In Defense of Space Control


The issue of space control is back, and I wrote the following piece that was published on the Real Clear Defense website on Monday, April 20, 2015:

In Defense of Space Control

Speaking on April 15 about the growing threat from China, Russia, and others against U.S. military satellites at the 31st National Space Symposium, Deputy Secretary of Defense Robert Work told his audience that, “[w]hile we rely heavily on space capabilities, in both peace and war, we must continue to emphasize space control as challenges arise.”
Judging by the heated reaction to Deputy Secretary Work’s use of the term ‘space control,’ one could be forgiven for thinking that he had just made up U.S. policy on the fly — and that preparations are finally underway to build the Death Star. For example, Theresa Hitchens, a scholar at the University of Maryland’s Center for International and Security Studies and the former director of the United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research, told Breaking Defense that space control “has a connotation regarding offensive activities.” Further, Ms. Hitchens asserts that there seems to be more “aggressive attitudes on threat response” within the U.S. national security space community. Victoria Samson of the Secure World Foundation claims that the mention of space control primes “the pump…for a more active counter space program for the United States.”

Yet Deputy Secretary Work was hardly speaking off the cuff, nor is he the first to mention the term “space control” in recent months – that honor goes to the commander of the 14th Air Force, Lt. Gen. John “Jay” Raymond, in testimony he gave to Congress in late March. The fact is that space control – the ability in peace, crisis and war to assure access to and use of space – has been an enduring feature of U.S. national space policy for several decades. The need to train, equip and prepare to exercise space control, should it be required, has been a continuing and consistent facet of national space policy since at least the Eisenhower administration, and is mentioned explicitly in the space policies of Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and now Barack Obama, all of which are publicly available.

Therefore, when Deputy Secretary Work mentioned space control to his audience in Colorado Springs, he did not do so from a policy and contextual vacuum. Over the past two years there has been an increasing concern within the Obama administration about the growing threats against U.S. military and intelligence space systems. These threats emanate largely from China and Russia, but also from countries such as Iran. The threats themselves range from capabilities that can jam the signals from satellites, to using lasers to dazzle the cameras on U.S. reconnaissance satellites. Additionally, a growing cyber threat against space systems as well as the ongoing testing and development of hit-to-kill antisatellite (ASAT) weapons that can physically destroy satellites in orbit pose increasing threats to U.S. national security.

Further, U.S. concerns over growing threats to satellites are hardly confined to a handful of senior officers at Air Force Space Command or officials in the Pentagon. Instead, officials in the State Department, members of Congress from both sides of the aisle and the president himself have expressed concerns about these threats and the vulnerabilities of U.S. space assets. Just as importantly, the growing threat to space systems is not just a preoccupation of Washington, DC. Officials in Brussels, New Delhi and Tokyo, among others, are also increasingly concerned about the evolving threat environment in space, and they see China and Russia as the primary sources of these threats.

Since the United States and its allies are dependent on these satellites for everything from maintaining and operating critical infrastructure and the everyday functioning of modern society, through to the American way of war itself, these growing threats to satellites can not be ignored by policymakers. Fortunately, since the Eisenhower administration, the U.S. has crafted and evolved a remarkably enduring space policy. The fundamentals of which have scarcely changed over the decades, yet is more than capable of dealing with the growing threat environment in space.

That policy, last updated in 2010, is enabling government officials to carry out several initiatives designed to enable mission assurance by space systems in an increasingly hostile space domain. These include measures to physically protect satellites against threats such as jamming and laser dazzling, as well as creating a new satellite architecture emphasizing resilience and redundancy to mitigate threats such as ASATs. These initiatives are part of the space control mission and do not involve things such as ‘space weapons’ and other exotic or controversial capabilities. If offensive force is ever required to assure U.S. access to its space systems, it will take place in the traditional domains of the land, sea, and air, as well as through the electromagnetic spectrum (EMS) and cyberspace – a contingency that will only come into effect in a time of actual war.

The current and proposed budgets support the claim that offensive force for space control will take place in terrestrial domains, since there is no U.S. plan to deploy (or even develop) weapons in orbit. Conventional weapons and capabilities based in the traditional domains of land, sea and air, as well as the EMS and cyberspace, can achieve the space control mission without even entering space by targeting, and if necessary attacking, adversary jammers and lasers, ASAT launch sites and other capabilities that might threaten friendly satellites. In this regard space control is no different conceptually from the sea and air control that navies and air forces have been employing effectively for a very long time. Rather than implying or suggesting that we are on the cusp of some form of disturbing development in military technology, as critics assert, the actual practice of space control – should it come to that – will be viewed as prosaic when compared to the misinformed hype of its critics. There is nothing in the space control concept that mandates space-based weapons or other exotic capabilities.

Certainly the United States will continue to pursue diplomatic solutions to mitigate the risks posed by the counter-space capabilities being developed by the likes of China and Russia. However, diplomatic success is far from guaranteed due to China’s refusal to engage in direct government-to-government talks on space security, and the breakdown in relations with Russia over its annexation of the Crimea and continued interference in Ukraine. Geopolitics, far from stopping at the edge of space, will always extend to the orbits of Earth, and the United States should not be restrained in its ability to defend its vital interests there — as well as assure access to its own systems, especially in crisis and war.

Space control is a vital element to U.S. space policy, but it is too often naively or disingenuously maligned by critics who seem unable to offer any viable alternative. They are too ready to criticize the United States for its desire to protect its assets in space rather than condemn those who are determined to extend warfare into space by threatening American satellites. The Obama administration deserves credit for taking the threat seriously, and we should all hope that its measures are not only timely but are also sufficient to ensure continued access to space in the coming years.

John B. Sheldon, Ph.D., is the Executive Director of the George C. Marshall Institute.


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2 responses to “In Defense of Space Control

  1. John – enjoyed reading this, and agree with much of what you said, including your main argument. The one area that I think we could debate on (preferably over a nice meal sometime), is the issue of whether the US approach to Space Control that does, as you suggest, not imply space-based weapons, will be sufficient in the end to counter adversary counter-space threats.

    My point is, can the US maintain that policy setting if China and Russia decide to move decisively to deploy space-based weapons? If they are deploying space-based ASATs (both kinetic and non-kinetic kill) in significant numbers, can the US continue to rely on an terrestrial or EM/Cyber approach? I think its one of those ‘Location, Location, Location’ issues. The use of small ASATs – even CubeSat based – deployed in large numbers – would give the Chinese and Russians a decisive first-strike advantage in term of counter-space, if we do not respond in any other way than through terrestrial operations or attacks in EM/Cyberspace. They have space presence – we do not. We might be able to hit C2 networks on the ground – but its not a sure thing. Those C2 satellite control facilities would be defended by sophisticated integrated air defence networks, and both the Chinese and Russians are investing in cyber-defense as much as cyber-offense. Any terrestrial response would be slow, given the distances that platforms and munitions must travel, whilst at the same time, their ASATs are moving rapidly to take our satellites out. They can co-locate CubeSat based ASATs close to our satellites, and their terrestrial jammers and laser dazzler’s can act at the speed of light. My guess is the latter would be mobile, so to attack them, we’d have to locate them first.

    So whilst the US approach is definitely non-escalatory and should be supported, I wonder if at a certain point against an adversary that does not care what other states think, and does not answer to a democratic electorate or a free media, whether the US approach will be sustainable? At a certain point does the US have to accept that it would need to match adversary space weapons development symmetrically? If so, surely it would be prudent to at least prepare for that moment, rather than hoping it never arrives? Hope is not a strategy!

  2. We need a rigorous and scientific understanding of space object behavior, which we are still far from having in any practical sense! Space Object Behavioral Sciences is the field that will merge the hard science of Astrodynamics with the soft science of social interactions and cultural perspectives that also pay a role in how active satellites behave in space! This will be foundational to space control and space domain awareness.

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