New Dangers of US Space Strategy

With the recent release of its “Defense Space Strategy” document, the US Department of Defense has declared its intent to dominate what it terms the “fourth dimension of warfare.” The US military relies upon space to fight its wars on earth; whether it can hold military control of space is another matter. The central question is: should the US be in the business of holding control of space? Much of the modern life that civilians around the world have grown accustomed to and take for granted depends on a space-based architecture of communications, navigation and remote sensing. These are all technologies that energy companies rely upon heavily. The notion of a conflict in space that risks the space-based connectivity that is at the heart of the daily existence of much of the world’s population should concern everyone — especially those in the Pentagon who believe they must implement a broad-based strategy of “full-spectrum dominance” inclusive of this newly defined “fourth dimension.”

Most Americans would be surprised to learn that in mid-June 2020 the US in effect declared war on space. And yet, according to the Pentagon’s Defense Space Strategy, that is precisely what happened. “Space,” the strategy document announced in its opening paragraphs, “is now a distinct war-fighting domain, demanding enterprise-wide changes to policies, strategies, operations, investments, capabilities and expertise for a new strategic environment.” The US military used to focus on defeating potential adversaries in the air, land and sea. Space has now become the “fourth medium of warfare,” and the new strategy outlines how the US “will advance space power to enable the Department to compete, deter, and win in a complex security environment characterized by great power competition.”

This is not a new concept. For years, the US military has been wrestling with the problem of how best to leverage “space power” (i.e., systems, capabilities, and forces) to “close the ever-widening gap between diminishing resources and increasing military commitments.” At least that’s how US Space Command — the forerunner to today’s Space Force — couched the problem in its “Vision for 2020,” published in August 2018. For background, it should be noted that the 1967 Outer Space Treaty did not ban the militarization of space. That agreement simply prohibits the placement of nuclear weapons in space, as well as banning any claims of sovereignty on celestial bodies such as the moon. No other meaningful diplomatic efforts exist to limit other forms of space power.

“Vision for 2020” focused in 2018 on “operational concepts of dominant maneuver, precision engagement, full-dimensional protection, and focused logistics,” which were enabled by “information superiority and technological innovation.” The goal is what the US military refers to as “Full-Spectrum Dominance.” The new “Defense Space Strategy” expands this concept. “The emerging synergy of space superiority,” it notes, “with land, sea, and air superiority, will lead to Full-Spectrum Dominance. Space forces play an increasingly critical role in providing situational awareness (e.g., global communications; precise navigation; timely and accurate missile warning and weather; and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance [ISR]) to US forces.”

Far from a nebulous concept marketed by defense experts to justify bloated military budgets, “information superiority” is a life-and-death reality born of the experiences of US forces in combat. Most weapons systems employed by the US military today were not designed to function seamlessly as part of a singular structure, but rather exist as stand-alone systems designed for a specific need. Interoperability seemed to be a secondary consideration, a reality that hit home with deadly impact in 2005, when a combination of terrain and system incompatibility led to the deaths of 19 US special operations forces in Afghanistan. To solve the problem, the US Air Force fielded a unique aircraft known as the E-11A Battlefield Airborne Communications Node, or BACN, which extended the range of communications channels and enables better connectivity in mountainous terrain.

The US military uses various data-link systems to exchange tactical information, and many cannot work together. For example, the F-15 aircraft cannot communicate with F/A-18 aircraft, and the F/A-18 cannot do the same with B-52 or B-1 bombers. The new F-22 can communicate with other F-22s, but not other aircraft. This lack of compatibility is a major obstacle when aircraft from different services are called upon to provide close air support for forces on the ground. The BACN provides the ability to facilitate this critical communications interoperability.

But the BACN is essentially unique to Afghanistan. In a future conflict involving an adversary possessing modern anti-air capability, the BACN is not an option. It would be shot out of the sky. This is where satellites come into play. In order to achieve information security on the modern battlefield, the US will rely heavily upon space-based assets to “collect, process, and disseminate an uninterrupted flow of information while denying an adversary’s ability to fully leverage the same.”

Space Rivalry

This is not be an easy mission. According to Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Space Policy, Stephan Kitay, “China and Russia have weaponized space and turned it into a war-fighting domain.” In announcing the release of the Defense Space Strategy, Kitay noted that the actions of Russia and China “pose the greatest strategic threat with ongoing development, testing and deployment of counter-space systems and the associated military doctrine designed to hold allied and US space systems at risk.”

Kitay illustrated his point by citing a 2017 Russian operation involving the launch of satellites that then were used to tail an American satellite, before releasing a sub-satellite system the US contends could be used to kill a US satellite. The US has also expressed concerns about Russian tests of an alleged “Direct Ascent Anti-Satellite” missile, the PL-19/Nudol. China, through its SJ-17 project, has likewise demonstrated the ability to perform close approaches and rendezvous operations with satellites in orbit. Like the Russians, the Chinese activities are interpreted as exhibiting a potential satellite-killing technology that threatens existing US satellite architecture.

The Defense Space Strategy underscores an uncomfortable truth. The Pentagon has primarily used space from the perspective of a support function — launching satellites, and monitoring them from afar — rather than using it as the “fourth medium of warfare.” Thus, there is no national security space blueprint worthy of the name. The US has for some time now been building a space-based satellite architecture that is designed to ensure “full-spectrum dominance” on the air, land and sea. Today, the US cannot fight and win a modern conflict without this architecture. As such, any effort undertaken by potential adversaries, such as Russia and China, to disrupt or disable this architecture is viewed as an existential threat that must be countered.

The Defense Space Strategy, while going to great lengths to define a problem and outline a solution, provides no specifics on how the stated goals of “maintaining space superiority” and “ensuring space stability” will be accomplished while continuing to “provide space support to the operational forces.” The new struggle in space is couched in terms of a “great power competition” where ‘China and Russia have weaponized space as a way to deter and counter a possible US intervention during a regional military conflict.”

Destroying the Village to Save It

The focus on the military aspects of space ignores the fact that commercial space architecture, inclusive of the well-known Global Positioning Satellite (GPS) archipelago, makes possible the safe and efficient transport of goods by sea, air and land, as well as provides the underpinning for global financial transactions and sustains the transfer of data on the internet. If this infrastructure were to fail or be destroyed in a “fourth dimensional” conflict, modern society as it is currently defined would cease to exist. In short, any military effort to dominate space in order to preserve either a military or commercial space architecture brings with it entirely counter-productive results. It is the modern-day equivalent of the Vietnam War-era axiom of destroying the village in order to save it.

Over the course of the next 10 years, the Department of Defense, through the vehicle of the new Space Force, will seek to “build a comprehensive military advantage in space” and “shape the strategic environment”. How this will be accomplished is not spelled out, but one can imagine a replay of the kind of “freedom of navigation” exercises currently employed by the US to assert its right to sail the seven seas, but in the continuum of space.

From the US military perspective, parity is not an option. Given the disparity that exists in the role space-based systems play in the command and control of the US military versus Russia and China; any tit-for-tat exchange would result in far worse degradation of US capability over those of an adversary. For the moment, the US will have to suffice with rhetorical deterrence, with US space policy reflecting intent rather than actual capability.

The degree to which Space Force will be able to assert itself successfully into this new “fourth dimension” of warfare remains unclear. One thing, however, is for certain — it will not be doing so in a vacuum. Having identified that space-based connectivity via satellites is the Achilles’ heel of American military might, no potential adversary, whether a “great power” or not, will willingly cede this front to the US. Space has become far more than the “final frontier.” It is the new face of modern warfare. If implemented in earnest, it is a potential death knell for much of modern society.

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