Defending critical space infrastructure

A memo to U.S. President-elect Trump about a critical national security issue

One of the most pressing national security issues facing the United States in the next five to 10 years is the vulnerability of its critical space infrastructure to attack.

The nation’s critical space infrastructure — both in orbit and on the ground — is a vital center of gravity for U.S. instruments of national power and the American way of life. If the U.S. remains on the course set by current policy and strategy, our nation will remain under the high-risk, low-threshold-use scenarios inherent in first-strike instability with the Chinese and Russians.

Warden's Five Rings represent a theory of military attack, based on an enemy's five interconnected centers of gravity. They are named in honor of retired U.S. Air Force Col. john A. Warden, an air power theorist.

Warden’s Five Rings represent a theory of military attack, based on an enemy’s five interconnected centers of gravity. They are named in honor of retired U.S. Air Force Col. john A. Warden, an air power theorist.

First, the United States of the early 21st century is reliant upon its critical space infrastructure unlike any other nation up to this point. It has become a supercenter of gravity for the nation’s ability to project power overseas quickly and efficiently. The U.S. financial systems are linked to it, and other critical infrastructures such as transportation, agriculture and energy are dependent upon U.S. spacepower. The larger these interdependencies become, the larger the cost of failure. Because of this, a future adversary could take down, or at least severely degrade all of those vital areas of national defense and commerce — known as Warden’s Five Rings —through a well-planned, multi-layered strike against American space infrastructure.

This fact is not lost on potential adversaries, notably China, which has called space the “soft ribs” of U.S. defenses. China’s strategists have concluded that unleashing its burgeoning space-attack capabilities in a future crisis could produce a “grave aftermath” for the U.S.

This “grave aftermath” could be at the level of the “space Pearl Harbor” the Rumsfeld Commission envisioned in 2001, resulting in severe economic damages to the U.S. and its trading partners in the West and while degrading U.S. air, land and naval forces in the Pacific to respond in defense of treaty obligations with Japan and policy obligations with friends like Taiwan, the Philippines or Vietnam in the South China Sea. This scenario would enable the Chinese to achieve their objectives via a “rapid, destructive” space engagement that gives sufficient cover for the Chinese to seize territories, or achieve their objectives before the U.S. has a chance to respond. Unfortunately, the current policy posture of the U.S. and its allies is not grounded in reality; it is based instead on concepts rooted in rational-actor assumptions and liberal institutional-based agreements as seen through a mirror-imaged worldview. It is also out of sync with the realities of today’s strategic environment.

The National Security Space Strategy (NSSS) was written to account for the growing threat of China’s kinetic anti-satellite (ASAT) testing and the tripling of reversible, purposeful interference such as radiofrequency jamming of U.S. forces and commercial providers. However, instead of taking the strategic view of why China is developing and testing these systems (the critical-infrastructure vulnerability), the NSSS focused on the symptoms — namely, orbital debris generation and the weapons themselves. Thus, the senior U.S. leadership who drafted the NSSS were basing it on their experiences as arms-control negotiators and not military or foreign policy expertise.

The NSSS was drafted using a belief that all nations were rational actors that would sign on to rules of responsible behavior in space, following U.S. strategic restraint on developing counterspace systems and providing transparency and confidence building measures to demonstrate good will. These actions were to be based on a “top down diplomatic initiative” utilizing such institutions as the European Union and the United Nations. Initially, the goal was to develop a new treaty-based system that restricted weapons testing and operational use, but the State Department official in charge, also an arms control negotiator by trade, believed that it was “the best way ahead to help strengthen the long-term sustainability … and promote safe and responsible use of space[.]” As a result, the DoD and State Department, along with their European Union partners, developed a “deterrent through norms” document known as the EU Code of Conduct. This document was non-legally binding and as a result, did not have to go through the governmental politics of interagency coordination or Senate ratification. However, it did have to go through the international equivalent of governmental politics and organizational process models of decision making. This created a situation where the document intended to deter aggression became bogged down in UN circles and other regional forums in Asia and Africa that led to it withering into bureaucratic oblivion at the meeting of the UN Group of Government Experts in New York in 2014.

The current “four deterrents” model is not deterring China, other spacefaring powers and non-state actors because it defines rational actors in a way that does not reflect the varying strategic cultures and worldviews toward the space operating domain and the international system. For example, China has a unique view of themselves, the space domain and treaty negotiation. Transparency is viewed not as a strength for building bridges toward peace, but rather as a strategic trick that seeks to undermine China’s security. Negotiation tactics, do not follow the win-win model of American negotiations but rather a “mobile warfare” model that revolves around the ancient principle of “hide a knife behind a smile” and dominate your opponent. Thus, the NSSS has used a false definition of deterrence. As a result, it can be said that this concept has failed to achieve its goal of deterring or dissuading “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 United States should change course to a more realist approach that addresses the strategic problem by assessing the threat from the intent of the state or non-state actor and not the existence of the weapons they plan to wield. First, the United States should develop a strategic picture of the intentions behind the development of counterspace systems by China and Russia.

As U.S. vulnerabilities of our critical space infrastructure come to light through internal analyses, those gaps must be filled as part of the primary mission of the National Security Strategy,which is homeland defense.

One area to mitigate is the first strike instability created by the testing and deployment of Chinese kinetic-energy ASATs. One way to accomplish this is to create a terrestrial first strike capability using already funded programs of record capable of modification. These include the Standard Missile-3 aboard Aegis destroyers and which are part of the European Aegis Ashore missile defense system. A more deployable version could be a weaponized version of the DARPA Airborne Launch Assist Space Access (ALASA) research concept, that would launch small, weaponized satellites off the bottom of an F-15 Eagle. Once this capability is in place, first-strike stability will be achieved as well as a nascent capability (depending on geometries of launch and intercept points) to deny first strikes against our space systems. This should deny the advantage sought by our potential adversaries and give their leadership and strategists pause that the vulnerabilities they were planning to use for strategic advantage in crisis or war is no longer a viable option.

Second, is to develop a deterrence posture for space based on the traditional model of credibility, capability and forward leaning strategic communications. Once this capability is achieved, strategic messaging must be adjusted from what the United States will not do, to what it will do if attacked at any point along the counterspace spectrum. These postures and strategies must focus at the strategic level on the adversary decision maker’s mind and not just the threat from their weapons systems. Once this is achieved, spacepower can be better integrated and understood as an inherently strategic part of our great power toolkit, vital to safeguarding our interests and our obligations to protect our friends and allies worldwide.

This is a vital need for our nation. No longer can we view space as a sanctuary from conflict or something extended far away from our way of life, but as the critical infrastructure it is. The deterrence of aggression coupled with the active defense of our critical space infrastructure as part of homeland defense strategy should be a primary focus of this government, given its direct impact to the safety and security of our citizens.

Christopher Stone is a former Pentagon strategic space analyst at Air University in Alabama. Stone is the author of Reversing the Tao: A Framework for Credible Space Deterrence. The thoughts and views are of the author and not of the Department of Defense or the U.s. Government.