America Needs a Coalition to Win a Space War
In February, Gen. Jay Raymond, the new chief of space operations and the head of U.S. Space Command, publicly stated that two Russian spacecraft were tailing a U.S. satellite. He said that Russia’s behavior was “highly unusual and disturbing.” On April 15, U.S. Space Command announced that Russia tested an anti-satellite weapon. Russia and China both recognize that American high-precision warfighting is dependent on space systems. According to the U.S. director of national intelligence, both Russia and China are developing capabilities to destroy U.S. satellites in all orbital regimes — at all altitudes. But, unlike in the past, the United States is not on its own. It has allies and partners to turn to.
During the Cold War, the United States and Soviet Union were the two dominant space powers and both worked diligently to develop space weapons. European allies, France in particular, decried efforts to create anti-satellite systems. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the number of spacefaring nations has markedly increased. And, as the world has become more dependent on space systems, attitudes about space security have changed. The United States has demonstrated its commitment to space security through the revival of U.S. Space Command and the establishment of the U.S. Space Force. Other countries have, too. France and Japan, for example, have announced the creation of their own military space commands. NATO has declared that space is an operational domain. Now, the United States has allies who are eager to create a more robust network for monitoring adversary activity on orbit and to establish a unified space doctrine to achieve a resilient space security framework. Washington can build a coalition with its spacefaring allies to effectively prepare for and win a war that extends into outer space. Indeed, the United States should leverage its allies to build a more robust network to monitor and track activities in space. While doing so, Washington should lead its allies and the world to develop norms and practices that prevent destabilizing military activities in space.
The Cold War
During the Cold War, the United States included allies in its national security space activities but only on a limited basis. America’s focus was on reconnaissance satellites, which were a closely held secret. The U.S. government did not even acknowledge the existence of the National Reconnaissance Office until 1992. Space reconnaissance activities were not publicly discussed in any detail. Cooperation in this sensitive area of U.S. space activity primarily involved the limited sharing of space-derived intelligence with select allies. Only the heads of NATO members were briefed on the existence of intelligence satellites. Beyond those heads of states, only the British had privileged access to American space capabilities. The United States shared raw images from imagery satellites with the United Kingdom as far back as the 1960s.
The importance of space systems did not reduce allies’ concerns about the weaponization of space, even when the Soviet threat became more pronounced. In the 1970s, the Soviet Union possessed a co-orbital anti-satellite weapon — a satellite designed to maneuver next to its target on orbit and destroy it — called Istrebitel’ sputnikov or “satellite killer.” The United States promptly responded to the threat. In 1976, then-CIA director George H.W. Bush sent a memorandum to the national security advisor, stating that the United States needed to re-evaluate the vulnerability of its overhead reconnaissance systems. Beginning in 1977, the United States reinvigorated its efforts to develop an operational anti-satellite capability.
In the late 1960s, the British had launched the Skynet-series communication satellites that provided secure communications across the European theater; the system is located in geosynchronous orbit — 22,236 miles from Earth. London was primarily concerned with discouraging the United States and Soviet Union from developing anti-satellite weapons that could reach geosynchronous orbit. The British worried that, if the United States developed anti-satellite weapons that could reach geosynchronous orbit, the Soviet Union would follow suit and threaten Skynet. The British did, however, support the United States in matching the existing Soviet anti-satellite capability.
Most European allies were, however, overtly critical — or lukewarm at best — about America’s efforts to develop an anti-satellite weapon. The French, in particular, were especially critical and called upon the United States and Soviet Union to prevent an arms race in space and implement arms control for anti-satellite weapons. Even as the allies began building their own space capabilities, they were not supportive of U.S. efforts to respond militarily to the Soviet space threat. Many NATO members were not fully aware of how dependent the alliance had become on information derived from space systems. Washington had grown accustomed to pursuing national security activities in space under a shroud of secrecy with minimal allied consultation. The Cold War legacy of U.S. dominance and secrecy has left many in the space community with the mistaken belief that the United States should again go it alone.
In the post-Cold War era, the space environment has markedly changed. There has been a proliferation of both American and foreign commercial space capabilities, an expansion of the number of spacefaring nations, a greater reliance on space systems by not just the United States but also its allies, and a significant growth in the number and sophistication of threat actors in space. While the United States, China, and Russia are certainly the most capable spacefaring nations, Washington’s allies have much to offer to create greater resiliency for space systems and to win a war that extends into outer space. As the threats expand, U.S. cooperation with allies ought to expand as well. Gen. John Hyten, the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has emphasized the necessity of expanding allied relationships in the space arena. Unlike during the Cold War, American allies are willing and eager to collaborate with the United States.
For example, last year, NATO declared space an operational domain. However, this announcement should be followed up with doctrine. In 2019, the U.K. Ministry of Defense published a document entitled “Towards a Defense Space Strategy.” The British government is intent on creating a cadre of space experts that can ensure the security of U.K. and allied national security space systems. Britain’s focus is on space-related training and collaboration with capable spacefaring allies.
Moreover, the United States already cooperates with Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, France, and Germany at U.S. Space Command’s Combined Space Operations Center located at Vandenberg Air Force Base. Additionally, allies participate in the Schriever Wargames that examine “critical space and cyberspace issues in depth.”
Today, unlike during the Cold War, U.S. allies are more aware of the threats to space systems. The United Kingdom has made it very clear that it views space as a warfighting domain. America’s spacefaring allies, therefore, can serve as an important resource for ensuring continued U.S. space dominance.
Current allied involvement is a good start, but more can be done to prepare for war extending into outer space — particularly in two areas: 1) space situational awareness, now more commonly called space domain awareness; and 2) establishing space-behavior norms.
In January of this year, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe announced his country’s establishment of a Space Domain Mission Unit. Additionally, the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs has a stated goal of providing high-quality space domain awareness and of “maintaining four information-gathering satellite systems.” While the unit will be located at Fuchu Air Base and use a radar “capable of monitoring space systems up to an altitude of 5,800 kilometers [3,600 miles],” the Japanese Ministry of Defense “will share information collected by the facility with U.S. forces.” Japan is providing a replicable model for other spacefaring nations.
Allies can make a particularly valuable contribution to space security in the realm of space domain awareness. As an increasingly diverse set of sensors are integrated with U.S. space domain awareness resources, a more accurate picture of adversary activity in space can be achieved. Fundamentally, to obtain better space domain awareness, terrestrial real estate matters. More ground-tracking stations allow the United States and its allies to better track threats on orbit. By using radar and optical systems spread out all over the Earth, it is possible to have much better coverage of potential threats in space. The United States can also work with allies who do not have any space capabilities to install optical telescopes and radar systems that can create a more robust and global network for monitoring space threats. Spacefaring allies, even in the most nascent stage of development, can play an invaluable role in this mission.
In early 2020, French President Emanuel Macron announced his country’s establishment of a space command that will be placed under the French Air Force. According to reports by the French Ministry of Defense, the French space command will develop a modified version of its Syracuse satellites that can observe threats on orbit and use on-board weapons to engage them if necessary. Even if France decides not to arm its satellites in the near term, its Syracuse system will have strong potential for expanding allied space domain awareness in space.
Though London has promised to present a formal U.K. space defense strategy, one has not yet materialized. During the Cold War, Britain was the only European ally that provided political support for America’s efforts to develop space weapons. Up until very recently, however, Britain has been largely silent on space security issues. Last year, then Defence Minister Gavin Williamson said the United Kingdom would remain at the forefront of the space domain. London is investing more in space intelligence capabilities, but it is not keeping pace with the threats from more sophisticated states.
Smaller allied countries might have limited but highly specialized services to offer a space coalition. Estonia, for example, has a reputation for high-tech innovation, especially in cyber security and digital services. Estonia has established its Space Office, which is working with universities and start-ups to develop a broad spectrum of satellites, especially micro-satellites. U.S. investment in countries like Estonia can help create space innovation eco-systems that can contribute to the overall resiliency of allied military space activity.
The integration of allied and international commercial space domain awareness and satellite systems is a necessary task, but there are substantial obstacles to overcome in the process. A RAND report stated that “U.S.-European military space activities suffer a plight equal if not worse than the slate of more traditional interoperability issues that arise among NATO allies.” As more countries contribute to space domain awareness, uniformity of data types will be of even greater importance. Many allied space programs are in a nascent stage and their potential has not been fully realized. Washington should actively encourage and work with European partners in their efforts to develop more capable space systems. As European allies develop more sophisticated capabilities for monitoring the space environment, Washington should push for interoperable systems that enable the seamless sharing of data across NATO.
The United States should work with European partners to develop a framework for monitoring and reacting to adversary threat activity such as a joint architecture for processing data from the many different allied space domain awareness sensors. A unified doctrine would focus on measures that enable foreign government and commercial systems to augment any loss of U.S. capability due to an attack. There are, however, potential legal obstacles and data-compatibility issues that will likely prevent the realization of an effective unified doctrine in the near term. Most importantly, Washington should work with its spacefaring allies to develop comprehensive plans for reacting to an attack on an allied space asset. However, a military response does not have to include an attack on an adversary space system. The fundamental need is having the ability to respond quickly and in a unified manner to any space attack. An integrated diplomatic response should be created for space crises as well.
Establishing Norms in Space
During the Cold War, the United States refused to establish public policies regarding threats to space systems. The State Department and Intelligence Community consistently advised the White House not to even publicly provide a definition of outer space. Refraining from establishing specific and clearly articulated policies is no longer an option in the post-Cold War era.
Allies — and potential allies — can assist the United States in establishing norms in space. If Paris moves ahead with deploying on-orbit weapons, the United States and all other NATO members should work with France to develop specific rules of engagement for the use of space weapons. Fundamentally, France is making it clear that Washington has a potential partner in a space war that is willing to use offensive weapons. It is essential, however, to ensure that there is an agreed-upon framework for using French offensive capabilities to respond to an attack against an allied system. Additionally, Washington should strongly urge Paris not to test any weapon systems against objects in space. Such testing could create debris that is a threat to other satellites and could encourage Russia and China to follow up with similar tests.
Because of greater access to space technology, the number of spacefaring nations will continue to grow while there will be an increase in the number of state actors that possess space weapons. The 2019 Indian anti-satellite weapon demonstration is a case in point. Iran, for another example, could construct a crude anti-satellite weapon in the near term. Therefore, it is imperative for the United States to work with Israel — the most capable spacefaring nation in the Middle East — in monitoring and deterring Tehran from entering the space weapons arena.
Russia’s recent anti-satellite weapon test and tailing of a U.S. satellite, and previous U.S. State Department statements about Moscow’s destabilizing behavior highlight the lack of established norms for military space operations. For example, how close is too close for a satellite? Clearly, establishing a code of conduct in space is something that the United States cannot do on its own. It should be a joint effort with spacefaring allies around the globe. Additionally, it is imperative that America and its allies publicly confront Russia, in particular, about its dangerous behavior in space.
Russia, China, and the United States are especially concerned about rendezvous and proximity operations such as maneuvering close to another space object. If a country conducts rendezvous and proximity operations without providing any warning or explanation, the action could be treated as a hostile military act. Just as an uncoordinated approach by a foreign vessel to a U.S. Navy ship would be treated as an aggressive act, so too should similar maneuvers that involve American and allied spacecraft. Therefore, it is vital for Washington to work with its allies to establish what specific space behaviors will be considered unacceptable and to communicate — and enforce — such standards with aggressive spacefaring nations like Russia and China.
The United States and its allies should work collectively to prevent the testing of weapons in space. The debris generated from these tests poses a threat to the satellites of all spacefaring nations. If more nations begin testing anti-satellite weapons, military space systems could be inadvertently damaged. This situation could lead to an overall escalation in preexisting tension.
The United States and its allies providing a clearly defined code of conduct for national security space activities is a feasible and necessary step to take in the immediate term.
Certainly, though no one wants a war to begin in or extend into outer space, ignoring this possibility would be extremely negligent. The United States possesses highly sophisticated national security space systems that will be a prime target for capable spacefaring adversaries if a conflict should arise. In the past, the United States has presumed it can and will fight alone in space — but that is no longer necessary. Washington can better ensure its dominance in space if it more fully embraces its allies.
Washington would be wise to build a coalition that creates a more robust system for monitoring the space domain, reacting to space threats, and prevailing in a war that extends into outer space. Building a space coalition — especially one that includes allies from Europe, the Middle East, and Asia — is no simple task. But, working towards systems integration and also a common space doctrine is positive step forward towards increased resiliency of the space systems that are essential for precision warfighting. Of course, technical systems cannot be the only focus of the coalition; it should also devote attention to the development of norms for military space activity.
Hyten has stated that “trying to fight alone in space would be a mistake” — a mistake that we cannot afford to make.
Aaron Bateman is pursuing a Ph.D. in the history of science and technology at Johns Hopkins University. Previously, he served as a U.S. Air Force intelligence officer. He has published on technology and military strategy, Russian foreign policy, and Cold War history.
Image: Russian Ministry of Defense