Security through vulnerability? The false deterrence of the National Security Space Strategy
by Christopher Stone
|There have been several space deterrence concepts proposed since 2008, but only one has become formal DoD strategy: the “delicate balance of risk” or four elements concept.|
Due to these and other concerns, numerous organizations began in 2009 to research the possibility of utilizing a strategy of deterrence as an answer to the threat of the proliferation of space weapons and the likelihood of their use in anger. This essay will examine the National Security Space Strategy’s (NSSS) concept of space deterrence through a historical lens comparing and contrasting its four elements of space deterrence with the nuclear deterrence theories of Herman Kahn, Thomas Schelling, and the post-Cold War theorist such as Keith Payne.
There have been several space deterrence concepts proposed since 2008, but only one has become formal DoD strategy: the “delicate balance of risk”5 or four elements concept.6 Originally devised by the Eisenhower Center for Space and Defense Studies at the US Air Force Academy in 2010, it was adopted by the Office of Secretary of Defense’s Space Policy shop then under the leadership of Ambassador Gregory Schulte in 2011.7 The vision of this concept as codified in the NSSS is to “dissuade and deter the development, testing, and employment of counterspace systems and prevent and deter aggression against space systems and supporting infrastructure that support US national security.”8
Defending space systems is critical due to the strategic capability and force multiplier effect derived from them.9 However, as one commentator wrote, “Recently posited theories of space deterrence misuse the term deterrence, they do not grasp the intent of deterrence, the full range of other security constructs, and, most importantly, what should be done when, not if, deterrence fails.” Looking at the NSSS’ concept of space deterrence through the historical lens of classical deterrence theory highlights his point. This then begs the question, if this concept does not grasp the intent of deterrence, why was the four element concept adopted?
Deterrence, according to DoD doctrine, is defined as: “The prevention of action by the existence of a credible threat of unacceptable counteraction and/or belief that the cost of action outweighs the perceived benefits.”10 Merriam-Webster defines deterrence, in the context of politics, as “the policy of developing a lot of military power so that other countries will not attack your country.”11 The action that the United States aimed to prevent throughout the Cold War through “a lot of military power” was a surprise nuclear attack by the Soviet Union, or a “nuclear Pearl Harbor,” as the Surprise Attack Panel12 referred to it.
As stated above, the common threat being deterred is hostile acts in space and their resulting impacts on the “sustainability of outer space.”13 However, as with the idealist arms control position of the Cold War nuclear policy debate, the mere presence of nuclear weapons was considered the common threat. Likewise, the idealists promoting arms control as a space deterrence concept consider the presence of weapons in space in a similar manner. This is supported by the overarching vision of the NSSS.
|The idea of space warfare, especially of kinetic engagements in orbital space, is viewed by many as “unthinkable” given the aforementioned fear of a debris-laden “tragedy of the commons.”|
As an example, within Schelling’s stable “balance of terror” concept of nuclear deterrence, each side maintains a survivable, similar, deterrent force capable of quick retaliation if attacked. The space deterrence strategy in the NSSS does not advocate for a second strike option in the event of deterrence failure. The strategy rejects the testing, deployment, and use of space weapons for being de-stabilizing to the sustainability of outer space and its use for peaceful purposes. The deterrence of the “delicate balance of risk” is predicated on the belief that, like the idealist view of international relations, security and deterrence in space can be achieved through the international system and institutions, such as treaties and codes of conduct. Thus, deterrent effect is not based on any overt threat of retaliation or the prevention of damage to space systems from attack through active defenses, but through the implied threat of isolation through the international community of nations. As defined earlier, this is not the traditional definition of deterrence.
The NSSS’s multi-layered strategy consists of:
Below is a short synopsis of each of these elements.
In the first of the four elements, the DoD states that a “top down diplomatic initiative”15 that promotes the “responsible use of space”16 and condemns the “activities that threaten the safety, stability and security of the space domain”17 will “preserve our advantage”18 in space as well as deter potential aggressors from interfering or attacking United States and allied space systems.
According to Ambassador Schulte, the deterrent effect of this element of space deterrence is through the process of defining what is and is not responsible behavior. Examples of this process include the proposed International Code of Conduct as well as the advancement of Transparency and Confidence Building Measures (TCBMs).19 Enforcement of these norms would occur through the diplomatic and economic isolation of irresponsible actors should any states deviate from the agreed, yet legally non-binding, framework. International pressures based on non-legally binding agreements are the tools of deterrence through norms according to the present DoD strategy.20
The second deterrent discussed in the NSSS is “Deterrence Through Entanglement,” or as stated in the NSSS, the development of “alliances with other space faring nations…and international organizations.”21 The idea is that if an adversary nation, not deterred by the agreed, non-legally binding norms of responsible behavior, decides to act in a de-stabilizing manner by attacking or interfering with a US or allied spacecraft, the fact that those spacecraft have the backing and reliance of multiple nation states would make it less likely that the adversary would strike.22 These alliances, it should be noted, are about the sharing of satellite services. No evidence is provided to indicate that any active space defenses or retaliatory terrestrial options are included in such alliance relationships from either the United States or the allied states partnered with. The cooperative agreements between the United States and Australia with the Wideband Global SATCOM satellites (WGS) is one example of this type of relationship.23
As a result of the lack of counterspace capabilities through the alliances, the responses could be economic or diplomatic in nature, or, perhaps least likely, some unstated terrestrial military response. However, despite this lack of stated enforcement or protection capacity of the alliances proposed, it is stated in speeches and articles that this construct will “alter the enemy’s targeting calculus” and create in the mind of an adversary nation some restraint of attacking several nations rather than just one.24
The third deterrent is described as “deterrence through resilience.” This measure would assure “cost-effective protection” of US space systems supporting both conventional and nuclear command and control through measures such as the improvement of our “intelligence posture” via space situational awareness capabilities and “disaggregation.”25 These capabilities enable the US to “better monitor and attribute activities in the space domain [and] maintain awareness of… the capabilities, activities and intentions of others.”26 The resilience concept of disaggregation requires that, rather than building large, single mission architectures of a few satellites, changing the architecture to include smaller, dispersed satellites or hosting payloads on civil or commercial spacecraft would create a means to maintain some operational capability following an attack, thereby denying benefit of the attack to the adversary. As Air Force Space Command’s White Paper on the topic states: “Disaggregation is an innovative opportunity to stay ahead of our adversaries, to change their targeting calculus, and to mitigate the effects of a widespread attack on our space assets. In addition, resilience serves as a deterrent, which may be the best way to preserve our capability by avoiding an attack.”27
|In the arena of strategic messaging, the present DoD space deterrence strategy is, like Schelling’s, meant more to assure potential adversaries of what we won’t do, rather than what we will do.|
Finally, there is the fourth deterrent element, which is labeled “deterrence through response.” As the NSSS states, this deterrent is to follow an attack has taken place and shows that the United States “retains the right and capabilities to respond in self-defense, should deterrence fail.”28 These responses, however will “not necessarily come from space,” creating some uncertainty as to what, if anything, the United States would do in the event of space deterrence failure. As noted earlier, the NSSS does not specifically go into any details about what type of capabilities, active defenses, or offensive retaliatory strike options either terrestrially or in space are required to assure either the US or the allies of the credibility of the deterrent effect of the this response option in the NSSS.
In addition, there appears to be some disconnect between this DoD strategy and the National Space Policy of the United States of America released by the White House in 2010. In that document, it states that the United States will “deter others from interference and attack, defend our space systems and contribute to the defense of allied space systems, and, if deterrence fails, defeat efforts to attack them.”29
The idea of space warfare, especially of kinetic engagements in orbital space, is viewed by many as “unthinkable” given the aforementioned fear of a debris-laden “tragedy of the commons.”30 As with the Cold War decision to prevent nuclear war through deterrence rather than fight an “unthinkable” general war, so space deterrence seeks to avert the de-stabilizing actions of war extending into the space domain.
However, as part of the nuclear Cold War strategy, American policymakers believed that for effective deterrence of aggression from the Soviet Union, there needed to be a strong, survivable deterrent force ready and willing to retaliate. Schelling promoted an easy to understand and “cost effective” stable balance of terror model that agreed with this need for a strong, survivable deterrent. In addition, in order to prevent a “reciprocal fear of surprise attack,” or, in other words, a fear that we would attack first, the creation of active defenses or counterforce capabilities would be prohibited. Schelling’s theory was also reliant on the vulnerability of American cities to Soviet nuclear weapons. Some defenses were admissible in this concept. Schelling supported the defense of the deterrent force itself through passive means such as hardening and dispersal of forces that would thereby confuse “an enemy’s targeting calculus.”
From an arms control position, Schelling advocated for a stable balance of capability, rather than disarmament as the goal. That both societies were mutually vulnerable to attack was key to prevent the need for what was claimed to be de-stabilizing options, such as ballistic missile defenses and first-strike weapons.
Herman Kahn’s view of nuclear deterrence disagreed with Schelling’s advocacy of a stable balance and believed that giving the President multiple capabilities and weapons platforms to retaliate with if deterrence failed was essential.31 However, simply stating that you had a strong deterrent capability and you intended to use that force means nothing if it is not credible. To ensure credibility of the will to use that deterrent force, defenses to protect the American people were essential so that the Soviets understood that the Americans would keep their extended deterrence and homeland deterrence roles by not having to commit national suicide in the process of defending allies overseas. This would assure the Soviets that Americans would keep their commitments and would not be blackmailed by threats or acts of aggression.32
Strategic messaging was an important part of both Schelling and Kahn’s deterrence theories. Schelling’s stable balance of terror was designed to assure the Soviets of our second strike capability, while Kahn’s credible deterrence concept was designed to assure allies relying on extended deterrence and the American people.33
When reviewing the aforementioned DoD space deterrence proposals, one can see that they use the term deterrence in a very different manner than those of Schelling and Kahn. As one commentator stated, “…they do not grasp the intent of deterrence, the full range of other security constructs and, most importantly, what should be done when, not if, deterrence fails.”34 In the arena of strategic messaging, the present DoD space deterrence strategy is, like Schelling’s, meant more to assure potential adversaries of what we won’t do, rather than what we will do. As an example, the NSSS states that by not developing ASAT weapons for active defense or offensive retaliatory forces, and continuing to promote responsible behavior through non-binding norms and TCBMs, we are ensuring protection and security of our space systems.
In some ways, like Schelling, this idea appears to desire a sort of certainty of uncertainty that while the United States has not articulated how or with what force would it defend itself with, the United States reserves the right to act in self-defense. This type of uncertainty, however, is counter to both the Schelling and Kahn models as it lacks the commitment to retaliate. The space deterrence concept in the NSSS is similar to Schelling’s views in that it adheres to the belief that defenses of any kind, excluding measures to ensure survivability, are prohibited given the goal of the NSSS is to prevent the placement and use of weapons disrupting the sanctuary of orbital space.
|As with Cold War deterrence theory, the space deterrence theory of the NSSS is based on the assumption that spacefaring nations are rational actors that will agree with the proposed norms of behavior and their definition of what is considered “responsible.” Why is this not a realistic expectation?|
As during the Cold War, when nuclear forces were dispersed globally and hardened to ensure survivability and the “confusing of the enemy’s targeting calculus,” the concept of deterrence through resilience aims to achieve a deterrent effect by a similar confusion of targeting in space. While disaggregation and other resilience measures promoted in the NSSS do offer some interesting concepts related to survivability, it does not provide any more deterrent effect or defense to space attack35 than the dispersal of ICBMs did in preventing the development of nuclear counterforce weapons by the Soviet Union during the Cold War. These measures in the Cold War led to more weapons being built to threaten the US nuclear forces and society, not less creation or less testing of nuclear weapons. In the 21st century strategic space environment, having more targets in space may challenge the enemy targeting calculus, but given different national interests and strategic cultures, it may not deter their testing of weapons. It will most likely lead to more weapons or capabilities to defeat the disaggregated architectures and passive measures employed.
Despite the respect the concepts of Kahn and Schelling Cold War deterrence theory have, and the lessons that can be applied to space deterrence frameworks, the approach to deterrence in post-Cold War theories (also known as Third Wave), such as that from Keith Payne, adds additional context to the discussion. Payne believes that the Cold War frameworks were not as effective in the Cold War as many claim due to several factors. One of these was that both Schelling and Kahn relied on the idea that national leadership on both sides were rational actors with similar concepts of cost and benefit. As Keith Payne noted, “historical studies consistently demonstrate that the deterrence theory assumption of well-informed leaders operating reasonably, rationally, and thus predictably, frequently does not correspond with actual crisis decision making; and deterrence, therefore, can fail or not apply.”36
Thus, as with Cold War deterrence theory, the space deterrence theory of the NSSS is based on the assumption that spacefaring nations are rational actors that will agree with the proposed norms of behavior and their definition of what is considered “responsible.” Why is this not a realistic expectation? This is because of numerous factors such as “an individual’s personal beliefs and characteristics, a leadership’s political goals, ideology, perception of threat, [and] determination” among other traits. A look at history highlights a recurring theme that “beliefs and modes of thought have been the dynamic behind some of the most significant and surprising decision making”37 in the last century.
It appears that during the development of these deterrent elements for space, there was a lack of robust historical analysis with respect to each element, including whether these concepts have been effective in preventing war or use of certain types of weaponry in other domains. Regarding the deterrence through norms element of the policy, whole books have been written on numerous occasions where treaties, conventions, and covenants between nations were breached. In fact, a look at the historical track record shows that the real norm of international relations is that of treaty or convention breach.38 . While it’s a laudable goal to push for norms of non-interference in space, the space environment heralded in the open press highlights the reality is that of reversible interference, at least, and the desire of kinetic ASATs and testing by many spacefaring nations at worst.39
One example of how the space deterrence framework has not taken into account the dynamics of political differences of leadership is related to the resilience/deterrence-by-denial concept. In that part of the strategy, the space deterrence strategy states that following this model “doesn’t need to be specifically created for a certain adversary in a certain situation… [and that one doesn’t] need to know who the adversary is.”40 The document asserts that it works as a blanket strategy within the international system.
This Schelling-type view suggests that many of the underlying assumptions of the DoD space deterrence strategy may be based on “mirror imaging.” This is a cognitive trap where planners or policymakers believe that their adversaries think like they do and share the same fears, beliefs, and worldview. Examples of mirror imaging within the four elements include the assumption that nations that do not accept the “norms of responsible behavior” would agree they are acting “irresponsibly.” As Keith Payne states, “Spinning out untutored certitudes about how a foreign leadership sees the world and should behave is relatively easy and extreme confidence in deterrence is comforting…”41 This is what the NSSS appears to be providing to the DoD as its strategy rather than confront the issues in a measurable and achievable way.
Despite the foundational principles of DoD space deterrence appearing to fall within the space sanctuary and idealist school of international relations theory, the fact that the DoD NSSS advocates for new norms of responsible behavior and codes of conduct may indicate a realization that this foundation of space as a sanctuary is not really reflective of reality and indicates an attempt to manage the situation. In addition, the utilization of terminology such as “fight through” and “operate in degraded environments” in senior leader speeches and articles highlight the failure of the objective of the NSSS’s deterrence structures in recent years.
|The fact that states are increasingly conducting reversible space attacks against other states and private companies has shown that the real norm of behavior in space between states is of interference, rather than non-interference.|
Finally, the fourth element of this concept is “deterrence through response.” Rather than providing a clear articulation of what one observer called “the willingness to use power to punish hostile actions,” this strategy provides very broad and nebulous statements indicating a lack of will and capability to respond forcefully.42 As stated recently, “China… [has] already developed counterspace capabilities and have shown the political willingness to use these weapons.” However, we are not developing sets of military options to accompany the diplomatic-themed NSSS tailored for the types of adversaries we are likely to engage or are already taking hits from on the reversible side. Vulnerability of our spacecraft, which are becoming increasingly critical infrastructure for our economy and military force projection, is not a security policy or one of effective deterrence. In fact, it could be perceived as an invitation to strike.
The NSSS’ space deterrence strategy provides a construct that, while well intentioned, lacks a firm understanding of the lessons from Cold War deterrence and the contextual understanding of the security environments in terms of historical and cultural realties raised by the post-Cold War deterrence advocates. The four elements approach to deterrence appears to be an incomplete strategy focused heavily on a perceived diplomatic framework for the promotion of an arms control agenda in support of the sanctuary spacepower theory, not the deterrence of aggression and the active protection of United States freedom of action in space. It lacks the robust strategic cultural, historical, and psychological substance necessary to create a framework needed to deter or dissuade the use of space effects of either a reversible or more permanent nature.
The fact that states are increasingly conducting reversible space attacks against other states and private companies has shown that the real norm of behavior in space between states is of interference, rather than non-interference. Another norm in the strategic environment of space is kinetic ASAT testing, not the absence of such testing. It highlights that while engaging in the promotion of resilience, the ability to absorb attacks and have redundancies are good first steps, but other nations are engaging in more aggressive actions to provide active space offensive and defensive capabilities. We are only deterring ourselves with our own sophistry, which fails to pass the reality check of the present space security environment and the terrestrial crises these actions in space support.
To paraphrase Therese Delpech, self-deterrence encourages the proliferation of space weapons, and it may become an invitation to actually use them. We must reexamine the space deterrence concept the DoD is using to create our future architectures and strategies for space security, so that we are better able to tailor our deterrence strategy to the adversaries we might face, and are already facing, in the strategic environment of space. The National Security Space Strategy’s “delicate balance of risk” does not accomplish this task.