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F-15 ASAT
The US government should consider once again the development of air-launched ASAT systems as a more effective means of deterring attacks on its own satellites than current policy. (credit: US Air Force)

Rethinking the national security space strategy: part 3

Creating a tiered, tailored, triad for defending US space infrastructure


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“Most governments when asked to choose between war and peace are likely to choose peace because it looks safer. These same governments if asked to choose between getting the first or second strike will very likely choose the first strike…once they feel war is inevitable, or even very probable… ”
– Herman Kahn, On Thermonuclear War, 1960

“Space fighting is not far off. National security has already exceeded territory and territorial waters and airspace and territorial space should also be added. The modes of defense will no longer be to fight on our own territory and fight for marine rights and interests. We must also engage in space defense as well as air defense.”
– Teng Jianqun, People’s Liberation Army analyst, 2001

American space infrastructure is not only an inherent strategic asset for the United States, the space supporting ground and orbital segments are also a vital piece of the nation’s critical defense infrastructure.1 As such, it is a key center of gravity for America’s instruments of national power. This fact is not lost on potential adversaries such as the People’s Republic of China, who have assessed that spacepower is America’s “soft ribs.”2 Due to the continued integration of space capabilities and applications into American society, writings by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) highlight the “grave aftermath” that would result if US space systems are destroyed or incapacitated.3 This all points to the need for US decision-makers to ensure that US space capabilities are protected and available to support the safety and prosperity of the American population, homeland defense and, when needed, force projection worldwide to defend national interests in the forward regions such as space itself.4

The strategic reality that the true norm of behavior in space is that of reversible, yet purposeful, interference highlights how the Defense Department space deterrence construct within the National Security Space Strategy has failed.

Unfortunately, the concept of deterrence contained in the National Security Space Strategy (NSSS) has not protected our critical space infrastructure from purposeful interference nor has it deterred the development, testing, and deployment of offensive space attack systems. The Defense Department Space Policy speaks of purposeful interference when it states “purposeful interference with U.S. space systems, including their supporting infrastructure, will be considered an infringement of U.S. rights.”5 This article will explore what is needed to create an effective and credible space deterrence posture.

Readiness for Chinese rapid, destructive wars in space

The PLA has stated in their recent strategy documents that future wars, including those that begin in or extend to space, are to be “destructive” in nature and rapidly executed to achieve their objectives.6 This rapid, destructive warfare includes the development, testing, and deployment of kinetic energy (KE) ASAT interceptors as part of the Chinese multi-pronged “space attack architectures.”

The strategic reality that the true norm of behavior in space is that of reversible, yet purposeful, interference highlights how the Defense Department space deterrence construct within the National Security Space Strategy has failed. In addition, the employment of KE ASATs, a developed, tested, and deployed, survivable mobile warfare approach in China, highlights another partial failure of this deterrence concept on the non-reversible side of the spectrum. Therefore, because the United States lacks a credible, effective deterrent to the use of reversible counterspace attacks upon the space sector of American critical infrastructure, the use of KE ASATs in an active, surprise attack campaign is still a threat to be deterred from use against American and allied interests.

The Chinese development of “mobile warfare” ASAT missile systems for both low Earth orbit (LEO) and geosynchronous Earth orbit (GEO) altitudes provides the PLA space forces with the ability to conduct a first strike against the critical infrastructure of the homeland and armed forces, while the US does not have a dedicated program or strategy to mitigate this threat.7 This constitutes a first-strike instability in the favor of Chinese space forces.8

First-strike stability or instability is related to a concept that Glenn Kent and David Thaler of The RAND Corporation developed in 1989 to examine the dynamics of deterrence between two or more nuclear states.9 Forrest Morgan, also from RAND, states that this concept is similar to crisis stability, which is “a measure of the countries’ incentives not to preempt in a crisis, that is, not to attack first in order to beat the attack of the enemy.”10 This thought process did not review the psychological or strategic culture factors present in the specific crisis. Rather, first-strike stability focuses on each side’s force posture and “balance of capabilities and vulnerabilities that could make a crisis unstable should a confrontation occur.”11

Space, like the nuclear realm, is an environment with substantial incentives for striking first should war appear probable or, in the case of Chinese strategic culture and doctrine, if war can be deterred through coercive military actions or demonstrations in space.12 However, unlike the nuclear realm, space is an “offense-dominant domain, which is to say that holding space targets at risk is far easier and cheaper than defending them.”13 Thus, American space-based and related ground critical infrastructure provides a major center of gravity (COG) that is vulnerable for an adversary to target and damage.

Another way to see this is through an updated view of Warden’s Rings.14 As seen below, each of the rings highlights a rung of a strategic air campaign leading to the center ring, which is the senior leadership or command and control of the infrastructure, military forces, and so on. Given the interdependencies of the space infrastructure with other areas of critical homeland importance, it is possible that a well-executed “space Pearl Harbor” operation could simultaneously create damaging effects upon all of the rings at once.

rings of attack
Warden’s Five Rings of Strategic Attack

As Bruce MacDonald, a leading voice on space warfare and the author of the Council on Foreign Relations book China, Anti-Satellites Weapons and U.S. Space Security, correctly states in testimony to the House Strategic Forces Subcommittee: “The U.S. has an overriding interest in maintaining the safety, survival, and function of its space assets so that the profound military, civilian, and commercial benefits they enable can continue to be available to the United States and its allies.”15

To maintain the survival of US space assets will require the acknowledgement of a few important factors at the strategic level. First, protection and survival will require the acknowledgement that our space assets (both terrestrial and space segments) are critical infrastructure to our nation’s economy and the international financial system.

Protection and survival will require the acknowledgement that our space assets (both terrestrial and space segments) are critical infrastructure to our nation’s economy and the international financial system.

Federal policies, including those within the Defense Department, highlight the importance of the space sector to the many other parts of defense and national critical infrastructure. Recent reports have noted that, due to growing interdependencies among critical infrastructure areas such as communications, transportation, energy, and defense, there is a “potentially a large cost in human life… or economic markets” if and when they fail.16 Critical infrastructure is defined as:

  1. providing routine functions along operational paths essential for average or routine system function;
  2. those where no handy, rapid substitutes exist;
  3. any sudden dysfunction in and around these elements causes nontrivial harm, and;
  4. those embedded in wide, functionally reciprocal, integrated systems.17

The more critical that these interdependencies become, the “larger the cost of failure [they] are likely to have.”18 One small part of the larger space sector that is interdependent with the transportation, defense, energy, and other infrastructure sectors is reliance upon the Global Positioning System (GPS) navigation and timing signal. As one report states, “Because of the increasing reliance of transportation upon GPS, the consequences of loss of the GPS signal can be severe (depending upon its application), in terms of safety and… economic damage to the nation.”19 Another vulnerability related to GPS is the reliance of the energy infrastructure on the GPS timing signal. One report summarizes this concern as follows:

GPS has emerged as a key component of the power generation and distribution network monitoring systems for data collection, fault detection, vulnerability mitigation, and recovery. With its continued market penetration, the value of GPS to the power industry is likely to grow, along with the impacts of unanticipated disruptions.20

Second, strategic reality in space requires an acknowledgement that active defense, in concert with passive defense measures, of US space infrastructures are vital to maintain information dominance in both diplomatic and military instruments of national power. It also supports homeland defense and overseas force projection in defense of US interests as well as allied defense treaty obligations. For example, James G. Lee of Air University wrote:

…since information dominance can create uncertainty regarding the focus and thrust of the theater campaign, offensive counterspace operations should normally precede other theater operations. To attain information dominance, offensive counterspace operations should use a combination of [kinetic and non-kinetic] weapon systems to attack the operational center of gravity of a space system. Depending on the space system, the enemy, and the level of conflict, the center of gravity can be located in any of the three segments of an enemy’s space system.21

The Chinese understand this as part of the counter-intervention strategy with their space attack system enabled “informationalization.” As such, in order for the United States to generate sufficient friction and uncertainty in the mind of an adversary, information dominance supplied through counterspace operations is a must. This can be accomplished through “soft kill” or a “hard kill” and, depending on what type of space power the US employs, could target the ground segment or the space segment.22

Strategists must acknowledge that space is an offense-dominant domain and, in order to provide effective deterrence, the United States must actively protect its space systems through a credible offensive counterforce capability to reverse the first-strike instability due to the Chinese KE ASATs and their satellite reconstitution launch capacity.

While some assert that first strike stability is something that can be gained through the present NSSS, the facts as observed show the opposite is true. Space is indeed unique from other domains, but not in the way that some describe it. Space is an offensive-dominant domain and thus defense is challenging, especially in the kinetic, irreversible sphere. As a result, the Chinese view of deterrence makes much more sense in assuring space protection than the NSSS’ view of space deterrence.

In this view, the posturing of forces for use as kinetic strikes against critical space infrastructure can be viewed as an escalation of threat and therefore, this threat to the homeland and interests of the nation should be neutralized before the attack can be made against whatever target or system is at risk. Mao once said he believed the Western view of waiting until one was attacked to be too passive.23 Our current posture attempts to treat space as if there is a means to defense, while not providing for a defense or real protection of this vital resource for our homeland.

Finally, American strategists should recognize that deterrence requires getting into an adversary’s decision process through observation and analysis of their strategic culture, doctrine, and strategic behavior. They should orient the US force posture accordingly and be prepared to engage in military operations preventatively when necessary to actively defend space infrastructure and maintain escalation dominance in crisis or conflict.

In short, the US must remove the temptation to strike at what has become the image of “soft ribs” for both deterrence of attack on the homeland as well as extended deterrence protections of allies as well.

Deterrence, or war prevention, requires an understanding of the adversary, the adversary leadership’s decision cycle informed by its strategic culture, and resulting worldview. Deterrence must be focused on the adversary’s senior leadership decision processes, including the means of commanding and controlling forces and shaping the strategic and operational levels through the holding of vital adversary targets at risk. How does one accomplish this strategic deterrence formulation between a Western nation that traditionally relies on its near-term technological gains, training, and linear-based tactical planning to formulate operational objectives and strategic end states, versus a potential adversary that thinks holistically, identifies themselves collectively, and maintains a long-term vision?

The US senior leadership must develop a realistic strategy that Defense Department and intelligence community spacepower can support and that highlights the unique space domain defense requirements in order to effectively protect its space based critical infrastructure. How can the United States gain real, effective deterrence in the Pacific? Understanding the adversary decision calculus is the first step. This requires observation into the adversary command and control structures and processes.

The United States defense leadership should create a space support strategy that enables the means to remove the perception that attacking space infrastructure is a low-threshold action that will have no response in kind. This perception has led the PLA down the path of creating space weapons as part of the Chinese overarching counter-intervention strategy that targets the vulnerability of the architecture, the perceived lack of will to actively defend those assets, or counter those increasing risks to American way of life and operations. In short, the US must remove the temptation to strike at what has become the image of “soft ribs” for both deterrence of attack on the homeland as well as extended deterrence protections of allies as well. This image must be reversed. How? We must act upon the knowledge and understanding of strategic reality and use our resources at a faster tempo or rhythm than our adversaries.

One way to do this is to take what America already has in current programs of record, across multiple services and agencies, and flip the Tao on its head. The United States should exploit operations and weapons that:

  • Generate a rapidly changing environment (quick/clear observations, orientation and decisions, fast-tempo, fast transient maneuvers, leading to quick kill when needed).
  • Inhibit a potential adversary’s capacity to adapt to such an environment by clouding or distorting their observations, orientation, and decision calculus.
  • Simultaneously improve our own command and control and space force posture, offensive deterrence capabilities and options for senior leaders to compress our own time to decision and actions (kinetic or non-kinetic), while stretching out the adversary’s time to generate a favorable mismatch in time/ability to shape and adapt to change.
  • The goal would be to collapse the Chinese’s current strategy of counter-intervention (supported and enabled by multi-layered space forces) into confusion and disorder by causing them to over- or under-react to activity that appears simultaneously menacing as well as ambiguous, chaotic, or misleading. In short, the goal is to get ahead in their own strategic game of expansion and domination of the space environment as well as the terrestrial engagements supported by offensive space deterrence.24

page 2: Counter-strategy part 1 >>


ISPCS 2015