Simulating a crisis in space

Jessica West Featured, Ploughshares Monitor, Space Security

By Jessica West

Published in The Ploughshares Monitor Volume 40 Issue 2 Summer 2019

Militaries use wargames to test concepts, assumptions, and processes; to inform future planning and decision-making. But what does such an exercise look and feel like from a peace perspective?

I had a chance to find out in April when I was in Delhi, India. I participated in a full-day crisis simulation exercise (SIMEX) organized by the Observer Research Foundation. Intended to illustrate the dynamics under which geopolitical conflict might escalate to outer space, the event taught frightening lessons. But after standing in someone else’s shoes for a day, I was heartened by the insights that I learned about myself and my work.

Why simulate a space crisis?

The risk of direct conflict in outer space is increasing as more militaries identify space as a domain of warfare. Not that conflict will likely begin in space. Instead, the fear is that a terrestrial crisis will escalate to include aggression in space. This concern stems from the fact that space is necessary for command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (C4ISR)—in other words, almost every function assumed by military and security forces. And the satellites providing these services are vulnerable.

If such an escalation is to be contained, it is critical to understand how it might develop. This was a core objective of the SIMEX.

The scenario

Participants were divided into four national groups—Elephant, Dragon, Eagle, and Jackal—and the nonstate group Snake. The groups had competing regional and global interests that were broadly representative of those found in the Indian subcontinent today. This scenario resonated with us, not only because we were in India, but because it reflected the current overlap of national, regional, and global strategic interests and tensions that are increasing the odds for violent confrontation.

I was on team Dragon—a power maximizer and rising global star. Armed with significant ground, naval, air, space, cyber, and nuclear military capabilities, we were intent on bolstering our regional influence. Among our space capabilities: kinetic interceptors and lasers.

The scenario involved a multipronged regional crisis initiated by an antisatellite test, a terrorist attack, and suspected territorial military incursions. Although not a ‘space’ crisis, space-based capabilities were embedded in military response options.

What happened?

The outcome is both a good news story and a bad news story.

The good news: in our simulation, the crisis did not escalate to space. Space assets were critical to the execution of tactical terrestrial responses, and were subjected to numerous cyberattacks. But space did not become a theatre of combat. Like participants in other simulations, including a tabletop exercise hosted by Secure World Foundation in 2017, we were reluctant to physically destroy assets in space.

The bad news: The crisis escalated in other dangerous ways, ending with an airstrike on nuclear facilities. While we were saved by the clock, in real life, the clock would keep ticking.

Grappling with multiple crises and trying to balance competing interests made it clear that the state of warfare is in flux. The notion of hybrid warfare rang true as we engaged in a mixture of economic, political, military, and (dis)information manoeuvres. I was also struck by the coexistence and intertwining of different types of conflict that were strategic and tactical, global and local. In the end, there was no grand strategy, merely action and reaction, while hoping for the best and avoiding the worst.

Top 5 takeaways
  1. Safeguards are collapsing even as new threats emerge
    The complexity of conflict is reflected—and exacerbated—by shifting military doctrines, new weapons systems, and the ongoing collapse of arms-control regimes. The old rules no longer apply, but the new rules are far from clear.No longer could we assume that certain actions were based on known intentions or would follow accepted protocols. Information was at a premium; disinformation was rife. The potential for misinterpretation and overreaction was high. In an escalating crisis, the cost of such mistakes could be catastrophic. This is, I believe, how the airstrike on nuclear capabilities came about.
  2. Escalation is a tactic with unpredictable results
    Threatening force is an escalatory tactic, used to convince perhaps unwilling parties to give us what we want. But the effects of such a tactic cannot be accurately predicted, particularly with new domains such as space in the mix.All parties seemed wary of uncontrolled escalation, but were not certain how to contain it. My group found it hard to judge the impact of an action. Hard to ascertain the most important goals of other actors. And hard to evaluate high-value targets or aggressive moves in space (short of all-out destruction). This was clear during the debriefing: our assumptions about one another’s goals and intents were often misguided and our own actions misinterpreted.
  3. No one wants to fire the first shot
    In the absence of many formal restraints on conflict, individual behaviour becomes incredibly important. Behaviour signals identity; identity shapes emerging rules of interaction. No one wants to be seen as an escalator. No one wants to fire the proverbial first shot—particularly in space.This idea of appropriate behaviour offers a critical, if weak, restraint on warfare. Weak because we were frequently masking our behaviour—facilitating military incursions under the cover of infrastructure work or population defence. Weak because we were constantly testing the boundaries—for example, through cyber and directed-energy interference in space. And weak because, once that first shot is fired, there is nothing in place to stop further shooting.
  4. But no one wants to save the world
    Each team was tasked with a list of goals. On no list was regional stability, let alone saving the planet. Instead, goals were deeply nationalistic. Most revolved around power and influence: increasing one’s own and limiting that of others. As team Dragon, we found that working indirectly to foment instability in rivals such as team Elephant was sometimes to our advantage.I found this the most startling takeaway. For those of us who are focused on collective, long-term goals such as the continued peaceful and sustainable use of outer space, it is unsettling to accept that these goals are not shared by everyone.
  5. There are opportunities for peace, but . . .
    There were opportunities for de-escalation. Many of them were taken, including the exchange of information, fact-finding missions, and temporary détentes. The four state groups responded cooperatively to common interests, such as restricting the capabilities of terrorist groups. And when channels of communication were available, they were used. Team Dragon was constantly trying to find ways to communicate more directly with our global competitor Eagle.But the appeal of short-term gains, stronger signaling of our priorities, and the desire to maintain deterrence through limited escalation—the movement of troops here, the shifting of naval forces there, temporary interference with a satellite—continued to feed the dynamics of conflict.
Finding my role

Conflicts, and warfare in particular, are generally viewed as the domain of the state. Nonstate actors are usually viewed negatively. In our scenario, Snake was a network responsible for terrorist attacks on civilians. There were no other nonstate actors. As is often the case, those of us working within civil society to build bridges and contain conflict were overlooked. Yet on reflection, it is clear that our role is essential.

In the SIMEX in April, the cast of characters and tools available affected outcomes. How we could communicate and the nature of our ‘arsenals’ mattered, but so too did who was there and who wasn’t. By this I mean not only each group as one unit, but the makeup of each group. Our team had a range of regional economic and political expertise that informed our decisions. We also had a diplomat, who served to moderate our responses. Social media savviness was enthusiastically unleashed, not always with good intentions. As for me, I tried to see things from the other side, to understand how our actions would be interpreted and the likely response.

Despite the absence of civil society from the SIMEX, the dynamic I experienced reinforced my belief that civil society participation is critical in resolving issues of global peace and security. Here I mean civil society advocates who prioritize collective, long-term goals, not those who simply repeat or reinforce the interests of one group.

In an environment of misinformation and mistrust, civil society can give voice to more objective narratives and facts. We are often uniquely positioned to speak across hardening lines of disagreement and conflict. By focusing on rules, we help to stabilize identities and norms. We also shine a light on the often-hidden victims and costs of military confrontation. All of this helps us to contain the cascade of conflict.

I entered the SIMEX to view conflict from a new perspective. I left with a better understanding of my role and the vital work that we do at Project Ploughshares.

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