We live in a world where the ubiquitous benefits of space not only affect many aspects of our everyday lives, but also almost every aspect of modern military operations. Indeed, the growth and development of the global economy has heralded a new era where an ever-increasing number of nations and organizations use space for the associated military, commercial, military, and scientific benefits. The now-pervasive and interconnected nature of space capabilities and the world’s growing dependence on them mean that “irresponsible acts” in space can have worldwide, indiscriminate, and damaging consequences on Earth.1
Space capabilities offer the United States unprecedented and unequaled national-security advantages in worldwide situational awareness and decision superiority. These advantages permit national leaders to make more informed decisions based on a better understanding of the strategic, operational and tactical landscapes. Space systems also deliver unmatched command and control (C2); communications; intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR); and positioning, navigation, and timing services—enabling the military to “strike with precision, navigate with accuracy, communicate with certainty, and see the battlefield with clarity.”2 All in all, these space-enabled information services (SEIS) have evolved from critical force enablers to become core force capabilities, the lifeblood of U.S. military preeminence, and thus require safeguarding. Therefore, enhancing and “securing” SEIS is now essential to U.S. national security. Space, a global commons that provides universal utilities, is becoming increasingly “congested, contested, and competitive” and less permissive for the United States.3 Emerging competitors (and possible future adversaries) are developing significant capabilities to negate U.S. strategic advantages in space and to protect their own growing reliance on SEIS.
American space activities for the coming years are still governed by the 2010 National Space Policy (NSP), 2011 National Security Space Strategy (NSSS), and 2012 Department of Defense Space Policy (DSP). In general, these policy documents did an outstanding job scoping and framing the problem, defining the challenges, identifying the opportunities, setting the goals, balancing the many stakeholders’ equities, and managing the scarce resources. But like all policies and strategies, they are meant to be dynamic and driven by the rapidly maturing environment that they seek to shape and influence. Many observers and analysts believe that within the next five to ten years the developing space environment will be increasingly destabilized due to the continued development, deployment, and proliferation of robust offensive counter-space (OCS) capabilities by potential adversaries.4 Hence, the next strategic guidance should take into account the following “military space” considerations for a deeper, more balanced U.S. posture.
Guarantor of Freedom
One of the principal goals of the NSP, NSSS, and DSP is maintaining the stability, security, sustainability, and free access to and use of space for all. The NSP specifically calls for the conduct of space operations without interference and in ways that promote transparency and enable the sharing of benefits provided by the peaceful use of space. These goals are consistent with the viewpoints expressed by the United Nations in 2009, supporting the conduct of space activities for peaceful purposes and benefit of all mankind.5 There are historical precedents for guiding our consideration of space security and stability, the naval precedent perhaps foremost. Empirical evidence suggests that “great power status for a maritime nation corresponds with large naval forces that guarantee the freedom of the seas and economic prosperity for that nation as well as other nations.”6 For more than 500 years, great nations maintained powerful and globally deployed navies to guarantee the freedom of the seas for all (net provider of maritime security), a pre-condition for international trade, economic development, and global prosperity underwritten by naval power ensuring the free flow of maritime commerce. By and large, the “global system of commerce has simply worked best when there was a preeminent naval power ensuring the seas were free and open to commerce among all nations” as is the case now with the globally deployed U.S. Navy.7
As the current guarantor of the global economy and a provider of security, stability, and leadership, the United States provides global public services that others cannot. Without the stabilizing presence of the U.S. Navy operating in the South China Sea, for example, Chinese assertiveness could destabilize the region, damaging both regional and global commerce and possibly leading to an unwanted conflict. Thus, there is a strong need for a comparable guarantor of the freedom of space to ensure the free flow of space commerce, a leadership role that calls out to the United States, with the support of its allies.
This would demand more analysis and planning to address the anticipated challenges of domestic fiscal constraints; emerging and resurgent space powers; potentially destabilizing space competition; escalation control; and establishing and maintaining allies and partners for collective space security, risk sharing, and burden sharing—similar to the challenges now facing the U.S. rebalance toward the Indo-Asia-Pacific region. The real challenge will be convincing national leaders to first accept, and then manage the cost of doing so. All things considered, it may be more cost-effective to invest now and maintain the current strategic advantages in space as part of the Third Offset Strategy than pay more later to make up in diminished space capabilities and capacities while accepting greater risk in the interim.8
Just as maritime preeminence is necessary to guarantee the freedom of the seas, so too is space preeminence needed to guarantee the freedom of space. The extant strategic guidance implicitly acknowledges the necessity of such preeminence to enable stated goals, objectives, and space mission areas, but stopped short of explicitly affirming them outright. The next policies should openly commit the United States to maintaining that “degree of preeminence in space of one force over another that permits the conduct of operations by the former at a given time and place without prohibitive interference by the opposing force (freedom of action).” Such a preeminent position does not imply space dominance, which is difficult to sustain in any event, given the globalized technology growth and likely offsetting space countermeasures. By embracing space preeminence, the United States will better protect its critical strengths in space, enhance its space deterrence posture, prolong its terrestrial preeminence, and reverse the growing perception of American decline. Having complementary policies and strategies in both contested domains would foster the unity of effort, optimize resource allocation, send a strong deterrent message to potential adversaries, and reassure allies and partners. To do otherwise would invite strategic misalignment and miscommunications.
Full-Spectrum Space Deterrence
Many strategists view space deterrence through the lens of denying benefit, imposing cost, and encouraging restraint.9 In terms of deterrence, the current strategic guidance appears to rely heavily on denying benefit (resilience, mission assurance, shared reliance, and capability and capacity to operate in and through a degraded, disrupted, or denied space environment) to deter and defeat aggression by blunting the adversary’s OCS effectiveness. The other viable deterrent tools (threat of preemption, active defense, and red line) appear to be neither considered nor accepted. This narrower take on space deterrence is largely rooted in the supposition of assured resilience, and therefore may have put too much emphasis on denying benefit at the expense of imposing cost and encouraging restraint. The United States may want to adopt a broader, more complete, and balanced approach toward space deterrence if it hopes to fully deter or make an adversary think that starting a war or escalating a conflict would be worse than not doing so, particularly if that adversary is less reliant on SEIS than the United States. In any event, current guidance seems muted on these highly important issues.
Tactical preemption and active defense: The language and tone of the standing strategic guidance are largely ambiguous in terms of deterrence. Imprecise language can be inadvertently misinterpreted by a potential adversary as perceived U.S. willingness to absorb a possibly disabling first strike, and could encourage a highly destabilizing preemptive attack since the United States has far more to lose in terms of warfighting capabilities than the attacker. Holding space assets at risk seems far easier and cheaper than defending them considering the wide range of threat vectors, large target sets, and predictable satellite orbital profiles. Moreover, absorbing such a first strike with all of its potential destructiveness, and then hitting back at an adversary fully anticipating a retaliatory strike is militarily risky. The preemptive attack itself could also be potentially devastating in view of the United States’ high economic and military reliance on space assets; the unknown extent that resilience can be built into space systems that could retard the degradation of SEIS; undetermined survivability of second-strike capabilities after absorbing a potentially disabling first strike; and the likely military degradation that even a more resilient space infrastructure would sustain. Thus, the insertion of appropriate “tactical preemption and tactical active defense” language into the next strategic guidance keeps all deterrent options on the table, and coupled with resilience and declaratory statements may give greater pause to any potential adversary contemplating a highly destabilizing first strike.
Red lines: Declaratory statements of red lines—actions beyond which would trigger a significant U.S. response—are one way to shape and influence an adversary’s risk perception and calculus, lower the likelihood of misinterpretation, promote transparency, and encourage restraint. They make it explicit that certain actions carry unacceptable risks and consequences, and clearly lay out the conditions for retaliation. In contrast, “ambiguity in deterrent threats, often held up as strategically artful, may actually encourage adversary’s miscalculation and lead to greater risk taking.”10 Current U.S. declaratory space statements are deliberately vague to provide national leaders a wide range of policy options. The unintended consequences of such political flexibility might be an adversary not knowing what to expect, being surprised by the response, and misinterpreting the intent of the response.
Therefore, declaratory statements may be warranted for space capabilities relating to missile warning, C2 of nuclear forces, and positioning, navigation, and timing systems relating to key force-projection capabilities. Attacks on these critical space systems should be declared unacceptable and that they will be met with dire consequences—keeping the consequences deliberately vague in this case. Potential adversaries do not need to know how, when, and where the United States would retaliate, just that we would.
OCS capabilities: That being said, red lines only work if they are credible and backed up by proven capabilities to carry out the deterrent threats. Continued U.S. investments in credible OCS capabilities are therefore still needed. The heart of the matter remains what type, how much, and to what extent should they be publicly disclosed. Some argue none or limited quantities are required while others call for robust OCS capabilities. Whatever the right answer may be, it is difficult to see how one can deter without some OCS capabilities. It may be best for now to keep these deliberately vague. Potential adversaries do not need to know what type or how much the United States has, just that it has the capabilities to act if it so chooses.
The development, deployment, and employment of OCS capabilities is politically risky and may lead to space instability if not appropriately managed by more international legal conventions. Nevertheless, they are necessary to enable space warfighting capability and full-spectrum space deterrence. A credible second-strike capability requires credible OCS capabilities, preferably ones that are the least destabilizing. The United States also risks falling behind potential competitors such as China and Russia in OCS capabilities. Both nations appear to be unilaterally and aggressively pursuing robust OCS capabilities of their own.
Generally speaking, OCS capabilities such as space preeminence are implicitly acknowledged in the NSP, NSSS, and DSP, but not openly stated. The clearest declaration is contained in the DSP’s statements on space-force application and space-control plans and activities. The statements suggest the need for OCS capabilities to enable a broad range of response options, but rightly omit any guidance of when, how, and under what circumstances to employ such capabilities.
Bring Back USSPACECOM
The DSP delineates DOD responsibilities for space-related operations and activities—particularly in the space mission areas of force enhancement, support, control, and force application. The preponderance of the space mission tasks are assigned to U.S. Strategic Command (USSTRATCOM), which is also responsible for nuclear C2, global strike, global missile defense, global C4ISR, combating weapons of mass destruction, and cyberspace operations. The growing demands and requirements of a more contested space domain in an increasingly constrained budget environment suggest bringing back USSPACECOM as a viable means of providing greater focus on the space mission and better protecting American critical strengths in space. With so many competing demands for scarce resources, this vital mission risks getting lost in the shuffle.
USSPACECOM was established as a unified combatant command in 1985 to help institutionalize the military use of space and coordinate all military space operations. As part of then-DOD transformation efforts and to make room for then newly formed U.S. Northern Command, then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld merged USSPACECOM into USSTRATCOM in 2002. The space mission was then delegated to the Joint Functional Component Command for Space (JFCC SPACE). Supported by Air Force Space Command (AFSPC), JFCC SPACE plans, tasks, directs, assesses, and executes space operations as the Global Space Coordinating Authority, and exercises operational control of designated space and missile warning forces on behalf of USSTRATCOM. The commander of JFCC SPACE is also dual-hatted as the commander of the 14th Air Force, which reports directly to AFSPC—a potential conflict of interest.
The space mission has fluctuated in terms of national attention and public interest, and become more Air Force –centric through the years. Policymakers and warfighters presently appear more fixated on the Indo-Asia-Pacific region and cyberspace than space—despite the fact that space capabilities enable operations in those contested domains. The other services willingly relegated the space mission to the Air Force (the DOD’s Executive Agent for space matters and JFCC SPACE) with the general understanding (and implicit agreement) that most space requirements would be considered joint requirements. But as the DOD budget steadily shrank, programmatic choices seemingly became more service-oriented as evidenced by the development of the new constellation of weather satellites. The Air Force views the constellation more as a “service” requirement, while the Navy views it more as a “joint” requirement that therefore should be funded accordingly. This sort of fiscal disagreement may become more frequent as the Pentagon’s space funding is projected to fall 37 percent over the next four years.11
All in all, bringing back USSPACECOM as a “sub-unified combatant command under USSTRATCOM” would make strategic and operational sense, ensure a sharper focus on strengthening our space infrastructure and ability to deter, and would be consistent with the 2014 Quadrennial Defense Review and the defense secretary’s identification of space capabilities as a critical budget priority. Using U.S. Cyber Command (USCYBERCOM) as an organizational model, USSTRATCOM can elevate JFCC SPACE (three-star command) to become USSPACECOM (four-star command) supported by the National Reconnaissance Office much like the Defense Information Systems Agency supports USCYBERCOM. The realignment can be done sensibly by restructuring the command relations, authorities, and forces so that most of the resources are drawn from existing commands to lessen the transition costs and realize the returns on investment for years to come. If implemented well, USSPACECOM can raise the national priority of the space mission, provide a stronger resource advocacy, give the other services a greater say in the requirements process, enhance integration with other military capabilities, foster unity of effort and command, optimize resource allocation, and promote greater space-cyberspace synergy with USCYBERCOM (the other sub-unified combatant command under USSTRATCOM).
Space has indeed become more and more congested, contested, and competitive. The scope, nature, and extent of operations and activities there have changed significantly since the dawn of the Space Age to include the ever-increasing number of nations and organizations using it for economic, military, commercial, and scientific benefits, and the necessity of space systems for national security. All major space-faring nations rely on space capabilities, but none more so than the United States. We have a lot more to lose, and must take all necessary measures to protect our critical strengths in space and preserve our economic prosperity on Earth. In a rapidly changing space environment, we must continuously assess and adjust our posture to maintain and enhance our strategic advantages. Otherwise, we risk losing in space and consequently losing on Earth.
2. National Security Space Strategy (NSSS), January 2011, www.dni.gov/files/documents/Newsroom/Reports%20and%20Pubs/2011_nationalsecurityspacestrategy.pdf. General Robert Kehler, former Commander of U.S. Strategic Command (USSTRATCOM).
3. NSSS, January 2011.
4. “Crisis Stability in Space,” Space Stability Workshop, U.S. Institute of Peace, 19-20 November 2013.
5. United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space, Towards a UN Space Policy, June 2009.
6. Bryan McGrath, “The U.S. Navy: Five Questions to Ponder,” War on the Rocks, 18 November 2013, www.warontherocks.com/2013/11/the-u-s-navy-5-questions-to-ponder/.
8. Sydney J. Freedberg Jr., “We’ll Unveil Third Offset Details in FY17 Budget, Except the Black Part: Bob Work,” Breaking Defense, 3 November 2015, www.breakingdefense.com/2015/11/well-unveil-third-offset-strategy-in-fy17-budget-except-the-black-part-bob-work/.
9. Office of the Undersecretary of Defense for Policy, “Finding Space Deterrence—Toward a General Framework for ‘Space Deterrence’,” Strategic Studies Quarterly, Winter 2011, www.au.af.mil/au/ssq/2011/winter/finchsteene.pdf. Anti-satellite Weapons, Deterrence, and Sino-American Space Relations, Stimson Center, Michael Krepon and Julia Thompson (editors), September 2013.
10. James Lewis, “Reconsidering Deterrence for Space and Cyberspace,” Anti-satellite Weapons, Stimson Center.
11. Marcus Weisgerber, “U.S. Space Defense Funding Drops From Previous Projects,” Defense News, 6 May 2014, http://archive.defensenews.com/article/20140506/DEFREG02/305060022/US-Space-Defense-Funding-Drops-From-Previous-Projections.
Captain Pham is assigned to PACOM and is a former Federal Executive Fellow at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory.