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US military space officials meet in the Joint Interagency Combined Space Operations Center in early 2016, as they and others in government quietly changed the direction of policy regarding the protection of space assets. (credit: Christopher DeWitt/USAF)

A counterspace awakening? (part 1)

Assessing the recent shift in US national security space strategy


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When the Obama Administration released its National Space Policy (NSP) in June 2010, many observers pointed out the rhetorical difference compared to his predecessor’s NSP, especially in regards to national security space.1 The language of the Bush Administration’s NSP departed significantly from previous NSPs and was criticized for being overly nationalistic and aggressive, a perception that the Obama Administration was determined to reverse. Both its NSP and its National Security Space Strategy (NSSS) of 2011 scaled back on rhetoric, and instead opted for what Hitchens and Johnson-Freese called “strategic restraint,” which they defined as forgoing the introduction of “offensive capabilities in hopes of moderating the behavior of both friends and potential foes.”2

While many elements of the new US approach have been extensively discussed in the public domain, there has not yet been a comprehensive overview of this strategic reorientation and the various elements it encompasses.

However, starting around mid-2014, another significant shift in US national security space strategy seemed to emerge, although without an official update to the NSSS. According to US officials, the strategy of strategic restraint had failed,3 given the continued testing of counterspace capabilities by both China and Russia, which reached a qualitatively new level in 2013. Instead, the US now appears to have settled on a strategy of actively responding to these challenges, a strategy that Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC), has recently referred to as “counterspace awakening.”4

While many elements of the new US approach have been extensively discussed in the public domain, there has not yet been a comprehensive overview of this strategic reorientation and the various elements it encompasses. This article tries to analyze the events that triggered this shift, describe the elements of the new US approach, and highlight their purpose, as far as this is possible with publicly available information. Finally, the author attempts to discuss the ups and downs of the current US national security space strategy.

The trigger events

Warnings about Chinese and Russian anti-satellite (ASAT) weapons and other counterspace capabilities from the US national security community are not new. ASATs existed during the Cold War, but due to military and intelligence space assets being mainly used for strategic purposes, both sides exercised a certain degree of restraint, at least when it came to putting ASATs into operational use, since they were considered as destabilizing. With increasing reliance on space assets for conventional warfighting, however, that situation changed.

In 2001, the congressionally mandated Commission to Assess United States National Security Space Management and Organization warned about the growing reliance on, and vulnerability of, US satellites and the possibility of an attack against them, famously described as “Space Pearl Harbor.”5 These warnings received new credibility through China’s ASAT test in 2007 as well as subsequent tests of counterspace capabilities in the years after, and confirmed the views of those who believed that a Space Pearl Harbor was a real possibility in the not-too-distant future.

But until recently, most experts worried mainly about space assets in low Earth orbit (LEO), a region where mostly tactical assets reside. Strategic satellites, such as early missile warning or strategic communication satellites, are mostly located in geosynchronous orbit (GEO) and highly elliptical orbits (HEO). Due to the close link these assets have to nuclear warfighting, there was an implicit understanding in the US that GEO and HEO were considered safe from attack, but that paradigm changed in 2013.

China’s near-GEO rocket launch from May 2013

On May 13, 2013, China launched a rocket from the Xichang Satellite Launch Center on a suborbital trajectory into space. The rocket did not deliver any payload, and 9.5 hours after launch, the object reentered Earth’s atmosphere over the Indian Ocean. These are the facts everyone agrees on.

Despite reassurances by China that their maneuvers were meant to test technologies for satellite maintenance and active debris removal, DoD officials raised suspicions that China’s true motives were “reaching out and touching another country’s satellites.”

The Chinese side claimed that the launch was part of a scientific experiment to study the magnetosphere. The rocket reportedly delivered a payload to an altitude of 10,000 kilometers, at which point a cloud of barium powder was released.6 The US Department of Defense (DoD), on the other hand, claimed that the rocket almost reached geosynchronous orbit,7 and later specified it to be above 30,000 kilometers. It also speculated that this event could have been “a test of technologies with a counterspace mission in geosynchronous orbit.”8 Reuters quoted an anonymous US defense official who said that the “Chinese missile launch […] was the first test of a new interceptor that could be used to destroy a satellite in orbit.”9

Based on publicly available information, two US scholars examined the event. David Wright from the Union of Concerned Scientists calculated the possible altitude of the rocket, mainly using the information that the rocket re-entered Earth’s atmosphere over the Indian Ocean. He concluded that the launch must have reached an altitude between 23,000 and 36,000 kilometers.10 Brian Weeden from the Secure World Foundation studied commercial satellite imagery of the Xichang facility that showed the presence of a military transporter-erector-launcher on one of the launch pads prior to the launch. According to Weeden, “the available evidence strongly suggests that China’s May 2013 launch was the test of […] a new direct ascent ASAT weapons system […] designed to place a kinetic kill vehicle on a trajectory to deep space that could reach medium earth orbit (MEO), highly elliptical orbit (HEO), and geostationary Earth orbit (GEO).”11

Rendezvous and proximity operations of Russian and Chinese satellites

Starting in 2010, both Russia and China tested a series of maneuverable satellites in LEO and GEO. In June 2010, China launched an experimental satellite to LEO that shortly afterwards conducted several maneuvers around another Chinese satellite, including a potential physical contact between the two.12 In July 2013, China launched another three experimental satellites to test on-orbit servicing technology, according to the state-owned press agency Xinhua.13 Shortly after their launch, the satellites began to conduct a number of rendezvous and proximity operations (RPOs) which featured the test of a robotic arm.14 Russia conducted a total of four launches in 2013 and 2014 that delivered maneuverable satellites into orbit. Two of them maneuvered close to the rocket stage that released them, and one even bumped into the stage. Another satellite was delivered to GEO and changed its position several times, closely positioning itself next to US commercial satellites.15

Despite reassurances by China that their maneuvers were meant to test technologies for satellite maintenance and active debris removal, DoD officials raised suspicions that China’s true motives were “reaching out and touching another country’s satellites.”16 The US-China Economic and Security Review Commission, in its 2015 report to Congress, referred to these maneuvers as potential “co-orbital antisatellite systems to target U.S. space assets”17 and that “the dual-use nature of the technology and China’s secrecy surrounding the tests suggest China also is using the tests to develop co-orbital counterspace technologies.”18 Brian Weeden examined the Russian maneuvers and suggested that they were most likely tests of maintenance and inspection technologies, but that they would nonetheless carry a latent ASAT capability.19

The reaction

Due to the dearth of publicly available information, as well as the dual-use nature of some of these events, it is impossible to unambiguously determine the true intention behind these actions. Regardless of their intent, however, they led to what Hitchens and Johnson-Freese called a ““quiet panic’ within the US national security space community”20 due to the fact that GEO and HEO were now within reach of Chinese and Russian counterspace capabilities. An attack on early missile warning or strategic communication satellites, which are part of the US nuclear deterrent and command and control infrastructure, was now a very real scenario.

These concerns were, reportedly, elevated all the way to President Obama, who considered them “totally unacceptable”21 and instructed his administration to fix the situation. This led to the “Space Strategic Portfolio Review” (SPR) in 2014, a classified exercise led by the National Security Council22 that assessed the current threat environment and recommended actions to be taken in order to reduce U.S. vulnerabilities.23 It included input from the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the DoD, and the State Department.24 According to Maj. Gen. Roger Teague, Director of Space Programs at the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Acquisition, the SPR arrived at three conclusions: that it “is critical for the Air Force to be able to identify a threat in space,” that the Air Force “must ensure that its space capabilities can withstand aggressive counterspace programs,” and that it “must be able to counter the space capabilities of adversaries that target U.S. forces.”25 The actions that resulted from these conclusions will be discussed in further detail.

Doctrinal and cultural changes

Starting in the early 1980s, both civilian and military scholars have tried to systematically analyze the different ways in which one can think about the role of the space environment and its use for military operations. A number of schools of thought have been developed by scholars such as David Lupton, Peter Hays,26 or James Clay Moltz,27 through which the following analysis can be framed. Lupton, who first described these schools of thought in 1980, differentiated between the sanctuary, the survivability, the control and the high-ground school.28

While the US government never endorsed any of these characterizations or engaged in public debates about them, recent statements by US officials suggest that it nonetheless thought of space in these terms, and that it is now leaning toward the control school.

These schools of thought can be located along a continuum that displays the role and nature of military activities in space. On the one end, space is a sanctuary in which military assets are used to stabilize the standoff between nuclear powers, but no offensive capabilities are deployed so as to not risk a shooting war that would put at risk the benefits derived from these assets. On the other end, space is a high-ground from which future wars will be decided, and therefore it is essential to possess the full-spectrum of warfighting capabilities in space, including space-based assets for force projection on the ground. In between lie the survivability school, which highlights the value of space systems to support warfighting on Earth, but also considers them to be inherently vulnerable; as well as the control school, which views conflict in space as inevitable and advocates that it is essential to ensure one’s freedom of operation and deny the use of space to adversaries, which requires both defensive and offensive capabilities.29

While the US government never endorsed any of these characterizations or engaged in public debates about them, recent statements by US officials suggest that it nonetheless thought of space in these terms, and that it is now leaning toward the control school. This was best demonstrated by then-Secretary of Defense, Ash Carter, in his testimony at a hearing before the Senate Appropriations Committee in April 2016:

While at times in the past space was seen as a sanctuary, new and emerging threats make clear that’s not the case anymore, and we must be prepared for the possibility of a conflict that extends into space.30

If space is now considered to be a warfighting domain, then the military has to adapt its thinking accordingly. Gen. John Hyten, currently Commander of the US Strategic Command (STRATCOM), emphasized this point in recent testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee:

Space is a warfighting domain just like the air, the ground, maritime and cyber domains. […] [W]e must normalize how we think of space, how to operate in it, and how to describe it to each other. It is unique for many reasons, but the concepts that govern other military operations […] apply just the same.31

This statement best reflects the shifting focus in US military thinking about space activities. It no longer treats space as a conflict-free environment in which its forces only have to consider natural factors, but rather as a warfighting domain in which it has to be able to deal with both environmental and hostile threats.

“AFSPC must transform our culture and build the expertise and skills necessary for our space forces to operate freely, and if necessary, defend themselves in the global commons of space.”

While the US leadership has arrived at these conclusions already, the broader armed forces have not, and therefore, the military is now leading an effort to convey this mindset down the command chain. In June 2016, Gen. Hyten, who was then Commander of the US Air Force Space Command (AFSPC), authored a white paper, titled “Space Mission Force: Developing Space Warfighters for Tomorrow”, in which he wrote:

To ensure our forces are prepared to operate in this new reality, AFSPC must transform our culture and build the expertise and skills necessary for our space forces to operate freely, and if necessary, defend themselves in the global commons of space.32

The Space Mission Force (SMF) is to be implemented in two ways, through training and force presentation. To train space warfighters, AFSPC created a Ready Spacecrew Program (RSP), the purpose of which is to “create a force capable of performing combatant commander-directed missions in the face of dynamic and varied threats.”33 At its core is the advanced training, which Gen. Hyten defines as a “set of formal training requirements designed to advance the skills, knowledge, and competencies of the SMF to ensure mission accomplishment through a [contested, degraded and operationally-limited] environment”34 . The SMF’s force presentation concept, on the other hand, will “improve understanding, provide transparency to combatant commanders regarding available forces and readiness, and […] create a substantial dwell period required for an effective RSP.”35

Endnotes

  1. Smith (2011): President Obama’s National Space Policy: A change in tone and focus on space sustainability, in: Space Policy, Vol. 27, No. 1, pp. 20-23.
  2. Hitchens, Johnson-Freese (2016a): Toward a New National Security Space Strategy: Time for a Strategic Rebalancing. Atlantic Council Strategy Paper No. 5, 17 June, p.1.
  3. Hitchens (2016): A pause button for militarizing space, in: Aerospace America, April, p. 42.
  4. McCain (2016): Opening Statement by SASC Chairman John McCain at Hearing on Nomination of General John Hyten to be Commander of U.S. Strategic Command. 20 September. (last accessed: 16 April 2017)
  5. U.S. Department of Defense (2001): Report of the Commission to Assess United States National Security Space Management and Organization: Executive Summary. 11 January, p. 12–15.
  6. Sankaran (2014): Limits of the Chinese Antisatellite Threat to the United States, in: Strategic Studies Quarterly, Vol. 8, No. 4, p. 20.
  7. SpaceNews Editor (2013): China Launches Suborbital Rocket. SpaceNews, 20 May. (last accessed: 16 April 2017)
  8. Office of the Secretary of Defense (2015): Annual Report to Congress: Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China 2015. 07 April, p. 14.
  9. Shalal-Esa (2013): U.S. sees China launch as test of anti-satellite muscle: source. Reuters, 15 May. (last accessed: 16 April 2017)
  10. Wright (2014): How High Did China’s May 2013 Launch Go? Union of Concerned Scientists, 13 March. (last accessed: 16 April 2017)
  11. Weeden (2014): Through a Glass, Darkly: Chinese, American, and Russian Anti-Satellite Testing in Space. The Space Review, 17 March. (last accessed: 16 April 2017)
  12. Weeden (2010): Dancing in the dark: The orbital rendezvous of SJ-12 and SJ-06F. The Space Review, 30 August. (last accessed: 01 May 2017)
  13. Xinhua (2013): China launches three experimental satellites. Xinhuanet, 20 July. (last accessed: 16 April 2017)
  14. Pollpeter (2013): China’s Space Robotic Arms Programs, in: SITC Bulletin Analysis, October. (last accessed: 13 March 2017)
  15. Weeden (2015a): Dancing in the dark redux: Recent Russian rendezvous and proximity operations in space. The Space Review, 05 October. (last accessed: 16 April 2017)
  16. Cf. Hitchens (2016), p. 40f.
  17. U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission (2015): Annual Report to Congress, p. 294.
  18. Ibid., p. 295.
  19. Cf. Weeden (2015a).
  20. Cf. Hitchens, Johnson-Freese (2016a), p. 3.
  21. Gruss (2016a): Satellites in the Crosshairs: Getting Serious About Space Protection. SpaceNews Magazine, 04 January. (last accessed: 16 April 2017)
  22. Cf. Hitchens, Johnson-Freese (2016a), p. 3.
  23. Cf. Hitchens (2016), p. 42.
  24. Gruss (2015a): Disaggregation Giving Way to Broader Space Protection Strategy. SpaceNews, 26 April. (last accessed: 16 April 2017)
  25. Gruss (2015b): U.S. Spending on Space Protection Could Hit $8 Billion through 2020. SpaceNews, 02 July. (last accessed: 08 April 2017)
  26. Weeden (2015b): The End of Space as a Sanctuary: Why America is considering getting more aggressive in orbit. War is Boring, 7 January. (last accessed: 16 April 2017)
  27. Moltz (2011): The Politics of Space Security: Strategic Restraint and the Pursuit of National Interests. Stanford: Stanford University Press, pp. 23–40.
  28. Lupton (1988): On Space Warfare: A Space Power Doctrine. Alabama: Air Force University Press, pp. 33-46.
  29. Hays (2002): Space and the Military, in: Sadeh (ed.): Space Politics and Policy: An Evolutionary Perspective. Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers, pp. 341ff.
  30. Carter (2016): Submitted statement to the Senate Appropriations Committee – Defense on the FY17 Budget Request for the Department of Defense. 27 April, p. 15. (last accessed: 16 April 2017)
  31. Hyten (2017a): Statement of John E. Hyten, Commander, United States Strategic Command, before the Senate Armed Services Committee. 04 April, p. 10. (last accessed: 09 April 2017)
  32. Hyten (2016a): Space Mission Force: Developing Space Warfighters for Tomorrow. 29 June, p. 2. (last accessed: 16 April 2017)
  33. Ibid., p. 4.
  34. Ibid., p. 4.
  35. Ibid., p. 4.

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