Beyond Counterspace: Addressing Debris as a Credible Threat in Low Earth Orbit

November 16, 2020
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Its overflight of Russia nearly complete, the United States-based LM700 satellite approached Earth’s polar ice cap as it prepared to cross the frigid Siberian coastline 800 km below. Racing in from the west was a Strela 2M, launched from Arkhangelsk Oblast by the Russian military, on a precise collision course. Despite the approaching threat, the LM700 made no attempt at evasion. Broadcasting continued as scheduled until the Strela 2M impacted at 10 km/s — 10 times the speed of a rifle round — shredding the main bus and achieving a clean mission kill. The only signs of the violent collision were two silently expanding debris clouds and a brewing geopolitical confrontation.

The blatant shootdown of an American satellite over Russia might seem like a fictional case study to highlight the importance of deterrence in orbit. However, the sequence described above has already occurred — although the Strela 2M in this case was not the designation of a Russian missile, but that of a communications satellite better known as Cosmos 2251, launched in 1993 and defunct since 1995. The victim was Iridium 33, a communications satellite launched by Russia for an American commercial firm. Iridium 33’s operators were aware of Cosmos 2251 but received no advance warning of the conjunction risk. As a result, the two were party to the first ever collision between artificial satellites in orbit.



Although the 2009 Cosmos/Iridium incident provided a wake-up call to the aerospace industry, little has changed in the decade since. Despite frequent near-misses and continuing degradation of the debris environment in low Earth orbit, no enforceable debris management program yet exists. Into this environment steps the United States Space Force, with a mandate to protect American and allied interests in space. In contrast to this broad mandate, Space Force doctrine and messaging has adopted a narrow focus on adversary counterspace capabilities as the key threats to security and freedom of action in space. To provide a truly safe and permissive space environment for American and allied interests in low Earth orbit, the Space Force should broaden its focus and directly confront the growing threat posed by orbital debris.

A Serious and Growing Threat

Although space objects have been tracked by the North American Aerospace Defense Command since the launch of Sputnik, NASA’s Donald Kessler provided the first rigorous consideration of space debris in a 1978 paper — the term “Kessler Syndrome” soon entered the public lexicon. Often depicted as a cascade that grows rapidly out of control, the reality is less dramatic but just as implacable: If too many objects are present at a given altitude, random collisions will cause the number of debris fragments to grow faster than they are removed by natural causes. This takes place over years or decades, not hours, but can still result in an orbital environment that prohibits viable operation. Following the Cosmos/Iridium collision, Kessler argued that future control of space debris would require end-of-life planning for all future spacecraft and potentially call for the active removal of defunct satellites and upper stages already in orbit.

The commercial space industry is keenly aware of the problem. A recent near-miss between a Soviet satellite and Chinese rocket body followed a close shave in January between two defunct U.S. satellites. NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine expressed frustration that the International Space Station has performed three debris avoidance maneuvers so far this year, and Rocket Labs chief executive Peter Beck told CNN in October that his company’s launch operations were already feeling the impact of a rapidly crowding low Earth orbit environment. Constellations from SpaceX and Amazon alone are projected to add up to 15,000 new satellites in this orbit (vastly exceeding the 3,200 satellites currently operating), and the U.S. military itself is pursuing a strategy of proliferated low Earth orbit spacecraft, further crowding these orbits and increasing joint force exposure to the risks of debris. Although the problem is often posed as an environmental crisis, this obscures the operational relevance: Space debris poses a near-term threat to freedom of navigation in low Earth orbit for the joint force and a longer-term threat to the secure operation of spacecraft for military and commercial interests alike.

Looking Beyond Traffic Management

Space debris management strategies fall into three main categories: Tracking and traffic management, mitigation of future debris growth, and active removal of existing debris. Mitigation centers largely on regulating and enforcing best practices for launch vehicle and spacecraft end-of-life planning. Debris removal presents much thornier diplomatic issues: A spacecraft that can remove debris from orbit can just as easily remove an adversary satellite, providing orbital anti-satellite capabilities to the operator. In light of these challenges, the United States relies exclusively on tracking and traffic management, largely through the 18th Space Control Squadron and the Space Fence radar surveillance system, which achieved initial operational capability earlier this year. This focus on debris tracking matches published Space Force doctrine: To the extent that space debris drives Space Force core competencies in its August Spacepower capstone publication (debris brooked no mention in the June Defense Space Strategy Summary), it is purely in the context of space domain awareness.

Addressing space debris purely through tracking and traffic control poses two key problems for the Space Force. The first is political: It may not be in charge of debris tracking for much longer. Space Policy Directive 3, published by the White House in 2018, directed the Department of Commerce to take over space traffic management from the Department of Defense. After allowing the directive to languish for two years, the Senate recently moved to codify the directive into law on the basis of a favorable report commissioned to study the issue. Commercial opinion of the move is supportive, albeit with qualifiers — Tim Maclay of Celestial Insight advocated for an expansion of the traffic management mission into a regulatory mitigation role, noting that the agency in charge “is less important as long as we’re making progress in doing it.”

These reservations hint at the second, more critical, debris management challenge: Traffic management on its own is not enough to halt debris growth. Following a 2019 near-miss between two booster segments, Centauri’s Darren McKnight emphasized that an excessive focus on traffic management comes at the expense of debris mitigation and removal methods. Illustrating his point, in April of this year the Federal Communications Commission was forced to punt on a set of new debris mitigation rules, with the voting commissioners expressing concern for the impact of additional regulatory burdens on operators in the United States. Although perhaps justified, these statements suggest that commercial and military satellite operators would be unwise to count on the commission to lead the long and difficult fight against orbital debris.

The notion that an alternate agency should take ownership of debris mitigation is reinforced by recent comments from Rep. Doug Lamborn, a member of the House Space Force Caucus, and Meagan Crawford, managing partner of SpaceFund. Lamborn highlighted the need for better debris mitigation regulations, both domestic and international, adding as a caveat that the United States should “make sure in any treaties going forward that we’re not compromising our security or sovereignty.” Crawford called for an unspecified entity that “crosses the public-private sphere and that can help create these rules and enforce them with the help of groups like Space Force.” Although this essentially describes The Aerospace Corporation, it stands to reason that if the Space Force will be in charge of enforcement, it should also take the lead in writing and issuing mitigation regulations. Armed service branches are typically not associated with the regulation of commercial interests, but the Coast Guard and Army Corps of Engineers contributed extensively to regulation of navigable waters and shipping through the code of federal regulations — a particularly relevant precedent when considering the correspondence between terrestrial maritime and orbital operations. On the international front, directing the Space Force to lead the development of partner nation treaties will ensure that Lamborn’s national security concerns are addressed while also helping to unify domestic regulations and treaty obligations, mitigating the fears of regulatory imbalance expressed by the Federal Communications Commission.

To summarize, the Space Force’s current debris management activities are focused purely on domain awareness and traffic management, approaches that are insufficient to alleviate the problem and may be transferred to the Department of Commerce. In both commercial and government circles there is recognition that additional domestic and international debris management measures are required. Calls for which organization should lead such efforts are typically unspecific, but upon examination the Space Force is the best choice to drive the development and enforcement of new debris mitigation approaches in the United States and abroad. The Space Force may also be well-positioned to lead future active removal efforts, although proper discussion of such a strategy is beyond the scope of this piece.

A Broader View of Space Security

Leading the charge against space debris requires the Space Force to first adopt a broader viewpoint regarding threats to freedom of action and security in space — per Spacepower, these constitute the Space Force’s first cornerstone responsibility and first core competency, respectively. Spacepower does not mention space debris as a threat to freedom of action, instead adopting adversary-focused concepts of space parity, superiority,  or supremacy that are based on Air Force doctrine and do not fully encompass the range of possible scenarios in an orbital environment — in particular, the possibility of a debris-saturated low Earth orbit in which neither party can reliably operate is not considered. Similarly, Spacepower’s discussion of space security as a core competency omits space debris as a driving factor to be mitigated.

Statements by Air Force and Space Force leadership have also focused heavily on adversary deterrence with little attention to debris outside of a domain awareness context. Following India’s anti-satellite test in March 2019, former Secretary of the Air Force Heather Wilson discussed a likely demonstration of counterspace capabilities “so that our adversaries understand that they will not be able to deny us the use of space without consequences.” Comments by Gen. David Goldfein, then the Air Force Chief of Staff, indicated that U.S. forces in orbit aspired to remain “always the predator, never the prey.” Earlier this year, Space Force officials submitted testimony to the House Appropriations Committee discussing the creation of a “broad range of counterspace options” to respond to national security threats.

These statements have prompted persuasive arguments concerning the misconceptions that may cloud discussion of space combat and the dangers of pursuing kinetic anti-satellite development. Furthermore, the extent to which classical deterrence theories will truly defend coalition interests in space should be approached with at least some skepticism. Regardless of how the Space Force chooses to orient its counterspace capabilities, however, one fact is clear: Adversary counterspace capabilities are not the only destructive threat present in low Earth orbit. If the Space Force fails to properly balance its attention to environmental debris threats in addition to those posed by adversaries, it will be leaving coalition operators vulnerable to an increasing number of operational disruptions, major hurdles to rapid or responsive launch capabilities, and, eventually, damage or destruction of spacecraft as the debris problem continues to grow.

To fulfill its cornerstone responsibility of guaranteeing freedom of movement in space to the United States and allied nations, the Space Force should address the problem of space debris head-on. Debris is a current and active threat to all low Earth orbit spacecraft that will continue to grow if mitigation steps are not taken. Although addressing the problem of space debris requires solutions that are collaborative and cooperative as opposed to compulsory, the Space Force already recognizes the inherently multinational nature of space security and is well-positioned to lead a coalition to meet the challenge. As the newest branch of the armed services, Space Force doctrine is already hopeful and forward-looking, envisioning a future of space applications extending ever further from Earth as humanity expands from orbit to the Moon, and beyond. By securing Earth’s orbit against human-caused space debris, the Space Force can ensure this vision becomes a reality rather than an expensive and misplaced dream.



Joe Schoneman is an aerospace engineer and former United States Marine Corps rifleman with expertise in the dynamic and structural analysis of aircraft and spacecraft. His views do not necessarily reflect those of his employer.

Image: NASA