The Space Reviewin association with SpaceNews
 

 
Kuaizhou
Image of a Chinese Kuaizhou launch taken from an access road near the launch site. A version of this rocket may have been used for a high-altitude suborbital launch in May 2013 that could have been the test of an ASAT, part of a growing concern in the US. (Source)

Everybody wants to rule the world


Bookmark and Share

Space has long been metaphorically referred to as the ultimate high ground, although predictions during the early Space Age that it would be decisive for strategic advantage, such as raining nukes down from orbit or even the Moon, proved overblown. Being in space, or even dominating in space, as the United States has done for two decades after the Cold War, has not fundamentally changed political or military situations on terra firma. However, in the past couple of years national security space has become much more prominent in the United States than it was even a short time ago, including receiving a substantial budget increase. That recent development and various issues associated with it were the topics of a May 31 panel discussion in Washington, DC sponsored by The Secure World Foundation.

China conducted a very public anti-satellite weapons test in 2007, but has been less obvious since then, and Russia’s actions have been harder to discern. Clearly both powers are developing new capabilities intended to deny the United States the use of its space systems.

The panel featured several experts on the subject including Brian Weeden, Technical Advisor at The Secure World Foundation; Dr. Peter Hays, Adjunct Professor at The George Washington University; Todd Harrison, Director for Defense Budget Analysis and Senior Fellow with the International Security Program, Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS); and Dr. John Sheldon, Chairman and President, ThorGroup GmbH. The panel was moderated by Victoria Samson, Secure World Foundation Washington Office Director.

Brian Weeden started the discussion by addressing why national security space is now a bigger issue than it was only a few years ago. He said that space is now recognized within the US military as a contributor at all levels, not just the senior, strategic levels of decision making. Much more of the military community cares about space today than even a decade ago.

Weeden said that today there is a lot of discussion about counterspace capabilities, but it is difficult for the public to determine what is going on because information about the activities of the major actors—the United States, Russia, and China—is classified. China conducted a very public anti-satellite weapons test in 2007, but has been less obvious since then, and Russia’s actions have been harder to discern. Clearly both powers are developing new capabilities intended to deny the United States the use of its space systems. Weeden said that the development of Russian counter-space capabilities in the last few years may have led to a shift in US government thinking on satellite vulnerability around 2013–14.

Weeden also referred to the 2011 National Security Space Strategy (NSSS) developed by the Department of Defense and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. The NSSS provided guidance to the US national security space community on how to address the challenges of what they deemed an increasingly “contested, congested, and competitive” space environment. As The Secure World Foundation’s website explains, the 2011 NSSS proposed the following set of interrelated strategic approaches for meeting US national security space objectives:

  • Promote responsible, peaceful, and safe use of space;
  • Provide improved US space capabilities;
  • Partner with responsible nations, international organizations, and commercial firms;
  • Prevent and deter aggression against space infrastructure that supports US national security; and
  • Prepare to defeat attacks and to operate in a degraded environment.

According to Weeden, there has been a lot of effort within the US national security space community since the publication of the NSSS to flesh out the concepts in the document, and to turn some of them into actual programs and hardware. There have also been changes in roles and responsibilities of key military figures, and a significant, albeit largely classified, budget increase in the area of “space situational awareness.” As the Foundation’s website notes, “Outsiders have criticized the current approach as both too weak and too aggressive.”

Peter Hays has worked within the US national security space establishment as both a uniformed Air Force officer and a civilian and has had insider knowledge of how this increased attention to national security space is being translated into actions, although because of classification he is unable to discuss any specifics.

Hays said that one of the arguments that people within the security field make is that they need to keep their actions secret because they “don’t want to create additional incentives” for other countries to develop military space capabilities. He thinks this is a bad argument.

Hays said that in his view, the “diplomatic and economic pieces” are missing from the National Space Security Strategy “and there is no good way to integrate them.” He said that he thinks that overall the NSSS is a good document and it does not need to be rewritten. Hays added that Secretary of Defense Ash Carter is driving the push for improvements in national security space.

Hays said that in his view there is not enough transparency about plans. Too much is classified. He said that one of the arguments that people within the security field make is that they need to keep their actions secret because they “don’t want to create additional incentives” for other countries to develop military space capabilities. Hays thinks this is a bad argument. “They already have incentives,” he said, noting that this includes second-tier actors like India, which may be pursuing its own anti-satellite weapons. Ash Carter is trying to talk about the issues more, but the default position within the bureaucracy is that things should stay the same—i.e. very secret—and Carter will not be the defense secretary forever, so people are just waiting his departure.

One area that Hays said is a problem within the national security space community is the development of new commercial actors. He said that there are no well-developed policies to license or regulate commercial activities. Often new commercial activities don’t fit into any specific category, so they are shoehorned into the imagery category even if they have nothing to do with imagery. Hays characterized the government’s approach as “say no, slowly…” Earlier, Brian Weeden had noted that the US government still does a poor job of addressing commercial imaging outside of the visible spectrum, a reference to a recent report that an American imaging company has been waiting for years for permission to sell infrared imagery gathered from orbit.

Todd Harrison of CSIS was the next speaker and he said that, for the most part, he agreed with Hays with the exception of one issue, arguing that it is time to update the NSSS. He thinks that one major omission from the NSSS is NASA. While NASA is a civilian agency, he said this is actually an asset, because it could be used to engage with non-traditional partners. Harrison said that the United States has an interest in encouraging norms of behavior, and NASA could play an important role in doing that. (As an aside: I have heard others criticize the Obama Administration’s disinterest in using NASA as an international diplomatic tool, and one former official even acknowledges that. So Harrison’s opinion is not an isolated one.)

Harrison also thinks that the NSSS can improve how it addresses commercial space. This should be done with an eye to a longer-term strategy, thinking through “how to foster the industry,” Harrison explained. He said that he thinks that the NSSS “should state that it is our goal to have more than one launch vehicle company,” a comment that drew a few chuckles from the audience. He said that another area of commercial space that it should address is indicating when the US government wants to buy a service versus buying a product.

Finally, Harrison said that the NSSS should address the issues of escalation and deterrence. This is important to creating a more stable deterrent posture, something where the NSSS is currently short on specifics. “A Wild West environment in space is not what we want,” Harrison stated.

In contrast to the previous speakers, John Sheldon disagreed that the NSSS was even necessary. He said that it is “not even really a strategy.” Sheldon said that the current driver behind the development of new capabilities and policies is that, several years ago, President Obama learned that America’s intelligence satellites were threatened and he decided that this was so important that he needed to respond. Sheldon said that it is significant that Obama, a Democratic president, is taking the lead in what was previously viewed primarily—albeit primarily superficially and rhetorically—as a Republican issue. This, he said, “has caused people to take notice.”

Sheldon said that the United States should not “say that we will deter,” rather, it should actually take actions that deter other countries. “It is a psychological relationship,” he said. “You have to threaten violence.”

Sheldon said that talks about the European Union-led “code of conduct” have collapsed and the Russians and Chinese have made substantial inroads with other countries and convinced them of their approach as opposed to the EU’s. The US State Department is also, he said, “walking away from the code of conduct.” Sheldon agreed with Pete Hays that there is a disconnect between the military and diplomatic instruments in the United States which are really all part of the same spectrum, or at least should be.

As to the issue of deterrence, Sheldon said that he believes that there is a deep misunderstanding of what deterrence actually is and spelling it out in a space strategy document is unnecessary. He said that the United States should not “say that we will deter,” rather, it should actually take actions that deter other countries. To illustrate the point, Sheldon harkened back to his days as a nightclub bouncer in Scotland: to deter bad people from causing trouble at the nightclub he didn’t negotiate with them, he intimidated them, making them believe that he would mess them up if they caused problems. “It is a psychological relationship,” Sheldon said. “You have to threaten violence.”

Sheldon said that there are also some odd disconnects within the US national security space community. On the one hand, there is a group of people at Space Command talking about having FAA-type regulation of space traffic, yet there is a whole class of satellites (operated by the National Reconnaissance Office) that the US government will not discuss at all. He also agreed with the other speakers that how the government addresses commercial space remains problematic. Many in the military still talk about commercial space as “lesser than” what the government procures directly. But as one of the panelists noted, there are activities performed by commercial space actors, like broadcasting the Super Bowl, that require very high levels of reliability in order to prevent the loss of tremendous amounts of revenue. There is no longer substantial difference between commercial and military degrees of reliability or technical sophistication.

Sheldon said that a lot of the problems with the national security space program are cultural: people standing in the way of changing procedures and rules because they don’t want to change and don’t see a reason to change, and also because changing threatens their offices, positions, and jobs. But he added with a grim bit of humor: if you think things are bad here, you should see all the other guys.

National security space is not an election issue—and that is probably a good thing. Although it flared up in recent years, it’s probably safe to say that it is not going to go away anytime soon. Whether the situation will become clearer in the coming years seems unlikely. As John Sheldon summarized, the most likely outcome is simply to continue muddling through the issue, hopefully without anybody doing anything stupid.


Home