US Deterrence And The Weaponisation Of Space

From 21 to 26 August, the 36th Space Symposium was held in Colorado Springs, US, which showed a clear trend on the part of Washington to militarise space. For almost a week, senators, high-ranking military officials, scientists, representatives of the country’s military and industrial complex, and foreign guests discussed various aspects of space exploration, but, judging by the keynote speeches and subsequent media discussions, interest was mainly confined to military issues.

General James Dickinson, Commander of US Space Command, has promised that a new Space Command strategy will soon be unveiled that will define a “military force in space”. It will be based on a manifesto published in January 2021 but will have a more substantive agenda. “U.S. Space Command will achieve and maintain space superiority, when, where, and for how long we need it”, said the general. “It will lay out how we will accomplish what’s necessary for space superiority to include efforts to counter competitor influence, build and maintain competitive advantages, strengthen our critical relationships and attract new partners.”

Many leaders in the US military and space industry also believe that the US Space Force and US Space Command “must publicly demonstrate to Moscow and Beijing not just an ability to take out any space-based counterspace systems they may be developing or deploying, but also to attack the satellites they, like the US, rely upon for communications, positioning, navigation and timing (PNT), and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR).”

In addition, the US military is making inflammatory statements that China and Russia have already started a space race (which is untrue) and cite joint plans to explore the Moon as an example.


Commander of U.S. Space Command Army Gen. James H. Dickinson announces the command’s initial operational capability during a speech August 24, 2021, at Space Symposium in Colorado Springs

In the last few months, there have been debates and hearings at various venues regarding America’s new capabilities in space. In July, Secure World Foundation Washington Office Director Victoria Samson and Director of Program Planning Brian Weeden took part in a closed briefing to the US House of Representatives Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence. They provided a short overview of SWF’s Global Counterspace Capabilities report and their assessment of the overall current space security situation and potential solutions. They were joined at the briefing by experts from the Center for Strategic and International Studies (Washington) and the secretary of the US Air Force from 2017 to 2019, Heather Wilson.

Also in recent months, the Pentagon has been busy declassifying a large number of documents related to weapons programmes in space. These documents were probably declassified on the eve of the symposium, but the topic of Afghanistan was more pressing and the full attention of the US intelligence agencies and analysts was switched in that direction. Specialised media outlets have noted that the Pentagon’s efforts are most likely to do with a so-called Special Access Program, a system that has been shrouded in secrecy for a long time and is known only to a very few, very senior US government leaders.

According to insiders, the declassification will more than likely include a demonstration of an active defence capability to take out or destroy a target satellite and/or spacecraft.

Expert speculation ranges from a ground-based mobile laser used for blinding adversary reconnaissance satellites or onboard, proximity triggered radio-frequency jammers on certain military satellites to a high-powered microwave system that could zap electronics carried on manoeuvrable bodyguard satellites. Since the capabilities of a ground-based kinetic interceptor were already demonstrated in the 2008 Burnt Frost satellite shoot-down, there has been no mention of this type of weapon.

Kinetic space weaponAt the same time, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence is publishing documents on UFOs entering US airspace. Not visitors from other worlds, of course, but rather various airborne vehicles that have not been identified. This seems to go hand in hand with the topic of secret weapons.

Declassification issues were not raised by chance, but as the US started thinking about a new deterrence strategy with regard to outer space. And since enemies cannot be influenced without a convincing argument in the form of some powerful weapon (as was the case with the nuclear bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki for all the world to see), these capabilities need to be openly demonstrated in the real world.

Here, it is worth noting a special report by the RAND Corporation on deterring China in space. The study was commissioned by the Office of the Secretary of Defense, the Joint Staff, the Unified Combatant Commands, the Navy, the Marine Corps, the defence agencies, and the defence intelligence enterprise. The study’s main purpose was to identify potential ways in which the US and its allies could effectively deter China in space. The report points out that, according to the 2020 US National Defense Space Strategy, space is now a distinct warfighting domain, demanding enterprise-wide changes to policies, strategies, operations, investments, capabilities, and expertise for a new strategic environment.” And the current development of Chinese capabilities in Space is being regarded by the US as a challenge that, in one way or another, will affect activity in Earth’s orbit.

The report defines space deterrence as “the deterrence of interference with any systems that operate in space or support the operation of space systems from the ground. This interference could take the form of actions against space assets themselves, ranging from dazzling a satellite’s optics or jamming downlinks to the use of kinetic weapons against these satellites, or it could take the form of actions against ground-based assets that support space-based capabilities.

It should be noted that, as far as the US military and US politicians are concerned, classic deterrence also includes punishment, i.e., they rely on a clear opportunity to retaliate immediately after an attack. Often, such an approach depends not on the relative military power of the opposing side, but on their intention to respond to the challenge. And in this regard, it is necessary to send clear signals. RAND researchers believe that “[a] deterrence strategy for space therefore needs to build credibility and legitimacy of cross-domain responses, account for asymmetric vulnerabilities, and communicate attribution capabilities and intent. Messaging and norms are an important tool for a deterrence strategy in space, but the success of this approach relies heavily on the target of these messages. For this reason tailoring a deterrence strategy to a particular adversary is especially important”.

So, while the deterrence strategy for China would be a special set of procedures, the US would have slightly different measures for Russia. The report states that China regards space as a critical US vulnerability, and Beijing has anti-satellite weapons capable of targeting almost any US space asset. Washington also believes that China is aiming to achieve supremacy in space; that is, to have freedom of action while keeping its adversaries out. That is why the US fears China’s possible deployment of any kind of weapons system in space. However, for its deterrence strategy against China, America is also relying on its allies – primarily Japan, but South Korea, Taiwan and India are also mentioned.

Incidentally, Australia recently succumbed to America’s bad example and its defence ministry is now about to establish a space command, treating space as a potential battlespace, just like land, sea and air.

Hence, it is a vicious circle. The US says it doesn’t want a space race, but that it has to pursue a deterrence strategy against China and Russia (and then probably against Iran and North Korea, too). A deterrence strategy requires a demonstration of military capabilities in space that surpass an opponent’s available assets. So, following the logic of this deterrence strategy, Washington is initiating both an arms race and the militarisation of space.

US Deterrence And The Weaponisation Of Space

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