressive, there is a strong chance it could lose some of the allies it needs to fulfill its overall strategy, further weakening its ability to deal with a contested space domain.

Fifth, it is important that the debate over how to overcome the current strategic instability in space also includes voices from the commercial sector. Revenues from the commercial satellite communication sector now surpass global military spending on space, and there is a recent acceleration in private sector activities and innovation in many other areas of space activities.

Commercial uses of space will continue to increase over time, and many aspects of daily life and the global economy increasingly depend on the continued ability to use space. Increased tensions and strategic instability in space will have significant negative impacts on the economic viability of private sector activities in space.

As difficult as it is for the U.S. national security space community to accept, the stakes in this situation are too high for the answer to the problem to solely be a function of what is best for a particular faction within the U.S. government. Space is no longer a relatively simple war game analysis of red versus blue, and no longer purely the domain of the national security community.

Space is becoming more international and commercialized each year, and space is becoming increasingly important to the functioning of the global economy and the security of everyone on Earth.

Increased strategic instability in space, and the adoption of policies or strategies that aggravate instability instead of reduce it, put the world in a dangerous situation that could compromise our continued ability to use space.

It is in the best interests of all to pursue a strategy that will lead to greater stability and and sustainability in space.

Brian Weeden is a former U.S. Air Force space and missile operations officer and currently technical adviser for Secure World Foundation, a non-profit organization dedicated to the long-term sustainable use of outer space for benefits on Earth. He is also a doctoral candidate in public policy and public administration at George Washington University.



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