The US Needs to Take Action to Deter Near-Peer Rivals in Space

Photo by NASA on Unsplash

Earlier this June, the Department of Defense released the unclassified summary of its 2020 Defense Space Strategy, which openly designates space as a “distinct warfighting domain,” a distinction that only recently gained national policy acceptance. With this document, the DoD now has the authorization to begin preparing to deter potential space adversaries, and should deterrence fail, to win a conflict that extends into space.

This important update to the near-decade-old National Security Space Strategy follows an April announcement by U.S. Space Command that Russia conducted a direct-ascent anti-satellite (DA-ASAT) missile test that is purportedly capable of destroying low-Earth orbit satellites. This test stands in stark contrast to Russia’s frequent claims that it has tried to prevent an arms race and avoided introducing weapons into space.

Unlike its 2011 predecessor, the 2020 Defense Space Strategy explicitly calls out Russia and China as representing the “greatest strategic threat due to their development, testing, and deployment of counterspace capabilities.”

The addition of the Russian threat is a crucial distinction. In the last decade, Russia has reactivated some of its Soviet-era counter-space weapons programs. Meanwhile, China has continued to refine and develop its own counter-space capabilities.

Russia is reportedly developing three DA-ASAT systems that could target low-earth orbit assets: Nudol, a ground-launched ballistic missile; Kontakt, an air-launched interceptor; and the S-500, the latest iteration of its exoatmospheric ballistic missile defense system. At this point in time, none are believed to be fully operational.

China, however, possesses at least three DA-ASAT programs and demonstrated its satellite-killing abilities in 2007 by destroying one of its own weather satellites. We observed this test in real time, and we were incredulous that China would imperil all space-faring nations by producing a large quantity of debris in LEO that still represents a hazard to satellites, including the International Space Station.

While China has since refrained from conducting subsequent DA-ASAT tests that produce orbital debris, it has continued refining its kinetic kill vehicle capabilities to initiate these attacks from mobile launch platforms as well as to potentially target satellites located in either medium Earth orbit or even higher in geosynchronous orbit. In short, satellites in all Earth orbits are now threatened by China’s weapons.

Even more concerning are Russian and Chinese advances in co-orbital systems that are supposedly peaceful systems with benign capabilities such as on-orbit servicing and active debris removal. These same systems can be used for more nefarious purposes, such as performing surveillance on a rival nation’s satellite and then maneuvering closer to either damage or disable it.

While China thus far has confined its near approaches to its own satellites, Russia has deliberately maneuvered a few of its own satellites close to American ones as well as those belonging to our European allies. One such incident occurred in January when the Russian satellites Cosmos-2542 and Cosmos-2543 repeatedly approached one of the U.S. National Reconnaissance Office’s primary satellites.

At the time, Gen. John Raymond, commander of U.S. Space Command and the chief of the U.S. Space Force, rightly described Russia’s actions as irresponsible with the “potential to create a dangerous situation.” These continuing aggressive actions have prompted the United States and many other space-faring nations to call for “rules of the road” for satellite operators of all nations.

Other ways to degrade or destroy satellites include electronic warfare, ground and/or spacecraft computer intrusions, and lasers attacks. While the unclassified summary of the Defense Space Strategy doesn’t go into specific detail on these various types of threats, their use is certainly conceivable given the threats the same types of systems pose to our air, land and sea forces.

The Defense Space Strategy does highlight a critical point: Both China and Russia consider denying access to space assets to be critical aspects of their strategy. Accordingly, they are developing extensive counter-space systems that will at least degrade and possibly eliminate the space capabilities that have enabled our air, land and sea forces to be dominant in every conflict since Desert Storm.

The United States must resolve to make its space assets more resilient to interference or attack. In addition, the U.S. must build the capability to deny potential adversaries the use of their space assets to accomplish their war-fighting objectives. During the Cold War, in response to the Soviet Union deploying an ASAT system, the United States developed its own DA-ASAT systems. One of these used a modified F-15A fighter aircraft to fire a specially designed missile that would strike LEO targets. Following a successful test of the missile, the Soviet Union and the U.S. tacitly agreed that the use of such weapons was not in either nations’ best interests.

The point here is that defensive systems alone are not adequate. Successful deterrence in space requires the development of both offensive and defensive capabilities that will force adversaries to question the wisdom of interfering with U.S. space systems.

Looking ahead, it is prudent military planning to anticipate that our vital space-based infrastructure will be targeted in future conflicts. To deter these attacks and, if necessary, defeat them, the United States must develop and field both offensive and defensive capabilities that will make it clear to Russia and China that we will prevail in any conflict that extends into the space domain.

Retired U.S. Air Force Gen. Kevin P. Chilton served as the head of U.S. Strategic Command. He is currently a member of the Jewish Institute for National Security of America’s board of advisers and a participant of JINSA’s 2017 Generals and Admirals Program. Retired U.S. Air Force Gen. William Shelton served as the head of Air Force Space Command and was a participant of JINSA‘s 2017 Generals and Admirals Program.

Originally published in Defense News