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.
I came across this video from 2012 that offers a cool visualization of the maritime domain awareness (MDA) tools provided by FleetMon, a German company that provides automatic identification system (AIS) services.
As Monty Python would say, “And now for something completely different.”
I am delighted to announce that I have been appointed as the Executive Director of the George C. Marshall Institute, in Arlington, Virginia. I have big shoes to fill. The current president, Jeff Kueter, has ran the Institute for over 12 years now, and has garnered it a strong reputation. I hope to be able to continue Jeff’s good work, as well as add my own imprint on the Institute’s work in the coming months and years.
This is an opportunity that presented itself in a very short period of time, but I have been affiliated with the Marshall Institute for six years as a Fellow, and so I am very familiar and supportive of its work and ethos. As many of you know, I own and operate the Torridon Group LLC consulting company, which is doing very well, and I shall be continuing that venture as before.
Whether it be with the Marshall Institute or with the Torridon Group – or both – I look forward to working with many of you in the future!
As part of the great consolidation I have moved my old blog Strategic Bulletin to this new website.
As well as my occasional blog posts, I am also offering consultancy services.
Thanks for joining me here, as well as on this new journey for my wife and I.
Having just returned from seeing the truly excellent The King's Speech, my good friend and Anglophile par excellence Dick Buenneke sent me a link to the latest column in The Economist by Bagehot – a man/woman who should know about all things peculiar about Britain and the British, and can be read here:
I fully understand Bagehot's point, so it is all the more puzzling to me that The King's Speech is the only movie I have seen in my four-or-so years in Alabama that received an applause from the audience as the credits began to roll.
America rightly rejected the claim of divine British rule in the late 18th century, and fought dearly to rid themselves of it. In 21st century America it seems that you cannot escape Royal-mania between the forthcoming nuptials of William and Kate and the Oscar-worthy The King's Speech. What is an anti-monarchist Brit living in America to do?
I cannot recommend the movie and the Bagehot column enough, though see the movie first if you have not done so already.
Conventional wisdom would dictate that I avoid commenting on the DoD decision to ask its employees (of which I am one) not to visit the Wikileaks website. But I'll ignore conventional wisdom and run the risk of getting in to trouble from my superiors.
Why? Because the order to not visit the Wikileaks site is both unenforceable if employees seek to do so on their personal computers from home, and, more importantly, because the decision reveals that the DoD truly is the emperor with no clothes. The Taliban, and others, can read these documents to their hearts content, while those of us who work for Uncle Sam cannot. Seriously? Yes, seriously. The official line is that these documents have yet to be 'declassified' by the proper authorities, even though Mullah Omar, my Mum, and Tarquin the anti-war protester are all avidly reading them.
What was truly revealing about the classified documents leaked by Wikileaks to The New York Times, The Guardian, and Der Spiegel were not their actual contents of accidental Afghan civilian deaths resulting from the actions of coalition forces, or that the Taliban have been dabbling with heat-seeking anti-aircraft missiles, or even that the Pakistani ISI have been speaking out of both sides of their mouth. Oh the shock and horror! None of these are new to anyone who has been assiduously following the news about AfPak. No, what the 15,000 or so classified documents obtained and leaked by Wikileaks truly reveal is that the U.S. Government, and the Department of Defense especially, would classify the time of day if they thought they could get away with it.
The automatic tendency to not just classify information that is already in the public domain, but to then actually over-classify it is the real scandal here. By (over)classifying information that is already in the public domain we end up, paradoxically, not protecting the information that needs to be classified. How so? Well, if what you read in the news routinely ends up being classified why should you take the classification itself seriously? If what is widely known is labeled 'Secret' then that is not much of a secret.
I have no time for the founder of Wikileaks, Julian Assange, and the U.S. Army PFC, Bradley Manning, who originally leaked the documents to Assange. Their political worldviews strikes me as naive at best, disingenuous at worst. But it should be noted that while the documents obtained by Wikileaks remain classified until further notice, the nature of the information itself has been well-known long before most of us heard of Wikileaks. We know that there have been accidental deaths of Afghan civilians that are a direct result of the actions of coalition forces. We know that the Taliban have used man-portable heat-seeking anti-aircraft missile launchers to down coalition aircraft. And we know that elements of the Pakistani government are in cahoots with the Taliban.
Given that protecting classified information actually costs the taxpayer billions of dollars each year in terms of the security vetting of civilian and military personnel and the security of the actual information and the facilities they are stored in, it is scandalous that a large proportion of classified information probably need no be classified at all, or should be reclassified at a lower classification. How many billions of dollars are being wasted as a result?
Secretary of Defense Robert Gates is looking to cut billions from a supposedly bloated defense budget – if he's serious then the truly bloated classification system might be a good place to start – and we might actually end up protecting real secrets.