The End of Sanctuary in Space
Why America is considering getting more aggressive in orbit
By Brian Weeden
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 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.
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.
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.