We Know What Space Wars Will Look Like

| Walter Pincus
Walter Pincus
Senior National Security Columnist, The Cipher Brief

Walter Pincus is a contributing senior national security columnist for The Cipher Brief. He spent forty years at The Washington Post, writing on topics from nuclear weapons to politics.

OPINION — “The United States must now be prepared for conflict to extend to, or even to originate in or from, space.”

That was a statement from Acting Assistant Secretary of Defense for Space Policy John D. Hill last Wednesday before the Senate Armed Services Subcommittee on Strategic Forces.

As with the cyber domain, space has become a contested arena and one in which the U.S. has grown heavily dependent.

“Space-based capabilities contribute to our modern economy, our democratic society, our military power and our way of life,” Hill said, “and space security is about the growing ability of others to deny those benefits as well as to leverage the power of their own space-based capabilities to their own competitive advantage.  Most people have very little appreciation for how much of their daily life is intertwined with space, and how much of our national security power is based on an assumption of assured access to, and use of, space.”

And like cyber, “these space-based capabilities underpin the power of the Joint Force across all domains, they are integral to our deterrent capacity, and they have become a military center of gravity,” Hill said.

Gen. David Thompson, Space Force Vice Chief of Space Operations, told the subcommittee, “Both China and Russia are deeply engaged in this competition, aggressively and successfully pursuing newer, better, and more numerous space assets and counter space weapons that demonstrate technological leadership, expand their share of the global space marketplace, and prepare them to negate U.S. space capabilities when called upon in war.” Hill said, “Russia and China view space as critical to modern warfare and see the use of counter space capabilities as both a means of reducing U.S. effectiveness and winning future wars.”

The same is said of cyber. However, unlike cyber, where undeclared conflict is taking place on an almost daily basis, space to date has remained relatively peaceful, although weapons are being prepared.

Gen. Thompson said, “Today China operates anti-satellite missiles, lasers, and jammers, as well as a satellite in geostationary Earth orbit fitted with a grappling arm. Meanwhile, Russia has deployed lasers and jammers of its own, and beginning in 2019, has tested two anti-satellite missiles, used a military ‘inspector’ satellite to shadow U.S. platforms, and fired a projectile from the same ‘inspector’ satellite, one of seven counter space prototypes Russia has in low Earth orbit. Any one of these Chinese or Russian threats is potentially crippling if not accounted for, but the single greatest challenge lies in the need to counter all of them at once.”

For the U.S., where defense of American satellites are vital, Hill said, “The old era where you had so much capability aggregated to do so many missions on one platform [made] a very high value target…Modern capabilities make them very simple to take down –a bad equation.” To remedy that, Hill said, “We switch the architecture – many small satellites, many more targets, not as much value in each target.”

He described how space could be going through what had happened in other fighting domains. “Yesterday’s systems became vulnerable to tomorrow’s threat,” Hill said, “but we found a new way to be resilient and also found a way to reconstitute capabilities we thought we lost.”

The U.S. is far from standing still.


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Hill said, “First, we are building a comprehensive military advantage in space. Notable here is the work of the USSF (U.S. Space Force) and the Space Development Agency to field assured space capabilities and capabilities that counter hostile use of space, as well as the USSF’s efforts to develop the military doctrinal foundations of military space power and the associated space war fighting expertise and culture.”

A major priority, Thompson told the subcommittee, was “to deliver the first resilient geosynchronous satellite for the Next-Generation Overhead Persistent Infrared (Next-Gen OPIR) satellite system to meet the war fighter’s 2025 need date. Delivering this missile warning system is essential to the future force.” It “enhances detection and improves reporting of intercontinental ballistic missile launches, submarine-launched ballistic missile launches, and tactical ballistic missile launches,” according to a January Space Force release that accompanied the announcement of a $4.9 billion contract to Lockheed Martin Space for three such satellites and their ground mission software.

The Biden team’s fiscal 2022 Space Force budget request of $17.4 billion, released last Friday, devotes $11.3 billion to research and development. It lists “provide resilient Missile Warning and Missile Tracking” as its first item to focus on, seeking overall, $2.6 billion for Next-Generation OPIR missile warning systems, up $132 million from previous planning.

Thompson told the senators that Space Force had initiated planning for a National Space Intelligence Center “to provide foundational scientific and technical intelligence, as well as operational space intelligence to the [military] Services, CCMDS [combatant commanders], and the Intelligence Community (IC).” The Biden budget request seeks an added $20 million for that facility.

Biden’s budget proposal also added $6 million more for the Space Warfighting Analysis Center, which Thompson told the Senate subcommittee would do “analysis, modeling, war gaming, and experimentation to generate new operational concepts and force design options for the Space Force” That Center also “has taken on the role of integrating these activities across the DoD and with the IC, as well,” he added.

But, as with cyber, the ability to deter bad actions in space does not yet exist.

Late in the hearing, Subcommittee Chairman Sen. Angus King (I-Maine) noted that American officials hesitate to speak about U.S. offensive space weapons. King then asked, “Is it necessary to have a capability that will deter our adversaries from exercising offensive weapons against our satellites? Our whole national security strategy rests upon deterrence. Do we need to develop capabilities and communicate them to our adversaries in order to have an effective deterrent?”

Hill had earlier explained, “At its core, deterrence is about persuading an opponent not to take certain actions by altering the opponent’s perception of the probability of success and the probability of significant negative consequences. Approaches to deterrence consist of two broad classes: (1) deterrence by denial; and (2) deterrence by cost imposition, including through both military and non-military means.”

This time he said, “One person’s active defense is another person’s offensive capability.” Sen. Deb Fischer (R-Neb.), in an exchange with Hill, focused on a Chinese satellite already in space that has a grappling arm that can be used to fix a satellite, but it also could be used to take one down. “A perfect example,” Hill said.

“Figuring out the pieces of where the space domain fits into the totality of deterring aggression is one of the key questions we have to work on,” Hill said. Chairman King compared it to 3-D chess. “We are dealing in a three-dimensional process of defense and countermeasures,” he said.

Asked by Fischer about treaties or even establishing norms of behavior in space, Hill responded, “I think treaties are a long ways away, much less getting it to the negotiating table, much less through the United States government processes for treaty ratification and many other government processes as well. This is why our focus has been on the more voluntary, non-binding measures.”

As with cyber warfare, space defense offers no easy answers.

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The Author is Walter Pincus

Pulitzer Prize Winning Journalist Walter Pincus is a contributing senior national security columnist for The Cipher Brief. He spent forty years at The Washington Post, writing on topics from nuclear weapons to politics.  He is the author of Blown to Hell: America's Deadly Betrayal of the Marshall Islanders (releasing in November 2021)  He also won an Emmy in 1981 and the... Read More

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