Where the Space Force’s new ‘theory of success’ succeeds

(Image credit: U.S. Space Force)

(Image credit: U.S. Space Force)

By Todd Harrison,
Published by Defense One, 22 January 2024

The chief of space operations’ revelatory paper should be read across the Joint Force.

Last week, the chief of space operations publicly released a white paper he has been talking about for the past year. Gen. Chance Saltzman’s paper comes with a bold title, “Competitive Endurance: A Proposed Theory of Success for the Space Force.” At just under six pages, it is well worth the read, even for those not directly interested in the inner workings of the military’s newest service. 

In the paper, Gen. Saltzman lays out a theory for how the Space Force can carry out its core mission—to protect U.S. interests in, from, and to space—while balancing the tension between using space for military advantage while also being a responsible steward of the domain. This white paper gets many things right, goes a bit off course in a few places, and, most importantly, tells us a lot about how the Space Force sees itself.

Starting with what the paper gets right—and there is much to commend—it lays out a coherent definition of space superiority: the ability to “employ space capabilities in support of military objectives while also preventing adversaries from using their own.” 

It correctly observes that at the end of the Cold War, the U.S. military began to neglect the second part of this definition, preventing an adversary from using space against us. In the 1990s and 2000s, the Air Force’s myopic focus on space as merely an enabler for other forces caused it to lose sight of the increasing competition in space and to forget how contested it had been throughout the Cold War.

Where the paper really hits its stride is in its description of the competitive dilemma the United States faces in space. It observes that in other domains the concept of control is achieved “by the threat or application of overwhelming destructive military force.” In other words, if you want to establish control in the air, sea, or land domains, you have to blow stuff up—or at least credibly threaten to blow stuff up. This doesn’t work well in space because blowing stuff up (or threatening to do so) would be ineffective or even counterproductive in many situations. Not all adversaries have space capabilities to target, and for those that do, destroying their satellites doesn’t convey control. In fact, the space debris produced by kinetic attacks in space would actually make it harder for us to use our own space capabilities. This is the central dilemma in space superiority: how do you deny an adversary the use of space while also maintaining your own ability to use space?

The theory of success proposed—what it calls Competitive Endurance—has three components: 1) avoid operational surprise, 2) deny first-mover advantage, and 3) confront malign activity. 

The paper does not attempt to operationalize this theory, which would require far more than six pages, but it does provide some direction. Avoiding operational surprise requires a high degree of space domain awareness to detect and characterize changes in the operating environment and the capabilities employed by others. Denying first-mover advantage means building more resilient and protected space capabilities that degrade gracefully (rather than catastrophically) when attacked. In other words, stop building juicy targets in space. 

Confronting malign activity in space is perhaps the most important component of the theory. As the paper notes, “Russia and China are attempting to erode our advantages in space through indirect actions below the threshold of armed conflict.” I would go further and add that they are attempting to condition us to accept a certain level of counterspace activity as normal. Our failure to confront this “gray zone” aggression in space only invites more aggression. The paper argues that leaving these malign activities unchecked could hamper our ability to achieve space superiority when an overt conflict unfolds. Confronting this behavior requires having and exercising the ability to employ counterspace capabilities in a responsible manner, even during day-to-day competition.

While there is much to commend in this white paper, the language and choice of words sometimes misses the mark. The third component of the theory, which I describe above as confronting malign activity in space, is actually labeled in the document as “responsible counterspace campaigning.” “Campaigning” was one of the buzzwords that emerged from the 2022 National Defense Strategy, but it does not do an adequate job of communicating the important point the paper is trying to make. As the Center for a New American Security’s Becca Wasser correctly notes, “the concept is currently ill-defined and expansive, and its broad interpretation does not help the DoD meet its deterrence requirements or align strategy and resources.” 

The paper’s word choices can also be better where it discusses the use of “destructive” force in space: specifically, actions that can create space debris. It would be more precise to label this as using “kinetic force.” There are forms of attack in space that can destroy a satellite—that is, render it completely inoperable—without producing debris, but kinetic attacks in space inherently run the risk of creating debris. 

The paper also pulls a punch when it uses the phrase “counter-targeting systems” to describe how we will disrupt adversary kill chains that run through space. There is no need to mince words; we’re talking about attacking adversary space systems in order to protect U.S. forces on the ground. While there may still be some sensitivities within the broader policy community about explicitly saying this, the time to get over those qualms has long passed. Even the French talk openly about using counterspace capabilities.

Most importantly, the paper does not discuss how commercial space capabilities play into the theory of success. This is a notable oversight, especially given how fast commercial space companies are advancing some of the key capabilities this theory requires. For example, commercial space domain awareness, remote sensing, and operational experience with highly proliferated constellations can and should play an important role in avoiding operational surprise and denying first-mover advantage. The ability to access commercial space services can be an important layer of resilience, and it is an asymmetric advantage the United States and its allies enjoy relative to Russia and China, whose commercial space capabilities lag far behind.

Despite these criticisms, I give the white paper an overall grade of A. It is well thought out and speaks many truths—things that need to be said publicly and from the top leadership of the Space Force. More than anything, the theory outlined in the paper gives us insight into the way the service thinks about itself, its role within the Department of Defense, and its strategic direction. It tells us that the Space Force understands its purpose—its raison d’être—and why it was elevated from an often dismissed Air Force major command to a fully-fledged service. 

While opponents of the Space Force, such as Dave Deptula, argue that having a well-developed theory of spacepower should be a precondition for creating an independent service, this white paper proves the opposite is true. The establishment of the Space Force created the conditions under which theories like General Saltzman’s could finally emerge—something that never happened in the many decades space was under the Air Force. It shows that the Space Force has carved out its piece of the overall strategic problems facing the U.S. military, understands what makes these problems uniquely hard in space, and has a plan to make real progress addressing them. 

The paper also demonstrates an appropriate degree of intellectual humility by explicitly stating that this theory “is a point of departure for analysis and critique.” This gives me renewed hope and optimism that the Space Force is headed in the right direction, and this paper serves as a basis by which we can all hold the Space Force accountable and contribute to its success in the years to come.

See: Original Article