Can the U.S. continue to dominate Space : The U.S. Department of Defense released its first-ever National Security Space Strategy (NSSS), on Feb. 4.

Can the Pentagon afford to protect its orbital interests?

Will diplomacy and soft power be enough to defend space?

The U.S. Department of Defense released its first-ever National Security Space Strategy (NSSS), on Feb. 4. The document “seeks to maintain and enhance the national security benefits” the United States derives from its activities and capabilities in space. This week, Gregory Schulte, deputy assistant secretary of defense for space policy, explained the new policy in an essay for Foreign Policy. Schulte described the benefits the United States receives from a wide variety of surveillance, communications, and navigation satellites. He also noted the increasing competition among a growing number of players who are seeking their own advantageous positions in orbit. Schulte explained some clever diplomatic and soft-power strategies that U.S. officials hope will protect the country’s space interests, along with some hedges in case the soft-power strategies fail. However, growing those hedges could get very expensive for the Pentagon.

Of greatest worry to the Pentagon is the vulnerability of its satellites to attack. In 2007, China shot down one of its old weather satellites with a direct-ascent missile, demonstrating its ability to threaten the space systems on which U.S. military forces depend. In addition to missile attack, many commercial and Defense Department satellites are also vulnerable to directed energy (laser) attack and to electronic jamming. U.S. adversaries may view attacks on U.S. satellites as a high-payoff/low-risk strategy. By attacking U.S. satellites, an adversary could hobble U.S. military forces without the usual indications of warfare, at least in the public’s perception. For example, without any images of explosions, burning buildings, or wounded civilians, U.S. policymakers might find it difficult to generate political and diplomatic support for a military response.

As Schulte explained, U.S. officials hope to use diplomacy and soft-power tools to deter attacks on satellite networks. The first such hoped-for line of deterrence is to establish a code of conduct and international norms against attacks on space infrastructure. A second strategy is for the United States to share some its defense-related space platforms with other countries. In this case, an adversary with designs on U.S. space assets would be forced to attack a shared platform, and thus attack an alliance of countries and not just the United States. U.S. officials hope that such a complication would deter such an attack in the first place.

Such soft-power methods might not be effective against determined adversaries who may already be isolated from the international system and thus have little more to lose from violating international norms or alliances. The NSSS hedges against the failure of the soft-power approaches. Proposed hedges include hardening satellites against kinetic and electronic attack and keeping redundant satellites standing by in launch position to rapidly replace those destroyed. Another hedge is to vastly increase the number of reconnaissance aircraft and terrestrial communication platforms as substitutes for space-based systems. Finally, the Air Force — operator of the global positioning navigation satellite system and thus the service most familiar with that system’s vulnerabilities — is seeking in its technology roadmap to devise a new system of precise navigation that won’t rely on satellites. Hedging against the vulnerability of space-based systems will not be cheap.

And if soft-power strategies and redundant hedges fail, the Pentagon reserves the right, as Schulte explained at a Pentagon briefing “to respond in self-defense to attacks on space. And the response may not be in space either.” With much more to lose in space than any other adversary, an escalating war in space is the last thing the Pentagon would like to see. Thus the threat to shift the mode of retaliation to terrain an adversary may value most.

Although the U.S. government’s diplomatic and soft-power tactics to defend its interests in space are clever, they may not be enough against rogue state or non-state actors with few of their own assets at risk. In this case, the Pentagon will need to harden and diversify its space assets or develop terrestrial work-arounds that avoid its vulnerabilities in space. Those costly solutions could not come at a worse time for the Pentagon’s budget masters.

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