The U.S. defence strategy in outer space: A plan in which no one wins

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On June 18, the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) released a public summary of its updated Defense Space Strategy. Making public the military’s approach to space is a critical transparency and confidence-building measure (TCBM), enhancing the security of the space environment for all actors. As many states fail to provide such information, the United States should be applauded for this display of openness.

But not for the content, which advances a glossy image of U.S. superiority and warfighting in space that camouflages costs and contradictions.

A competitive arena

The current space strategy depicts outer space as an already weaponized (by Russia and China) arena of competition among the great powers. The United States enters this arena intent on ensuring U.S. space superiority while maintaining space stability.

How? By meeting three objectives: “Maintain Space Superiority; Provide Space Support to National, Joint, and Combined Operations; and Ensure Space Stability.”

Militaries often describe their business as “winning wars” and the space strategy is no different. The public summary presents a dangerously sterilized image of successful “warfighting” in space. It emphasizes the essential role of space capabilities in national security and warfighting operations around the globe, but says little about what will take place in space.

What does it mean to wage war in outer space? In the past, kinetic anti-satellite tests have caused almost unsustainable damage to this fragile environment. A violent conflict would produce horrific amounts of debris, contaminating the space environment and Earth’s atmosphere.

This harm cannot be contained. There is no separate zone in outer space for warfighting. And while there are dedicated military capabilities, satellites often support a variety of integrated military, commercial and civilian uses, users, and applications. War in outer space would inflict unimaginable costs. In such a conflict, there could be no winners.

No doubt for this reason, the defence space strategy aims to avoid the use of force in outer space, putting an emphasis on shaping and maintaining the stability of the “strategic” environment. But the journey that must be taken to achieve this laudable goal is fraught with difficulties.

Deterrence

A darling of military strategy, deterrence is part of every component of the revised space strategy. But the strategy fails to mention that space deterrence is now deeply and dangerously entangled with nuclear deterrence.

Marking a grave departure in nuclear strategy, the 2018 Nuclear Posture Review extended the conditions under which the United States might use nuclear weapons to include “significant non-nuclear strategic attacks.” Space assets are key U.S. strategic military capabilities. This point was reiterated as recently as this past April by Assistant Secretary of State for International Security and Nonproliferation Christopher Ford. Russia adopted a similar policy by early June.

This situation quickly becomes frighteningly complex. The effective command and control of nuclear-weapon systems—weapons of mass destruction—rely on space assets, which are put at risk when outer space is seen as a legitimate domain of warfighting. Inadequate control or a perceived unreliability of these systems means that nuclear weapons could be employed inadvertently or pre-emptively. The potential for nuclear retaliation in response to suspected interference with these space systems is but one more tripwire in in an expanding nuclear trap.

There are others. In fact, all satellites used for the command and control of all military capabilities are lumped into this deterrence calculation. The United States has hundreds of military satellites, and relies on countless other foreign and commercial satellites for essential military services. Are all considered strategic? And what constitutes an attack? The opportunities for misperceptions and unintended escalation of conflict are mind-boggling.

An arms race in outer space

While the U.S. strategy emphasizes “space superiority” and “unfettered access” to space, in an era of “great power competition,” such superiority will be contested. Indeed, the plan includes the intention to “develop and field capabilities that counter hostile use of space.” This is a recipe for an arms race in space, of which there is already evidence.

To be sure, the strategy also includes the now standard U.S. promotion of “responsible behavior” in outer space. In a domain with few legal or other governance mechanisms to moderate military activities and rapidly changing capabilities, any effort to identify behaviours that are deemed threatening and those that make others feels safer is important.

Such norms can prevent unintentional escalation and reveal harmful activities. My current research suggests that both a need and an opportunity for such norms are emerging. But without good-faith leadership and reciprocal efforts, the focus on responsible behaviour could be nothing more than political rhetoric.

A battle for hearts and minds

Clearly, part of the process to establish and enforce norms is rhetorical: using language to shape what people believe to be appropriate behaviour and to shame those who violate its etiquette. This battle for the hearts and minds of the international community is clear in the strategy’s commitment to “inform international and public audiences of growing adversarial threats in space.” But more is needed.

To work as stabilizing measures, norms must be backed up by mutual action and reciprocity. Instead, the summary emphasizes “dominance” and “superiority.” It’s hard to see how this emphasis will contribute to good behaviour by others, particularly given the ongoing absence of efforts to control the rapidly simmering arms race.

The absence of any commitment to explore arms control in space in the new space strategy is not surprising. Christopher Ford has called Chinese and Russian initiatives on this issue “snake oil.” But history shows us the value of agreements to strategic restraints in outer space. During the Cold War, bilateral agreements included protections for strategically sensitive capabilities such as Earth observation satellites, used to provide national technical means of verification for nuclear and conventional arms control agreements, and strategic communications.

There are strong indications that U.S. competitors are indeed pursuing weapons capabilities to target objects in space. And the United States must respond. But it seems unlikely that this new U.S. space strategy can achieve its aims, relying as heavily as it does on military power and rhetoric. There is no winning in this scenario; a loss will be felt by all of us.

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