from The Internationalist and International Institutions and Global Governance Program

Big Bangs, Red Herrings, and the Dilemmas of Space Security

The Small Satellite Orbital Deployer, in the grasp of the Kibo laboratory robotic arm, deploys a set of NanoRacks CubeSats. NASA/Handout/Reuters

Policymakers should be careful not to focus to excess on the possibility of kinetic warfare in space.

June 27, 2019

The Small Satellite Orbital Deployer, in the grasp of the Kibo laboratory robotic arm, deploys a set of NanoRacks CubeSats. NASA/Handout/Reuters
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Blog posts represent the views of CFR fellows and staff and not those of CFR, which takes no institutional positions.

The following is a guest post by Kyle L. Evanoff, research associate for international institutions and global governance at the Council on Foreign Relations. This post is the third installment in the blog series Transformative Technology, Transformative Governance, which examines the global implications of emerging technologies, as well as measures to mitigate their risks and maximize their benefits.

On March 27, India used a Prithvi Defense Vehicle Mark-II to destroy the 740-kilogram Microsat-R some three hundred miles above the Earth’s surface. The completion of Mission Shakti, an anti-satellite (ASAT) missile test conducted from Dr. APJ Abdul Kalam Island in the northwestern Bay of Bengal, thrust the country into the international spotlight. With the operation, India joined China, Russia, and the United States as the fourth member of the club of nations to have destroyed a satellite with a kinetic ASAT weapon.  

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Analysts pointed to Mission Shakti as a vivid example of growing contestation in the outer space domain. Traditional U.S. dominance in space has eroded as a litany of foreign actors (collaborator and competitor alike) have increased their spacefaring prowess, including through the development and use of ASAT weapons and dual-use uncrewed orbiters capable of space rendezvous and proximity operations [PDF]. Pundits fear that such space technologies could alter the calculus of deterrence to inauspicious effect or, worse, become instruments in an adversary’s enactment of a “space Pearl Harbor.” These fears are valid in some senses, overblown and misleading in others. Developments in space pose significant challenges for strategic stability. Obsessive concern with the remote contingency of kinetic warfare in orbit, however, detracts from efforts to address more pressing space security issues and makes catastrophic outcomes more, not less, probable.

Missiles and Lasers and Viruses, Oh My

Recent years have witnessed burgeoning democratization in the outer space domain as plummeting costs—both for manufacturing satellites and placing them in orbit—and proliferating technologies have enabled new spacefaring actors to deploy assets in Earth orbit. The number of active satellites has ballooned to more than two thousand, and their integration into military operations and civil life has deepened in tandem. Recognition of the indispensability of these orbital assets to numerous areas of strategic competition, and defense planners’ emphasis on offensive capabilities as a deterrence measure, has led states to invest large sums in the development of ASAT weapons of various stripes.

In their April Space Threat Assessment 2019 [PDF] report, Todd Harrison, Kaitlyn Johnson, and Thomas G. Roberts of the Center for Strategic and International Studies outline four categories of counterspace operations: kinetic physical attacks, non-kinetic physical attacks, electronic attacks, and cyberattacks. This litany of potential threats, which vary in their severity, reversibility, ease of attribution, and other aspects, makes U.S. policymakers uneasy. After over half a century of spacefaring pre-eminence, the United States has come to depend on the remote-sensing, telecommunications, and positioning, navigation, and timing capabilities that satellites provide. The resounding defeat of the Iraqi military by American and coalition forces during the Gulf War of the early 1990s underscored the substantial battlefield advantages that orbital capabilities confer, and numerous subsequent conflicts have affirmed the U.S. military’s tactical and strategic reliance on space assets. Proliferating counterspace systems heighten the potential for adversaries to disrupt American command, control, and communications networks, as well as surveillance and reconnaissance operations. In attacking these critical space systems, U.S. adversaries could compromise large segments of the national defense enterprise.

Indeed, an insecure orbital environment poses significant challenges for broader strategic stability. Actors in possession of counterspace capabilities can threaten or attack vital elements of ballistic missile launch detection architectures and other systems integral to national and international security, which opens new avenues for intentional, inadvertent, or accidental dispute or conflict escalation. In this sense, novel satellite vulnerabilities add layers of technical and psychological complexity to already labyrinthine deterrence calculations. The effect compounds in light of the deep integration of satellites into information and communications networks: cyber intrusions into space systems are a tantalizing option for state and nonstate actors, and such operations carry their own elaborate deterrence considerations, not least the difficulty of attribution. The net result is a convoluted deterrence landscape, rife with uncertainty and in constant motion thanks to the rapid clip and often competitive character of technological innovation.   

Swords of Many Edges

For staunch deterrence advocates, this uncertainty justifies expanding counterspace arsenals. In their view, preventing a space Pearl Harbor in which a U.S. adversary launches a crippling surprise attack against American orbital assets requires evincing the certainty of a devastating counterattack. One way of accomplishing this is through the unambiguous demonstration of effective counterspace capabilities. The clearer the demonstration, the better. In this sense, ASAT missile tests, which are easy to attribute and spectacular in nature, hold great allure as a means of signaling orbital strike capabilities.   

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Such tests, however, come with significant drawbacks. The most obvious of these is that they generate large amounts of dangerous space debris, which pose serious hazards to spacecraft. Each new fragment requires monitoring and, in cases of potential collisions, risk assessment and avoidance maneuvers. Debris-generating military operations, in this sense, are a self-defeating proposition. ASAT missile tests also come with nebulous reputational costs, as the corpus of international space law, including the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, emphasizes that uses of space should be peaceful in nature. Likewise, UN Debris Mitigation Guidelines [PDF] affirm the importance of minimizing space junk, a dictum inconsistent with kinetic weapons testing. Western media heaped scorn on India for its violation of the important, if incipient, norm against debris generation, even after the country took pains to destroy a low-altitude satellite in order to minimize the lifespan of the bulk of the fragments.

Another important consideration for would-be ASAT testers lies in the potential for space militarization to ignite or exacerbate international arms races. Although military activities have been a persistent feature of the Space Age, those activities have often furthered peaceful as much as warlike pursuits, as has been the case with many remote-sensing operations and the opening of the U.S. Global Positioning System to civilian use. Militarization is a process rather than a state of affairs, and one that takes various forms at that. Deterrence implications notwithstanding, the development and deployment of counterspace capabilities can drive potential adversaries to develop and deploy similar capabilities, contributing to the erosion of norms of peaceful use.   

Some military planners and policymakers’ assertions to the contrary, space is at present less a domain of warfighting than a domain of deep interdependence. The value of combat support functions performed from space, as important as they are to battlefield success, pales in comparison to that of other satellite-facilitated services, which are vital to myriad aspects of contemporary global society. Common space security interests include minimizing debris-generation, coordinating on satellite placement and radio-frequency spectrum use, monitoring terrestrial and space weather and the global environment, ensuring the integrity of global navigation satellite systems, tracking licit and illicit ground, air, and maritime movements, scanning for hazardous comets and asteroids, and conducting scientific observations and experiments. Many of these require states to work together to maximize benefits and minimize risks. Perceptions that one or more countries are attempting in systematic fashion to exert dominance and preclude other actors’ access to the domain and its benefits, then, carry significant dangers. They bend state behavior toward aggression and actual warfighting.

Security in the Heavens and on Earth

National governments, including that of the United States, should be careful not to make active contributions to such perceptions. Although low-level grey zone aggression has become commonplace for space-linked systems due to the relative ease and reversibility of many cyber and electronic attacks, space remains free of kinetic combat at present, as a recent Secure World Foundation report [PDF] emphasizes. Rather than responding to limited attacks by expanding counterspace arsenals, which carries the risk of contributing to arms race dynamics, U.S. and allied policymakers should accept some amount of limited aggression as more or less inevitable. They should place more emphasis on diplomacy—not weaponry—as a tool in mitigating these sorts of attacks. The United States should work with other spacefaring powers to reach consensus on non-binding rules of the road for space, using the International Code of Conduct for Outer Space Activities [PDF] that the European Union proposed in 2008 as a rough starting point. While new international law could be a greater boon still, formal UN discussions on the Prevention of an Arms Race in Outer Space have yielded little progress since the mid-1980s. A joint Chinese-Russian proposal for a Treaty on the Prevention of the Placement of Weapons in Outer Space, for instance, has significant shortcomings and has drawn open condemnation from the United States. Such paralysis, in tandem with the Trump administration’s and U.S. Senate Republicans’ disdain of multilateral treaties, makes a formal agreement a farfetched proposition for now.  

More important, U.S. policymakers should avoid making decisions on the basis of a possible, though highly improbable, space Pearl Harbor. They should recognize that latent counterspace capabilities—as exemplified in 2008’s Operation Burnt Frost, which saw the United States repurpose a ballistic missile interceptor to destroy a satellite—are more than sufficient to deter adversaries from launching a major surprise attack in almost all scenarios, especially in light of the aforementioned deep interdependence in the space domain. Adding to the deterrence effect are uncertain offensive cyber capabilities. The United States continues to launch incursions into geopolitical competitors’ critical systems, such as the Russian power grid, and has demonstrated a willingness to employ cyberattacks in the wake of offline incidents, as it did after Iran shot down a U.S. drone last week. Unlike in the nuclear arena, where anything short of the prospect of nuclear retaliation holds limited dissuasive power, space deterrence can stem from military capabilities in various domains. For this reason, an attack on a U.S. satellite could elicit any number of responses. The potential for cross-domain retaliation, combined with the high strategic value of space assets, means that any adversary risks extreme escalation in launching a major assault on American space architectures. Again, well-conceived diplomatic efforts are useful in averting such scenarios altogether.  

The United States and its allies should instead focus much of their efforts in space defense on building resilience in critical systems. Adding satellites to and increasing interoperability of important constellations, as well as bolstering cybersecurity, are steps in the right direction. The latter is of particular importance, as the slow development cycles and long lifecycles of some large, exquisite satellites has often left them wanting in digital sophistication. Replacing bulky and anachronistic orbiters with cheaper, nimbler ensembles of small satellites—as the U.S. Department of Defense is considering in some cases—could build resilience, lower costs, and increase functionality in unison.

Doing so would, however, contribute to orbital congestion, a problem of growing importance. In addition to the countless pieces of space debris crisscrossing orbital paths, Earth’s planetary neighborhood is poised in the decade ahead to become a playground for corporate mega-constellations consisting of hundreds or even thousands of satellites each. Today’s ballooning orbital assets promise to become tomorrow’s billiards balls in the absence of effective coordination. To get ahead of the problem, the United States and its allies need to add teeth to incipient debris mitigation norms, flexing diplomatic muscle and imposing penalties in more extreme cases. To their credit, then-acting U.S. Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan and NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine used India’s ASAT test in March as an opportunity to warn of the dangers of space debris (they stopped short, however, of outright condemnation). The U.S. military also needs to make information about collision risks more readily available to private and foreign actors in order to augment space situational awareness. Maintaining such awareness requires numerous monitoring stations placed in disparate terrestrial and orbital locations, making international cooperation a natural fit.

Furthermore, the United States and other countries should facilitate the diffusion and adoption of space and other technologies that pose acceptable security risks. Making efficient use of orbital space and radio-frequency spectrum entails both coordination and utilization of advanced technologies. The U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, for instance, is working to apply machine learning to help reconcile a finite radio-frequency spectrum with increasing demand. Expanding access to technologies of this sort, which contribute to the provision of global public goods, can entail major economic and diplomatic gains. Expanding access requires care, of course, as well as an element of foresight, due to the potential for foreign actors to use exported technologies for malicious purposes. But leaders should recognize the national security gains that can accrue from extending beneficial technologies to other nations—even potential adversaries in some circumstances.

Countries also need to band together to clean up existing space debris. This could be difficult due to cost-sharing disagreements and the incentive to freeride. An added difficulty comes in the form of the dual-use technologies required for a tidier orbital environment. Laser arrays and orbiters capable of proximity and rendezvous operations could become important tools in the fight against space debris. They come with other benefits as well. The former could propel ultra-tiny scientific probes on interstellar voyages over the span of mere decades, and the latter are useful in servicing satellites. Laser arrays could also deorbit rivals’ space assets, though, and orbiters capable of rendezvous could likewise become saboteurs or kamikazes if applied toward adversarial aims. A Russian “space apparatus inspector” became a subject of international controversy last year after a U.S. official raised the matter of its “abnormal behavior” in the UN Conference on Disarmament in Geneva, illustrating the problems of verification that dual-use space technologies present. This incident underscored the importance of transparency and confidence-building measures.

Finally, and above all, U.S. policymakers should recognize the multifaceted and collective nature of space security. The aforementioned space debris accumulation and orbital congestion are two problems that require international cooperation. Technological accidents and malfunctions are another constant risk. Even minor problems with the U.S. Global Positioning System, for instance, hold the potential to endanger human lives and cause billions of dollars of economic losses. International interoperability reduces the damage from such incidents. Likewise, natural hazards, such as near Earth objects, coronal mass ejections, and cosmic rays, come in a variety of flavors and demand a smorgasbord of preventive and responsive measures, many of which are cooperative in nature. Some of these hazards also jeopardize terrestrial security, which has countless links to and is a critical factor in space security, further incentivizing international cooperation. Conversely, space assets are essential for addressing many terrestrial security threats. A prime example is climate change. The next U.S. presidential administration can help tackle the challenge in part by joining the international Space Climate Observatory, an orbital data-sharing initiative.

Prioritizing the numerous issues associated with space security is not easy. Resource constraints, freerider effects, and general uncertainty are ubiquitous problems. For the United States, which assumes an outsized share of the responsibility in providing global public goods in the outer space domain, these considerations are magnified. Numerous dilemmas of defense and collective action add to the difficulties. Policymakers tempted to retreat behind the moat of national sovereignty and nock arrows should recognize, however, that the magnitude of the challenges they confront does not give them free license to act unilaterally. Eschewing diplomacy in favor of dominance and aggression, as the Trump administration has advocated, compounds the difficulties of ensuring security both in the heavens and on Earth, for the nation and the globe. Focusing to too great an extent on browbeating potential adversaries means ignoring or exacerbating numerous challenges outside the realm of interstate conflict. Explosive ordnance, in this sense, tends more to undermine than enhance national security. Deterrence, as with many other things, becomes harmful in excess.

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