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Space assets like communications satellites are vulnerable to asymmetric warfare without a clear, multi-layered deterrence policy. (credit: USAF)

Space deterrence: a response


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Christopher Stone’s recent critique of the National Security Space Strategy, or NSSS, (see “Security through vulnerability? The false deterrence of the National Security Space Strategy”, The Space Review, April 13, 2015) traces that document’s concept of “layered” space deterrence back to the Eisenhower Center’s study of the subject which was submitted to the Department of Defense (DoD) the preceding year. As authors of that original study, we appreciate both the citation of our work and the opportunity to reply to his characterization of the deterrence framework we developed in that study.

The challenge of maintaining the nation’s security when faced with a nuclear-armed adversary differs fundamentally from assuring access to systems operating in space.

In Stone’s view, our concept of deterrence (and that of the NSSS which followed) drew the wrong lessons from the experience of the Cold War. In citing the classical deterrence theorists Schelling and Kahn, he argues for the necessity of a “strong, survivable deterrent force ready and willing to retaliate.” Stone sees the four-layered deterrence framework as lacking in this regard and, far worse, he argues that it was adopted for “ideological reasons” based on idealistic theory better suited as a cover for an “arms control agenda” than deterring potential aggressors. Finally, he critiques this approach as falling prey to “mirror imaging” and seeks to enlist the thoughts of contemporary deterrence theorist Keith Payne to support his argument.

In reflecting on the “lessons of the Cold War,” we believe Stone himself errs by focusing too exclusively on the need for an overt threat of retaliation to uphold a notional “balance of terror.” This is not only too simplistic an assessment of the way the United States pursued a deterrence based strategy in the Cold War, but also fails to recognize the significant differences between that era and the present day. The challenge of maintaining the nation’s security when faced with a nuclear-armed adversary differs fundamentally from assuring access to systems operating in space.

Among those differences is the very trend Stone himself cites toward non-destructive interference with space systems becoming the “new norm.” This is a situation without parallel in the Cold War. With the exception of aircraft en route to target, nuclear delivery systems cannot be recalled once launched. Furthermore, unlike a jamming attack on a satellite or ground-based receiver, the effects of nuclear weapons are swift, devastating, and certainly irreversible.

If an attacker is able to confront his opponent with a temporary denial of access to space systems in order to gain an advantage at a critical time, it is unclear that the threat of retaliation in kind will be much of a deterrent. The purpose of any such temporary interference in space is clearly not to gain a lasting advantage in the space domain itself. Instead, such moves seek to exploit an advantage at a critical point for an adversary’s moves on the ground, in the air, or at sea. Unless the United States is faced with an adversary which is a “mirror image” of itself, one of the logical fallacies analysts sought to avoid in the Cold War, retaliation in kind will not serve as a deterrent. An enemy that can put the United States off balance through an attack on space systems, but is not equally dependent on space systems to coordinate its own military operations, will be on its way to victory while American strategists are looking to assess the effects of retaliation against the enemy’s space assets.

An enemy that can put the United States off balance through an attack on space systems, but is not equally dependent on space systems to coordinate its own military operations, will be on its way to victory while American strategists are looking to assess the effects of retaliation against the enemy’s space assets.

Given the fundamental differences between the nuclear confrontation of the Cold War and current asymmetry in reliance on space systems between America and its potential opponents, the Eisenhower Center’s four-layer framework was proposed as an alternative to a retaliation-centered theory of deterrence for the space domain. While still drawing on some of the appropriate lessons of the Cold War, we concluded that classical deterrence was only partly applicable in space, and that a new and more nuanced approach—“layered deterrence”—was necessary. If a label for this idea is required, it should be “realism” or “pragmatism,” not “idealism.”

Far from being a cover for a hidden arms control “agenda,” the placement of norms as the first layer was intended to serve several purposes. First, it serves as a reminder that any battle for control over the use of space to support military operations begins well before forces begin to mobilize on Earth. If continued kinetic anti-satellite testing, lasing of satellites, and reversible jamming are accepted as the “new norm” for the space domain, as Stone argues, then that struggle is being lost from the beginning. International law, standards, and norms are an arena of competition, part of a broader approach described as “lawfare” by noted experts such as Dean Cheng of the Heritage Foundation.1 A diplomatic response by the United States may not dissuade a determined adversary, but it represents a clear early warning indicator of intent around which America and its allies should begin organizing.

The layer given the designation “entanglement” represents the next in our framework, which Stone dismisses for its lack of retaliatory potency. Entanglement, as we proposed it, embraces two aspects of established deterrence theory. The first is that by demonstrating that the United States can continue to conduct its military operations by drawing on commercial or allied systems, an adversary is denied the benefits of a limited attack.2 It follows, then, that to achieve an advantage by attacking space assets, an aggressor must be willing to move against a far larger number of targets, controlled both by individual states or multinational corporations who do not need to be involved in a formal alliance to take exception to having their systems (and their business model) disrupted.

The response taken by nation states and multinational corporations will differ, of course. Military retaliation is an option for the former, which is what Stone would have placed in the first rank of a deterrence strategy. This is problematic for the space domain in several ways. As previously argued, retaliation against an aggressor’s space systems may not be effective in stopping the advance of enemy forces if they are not particularly reliant on their own orbital assets once the battle has begun. What may be more effective in affecting an adversary’s cost-benefit analysis is the threat of horizontal escalation: attacking some other target or thing of value on Earth. The problem with such threats is that they may not be viewed as credible by hostile actors in the early stages of a conflict, before a “shooting war” has begun, which is when deterrence is most desired. Is an adversary really going to be persuaded that the United States would be the first to “go kinetic” in a crisis and strike terrestrial targets when, at that point, the only hostile action has been fully reversible effects against satellites?

The threat of retaliation of this kind makes more sense within a conflict that has already broken out, not as a way to deter it in the first place. Demonstrating retaliatory capability and the will to do so should be part of an overall deterrence framework, which is why we included it as the third of our fourth layers. However, as with norms and entanglement, a deterrence strategy for space must be prepared for the prospect that even threats of retaliation will not dissuade all potential adversaries.

Expanding response options beyond the questionable threat of retaliating in kind against an adversary’s space systems requires a better understanding of what they value and creativity to determine ways to hold it at risk.

This is why we argued for a fourth “layer” beyond retaliatory response. The ultimate deterrent for an adversary should rest in the demonstrated ability of the United States to deliver unacceptable damage even if confronted with a broad spectrum of attacks against its space assets as well as those available to its allies and the commercial sector. In the Cold War, the contribution of warfighting strategies to theater or strategic deterrence was extremely controversial, given the devastation wrought by nuclear weapons. As a contribution to deterring attacks against space system, a credible resilient warfighting capability is absolutely essential. If the United States can still deliver unacceptable damage to an enemy, even if deprived of its unique space assets, what material advantage is to be gained for an adversary to invest the financial, military, and political capital to attack those systems?

Most reasonable observers will agree that certain states are making those investments now. Whether they are doing so to gain a military advantage or make a political point is another question. A robust, “layered” deterrence strategy, as the Eisenhower Center proposed and now reflected in the current National Security Space Strategy, provides the best approach to address both the military and political challenges such activities present. It requires investment and continued maintenance of each level, however. Energetic and engaged diplomacy is essential, on the part of America alone and in partnership with allies. Building an entangling web of flexible capabilities involves working not only with nation states, but the commercial sector as well. Expanding response options beyond the questionable threat of retaliating in kind against an adversary’s space systems requires a better understanding of what they value and creativity to determine ways to hold it at risk. Ultimately, it is the demonstrated ability of the United States military to operate even after a “space Pearl Harbor” that will keep the peace, in orbit and on the Earth below.

Endnotes

  1. Dean Cheng, “Winning Without Fighting: Chinese Legal Warfare,” Backgrounder No. 2692, 18 May 2012. (http://report.heritage.org/bg2692)
  2. For a discussion of denial versus punishment in deterrence theory, see Glenn H. Snyder’s Deterrence and Defense: Toward a Theory of National Security, (Princeton University Press, 1961).

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