The Atlantic Council’s recently released a paper, Toward a New National Security Space Strategy: Time for a Strategic Rebalancing, doesn’t provide much new in the way of ideas for how to address the threats to U.S. national security space systems. Nor does it present fresh thinking about how to mitigate the failure of the present National Security Space Strategy (NSSS) to prevent, dissuade and deter the “development, testing, and employment of counterspace systems and prevent and deter aggression against space systems and supporting infrastructure that support U.S. national security.”
The two principal authors of this “strategy paper,” Theresa Hitchens and Joan Johnson-Freese, are well known supporters of the Obama administration’s National Space Policy released in 2010 and the NSSS released by the Department of Defense and Office of the Director of National Intelligence in 2011. This was surprising, to me, for a non-partisan group to use such one-sided authors and not a more mixed group. Even the forward was written by retired U.S. Marine Corps Gen. James Cartwright, President Obama’s appointee to be vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs. This document has an interesting political dynamic for readers to consider.
The authors relate how the “Obama administration redirected the United States toward a more cooperative, civilian, and commercial-oriented program overall, and a more traditional space security strategy of ‘strategic restraint’” rather than the Bush administration’s “hegemonic” space policies and strategies. They define “strategic restraint” as where the United States, under Obama, “would once again restrain itself from introducing offensive capabilities in hopes of moderating the behavior of both friends and potential foes.” The authors assert a national and international “consensus” toward this approach regarding mutual restraint/vulnerability and the NSSS’ space deterrence framework as occurring between 2011 and 2013. However, after the Chinese geostationary orbit ASAT test in May 2013, the consensus began “to unravel.”
They believe the United States “overcorrected” following the 2014 Strategic Portfolio Review. To correct course, they say, the U.S. should enhance transparency rather than return to the rhetoric of “space control.” They added that “above all [the United States] must not be driven into a space-arms competition that includes indiscriminate weapons — weapons that could destroy the space environment for the very commercial and civil uses that are so benefiting the country, and the world at large.”
Strangely, the authors assert “There is no Russian or Chinese ASAT fleet deployed that could defeat U.S. space operations in a conflict, both nations are still behind the United Sates in the integration of space assets into military operations, as well as in orbit technology development and no other potential adversary is even close to achieving equivalent space power.” What, then, is the threat to American space power? “[D]ebris and overcrowding in usable orbits.”
What follows is a point-by-point analysis of Hitchens and Johnson-Freese’s recommendations:
“Provide a chance to stop activities and actions that would degrade the space environment, and consequently impair the beneficial uses of space by all, through development of norms and roles that establish the lines between acceptable and unacceptable behavior.”
This recommendation is not new. It’s a re-wording of what is referred to in the present NSSS as “deterrence through norms.” And “Stop activities” is essentially saying more concisely what the NSSS declares as its goal: to dissuade and deter the “development, testing, and employment of counter-space systems and prevent and deter aggression against space systems and supporting infrastructure, which supports U.S. national security.” A read of the present NSSS, various speeches, and testimonies of Amb. Gregory Schulte, Obama’s deputy assistant defense secretary for space policy from 2010-2012, demonstrates “the first layer of deterrence is the establishment of norms of responsible behavior…This helps separate responsible space-faring countries from those who act otherwise” With respect to preventing degradation of the space environment, this “deterrence through norms” would “help ensure the long-term sustainability of the space environment.”
“Create space to establish better dialogue, with Russia and China in particular, about U.S. ‘bright lines’ in space, and mutual assurance measures that would reduce risks of misconception and conflict, as well as establish ‘breakers’ to dangerous conflict escalation.”
This recommendation is not new. The NSSS in its current form promotes a “top down diplomatic initiative” as well as development of numerous “diplomatic engagements” that will “enhance our ability to cooperate with our allies and partners” as well as “seek common ground among all space-faring nations” to prevent “mishaps, misperceptions, and mistrust.” This policy approach hasn’t deterred China or Russia from pursuing kinetic energy ASAT weapons as the NSSS asserts would be the result. These nations represent the two most aggressive in terms of pursuing active counter-space weapons systems and are also the most notorious for the generation of space debris through apparent lack of mitigation measures and also passivation of spent stages and spacecraft in key orbits. Interestingly, the report leaves out this fact when discussing “rebalancing” of U.S. means to the threat posed by other nations to our critical space infrastructure and those of our allies.
“Avoid the opportunity costs that an arms race in space would engender.”
Again, this is not new. When both came out, arms control agreements and later codes of conduct were pursued because proponents including Hitchens stated the Chinese and Russians (among others) had simply responded to the Bush administration’s “unilateral” space policy of 2006 (despite the fact the ASAT effort in both nations had been underway for years prior to the release of that document).
No legally binding approach was achieved because as Obama’s first under secretary of state for arms control, Ellen Tauscher, stated, “we will never do a legally binding agreement because I can’t do one. I can’t get anything ratified.” Alternatively, the U.S. pursued a code of conduct relating to “behavior.” One of the primary positions in the Code was “the importance of preventing an arms race in outer space.” This non-legally binding agreement never reached critical mass to get an international buy-in, despite Hitchens and Johnson-Freese’s assertion that there was “consensus.”
Furthermore, their statement “There is no Russian or Chinese ASAT fleet deployed that could defeat U.S. space operations in a conflict” shows a lack of strategic, and cultural understanding. The goal or intent of an adversary developing an ASAT capability may not be to “defeat” all U.S. military space operations, but to create a shock to the system that slows terrestrial operations enough to enable the adversary to achieve specific objectives. Also, their argument makes very little sense from a historical review of counter-space activities.
The current space deterrence construct and “diplomacy-first initiative” put into motion is based on “hope” as the strategy. Instead, we have a strategic reality of first-strike instability with the United States being placed further and further into a position of vulnerability to surprise attack with no comparable capability to respond to such an attack.
“Allow the U.S. Air Force and [the intelligence community] to figure out protection strategies and technologies for those space assets that will be more difficult to commercialize, otherwise disaggregate, and offload missions from.”
Since at least 2011, disaggregation was considered to be the answer to many of the sustainability and “space protection” issues. Many senior leaders referenced a Space Command disaggregation white paper as the answer until the U.S. Government Accountability Office published an October 2014 assessment with a less supportive tone.
“It is not yet known whether and to what degree disaggregation can help the Department of Defense … increase the resilience of its satellite systems,” the GAO report stated. Following the report’s release, key members of Congress and the space policy arena began to walk back disaggregation as the answer to all space protection and resilience questions. Now, the Atlantic Council appears to support bringing it back up as one of the “new” recommended courses of action. It’s also interesting the authors state it’s probably a good idea to develop capabilities for “deterrence by punishment,” but that we should be transparent to the world of our intent to use them only as a “last resort.” If the first strike against U.S. space assets is, as the Chinese put it, “rapid and destructive” as well as “multi-layered,” then a well-placed first strike could lead to a situation where last resort may need to be during enemy force posturing, before enemy weapons release, especially for mobile ASAT assets. Transparency also is not viewed as positively in the Chinese strategic culture as in the United States. The concept the report is pushing is not deterrence and not new or innovative. It’s dangerous.
“Allow the U.S. government and industry the time and budgetary leeway to develop next-generation technologies that might keep a leading edge in space, both for commercial benefits and military hedging of advantage.”
In many ways, this is almost like the “deterrence through response” NSSS concept, mixed with the Obama administration’s attempt to make perpetual research and development imply deterrence. That is not the case. “Budgetary leeway” is not the same as increased budgets for rapid testing, evaluation and deployment.
As the old saying goes in military planning, “the adversary gets a vote” and potential U.S. adversaries have been voting for years for development, testing and deployment. “Strategic restraint” is not mutual; it’s a one-way street leading to danger for the United States. The U.S. does not have the luxury to repeat the same mistaken recommendations of the NSSS, which have not brought about stability but first-strike instability, increased vulnerability and more actors engaged in counter-space weapons development, deployment and use. The passivity and lack of deterrent of the NSSS has created a new normal, in purposeful interference and attack in the radio frequency and directed energy arena known as “reversible counter-space.”
It is encouraging to see the Atlantic Council taking on the topic of improving the NSSS, but it is disappointing to see their approach did not have a broader background of authorship than two proponents of disarmament and passivity (called “rebalancing” and “proactive” in this report). The Atlantic Council would have been better to consult a group of mixed backgrounds, including space control professionals and space policy leaders. Instead, their report is a rehash of old, ineffective concepts found in the present NSSS. This report, and others of late, try to mask or treat the symptoms rather than directly address the problem at hand The U.S. must address the growing threat to its space assets head on instead of repeating the same actions over and over again and expecting a different result.
Christopher Stone is a strategic space analyst and former Pentagon space policy professional in Washington. He is the author of “Reversing the Tao: A Credible Framework for Space Deterrence,” a book that deconstructs the National Security Space Strategy’s concept of space deterrence using the context and example of Chinese ASAT testing and strategic culture. It is available on Amazon.