More Space Wargames, Please
How would the United States respond if China or another adversary launched a missile against a vital communications satellite? Is that a clear red line that would result in an immediate military response? And what happens if the U.S. military does — or doesn’t — react?
In the past, military leaders have been better prepared to answer such tough questions than they are now. Consider that during the period between the world wars, the U.S. Navy alone conducted more than 300 wargames focused on future campaigns and tactics in addition to theater-level strategies. The Navy recognized that wargames could skewer erroneous assumptions and complacencies long before the heat of battle, and this effort very likely saved lives. Famously, Admiral Chester Nimitz claimed in the aftermath of World War II that Naval War College wargaming conducted to inform Allied planning ensured that “nothing that happened during the war was a surprise … except the kamikaze tactics.”
Now, both uniformed and civilian national security space leaders need to take advantage of space war games to prepare for deterring and defeating aggression in space. The benefits of expanding investment in space wargaming for these purposes far outweigh the relatively minor investments required to get more of them underway.
From a technological standpoint, defense space strategists are facing challenges that are even more daunting than the radar and sonar inventions of the inter-war period. Advances in today’s satellite design, manufacturing, and launch are upending traditional assumptions about space operations by dramatically decreasing the costs of positioning large numbers of objects in space. And the prospect of space conflict — an event without historical precedent — looms large.
Currently, the U.S. defense community’s analysis of the operational challenges and opportunities associated with space warfare over the next 20 years is insufficiently developed. A vitalized and substantially expanded Department of Defense space wargaming enterprise could play a pivotal role in closing this knowledge gap. Such a program should be organized around achieving the six analytical objectives described below. By answering the questions these objectives highlight, the Department of Defense will deepen its understanding of the evolving space military balance, the most relevant policy levers to influence that balance, and make better strategic choices as a result.
Describe the Geography of Space in Relevant Terms
Space warfighting concepts and operations will be shaped by a wide range of factors, but few will outweigh the impact of three-dimensional space and time. As in air and undersea operations, deterrence and warfighting in the space domain takes place across vast heights, widths, and depths rather than on a roughly flat plane. However, unlike in these other highly three-dimensional domains, the most direct path between two points in orbit, a straight line, is rarely the most economical in terms of fuel. Tradeoffs between energy efficiency and time to destination abound as a result.
Several regions of space are interesting in this context. For instance, due to orbital mechanics, space vehicles operating in medium Earth orbit (between 2000 km and 35,786 above sea level) or geostationary orbit (at 35,786 km above sea level) can maneuver at significantly lower fuel costs than the same platforms operating in low Earth orbit. Another set of locations worth noting, Lagrange Points, offer even more striking advantages. Lagrange Points are positions in space where gravitational forces between two bodies, for example Earth/Sun and Earth/Moon, produce unique regions of attraction and repulsion. These regions can allow objects to be parked with negligible fuel costs and provide space object surveillance and identification that terrestrial networks cannot with the same fidelity. Use of the Lagrange points and orbits around the moon could create new opportunities for surveillance of space, from low Earth orbit to the lunar surface. These are just a few rudimentary examples of space regions with unique properties.
There are many reasons why military professionals that specialize in terrestrial operations might struggle with extending their planning and concept development to include well-developed space components. Fundamentally, movement through and “control” of space is counterintuitive. For instance, almost all satellites deploy into their respective orbits with a fixed amount of fuel and no expectation of replenishment. Thus, defensive or offensive maneuvers outside their predetermined paths have long-term implications both for a given satellite’s longevity and the conduct of its assigned mission. While the abstract concept of space logistics is an interesting one, and on-orbit servicing is increasingly viable, the idea simply doesn’t analogize well with operators’ experience on land, in the air, or at sea. There are also no fixed positions in space from which to exert uninterrupted control of specific locations. There are only varying relative rates of motion, viewing geometries (angles at which one satellite has line of sight to another) and other orbital characteristics that constantly change (Lagrange points being the exception that proves the rule and even they are not strictly speaking fixed points). In practice, this means that commonly held analogies tend to break down. Comparisons between superior capability in a region of space and control over a maritime chokepoint, mountain pass, or airspace are uniformly misleading.
These and other counterintuitive aspects of space operations strongly suggest that wargames designed to identify and explore the implications of space geography on space operations and tactics will uncover other less obvious features that may help mitigate defensive vulnerabilities or enable new offensive approaches. Documenting and building on these features will help improve the department’s understanding of these possibilities and inform future space wargames.
Assess How Space Assets Might Operate in Teams
Every military service trains and equips their frontline units to fight in specific formations and force packages optimized for offense and defense on the modern battlefield. In wartime, the U.S. Navy will operate in carrier strike groups and surface action groups. Similarly, Air Force wings and squadrons will assemble strike packages involving all manner of aircraft, including fighters, bombers, and tankers.
What platform and subsystem combinations might form the most effective packages for space operations?
Historically, each military space asset has been designed to operate as a singular unit, addressing its mission, while working with other widely dispersed elements of an overall architecture. For example, the U.S. military’s Advanced Extremely High Frequency satellites, designed to provide global strategic and tactical communications to warfighters, are positioned in geostationary slots thousands of kilometers distant from one another. The idea of multiple space assets operating closely together, on-orbit, in a coordinated fashion has not been a major part of military thinking on space operations. There is good reason to expect that pattern will not hold for much longer. The rapid proliferation of low-cost and more numerous satellites suggests that new cooperative models will emerge for military purposes as they have in the commercial realm. For example, in the past year I participated in an unclassified future-oriented wargame focused on a high-intensity space conflict and a significant subject was satellite “convoy” tactics. How might satellites with superior maneuvering, protection, and self-defense capabilities like jammers and decoys protect commercial systems from attack? One answer was having space vehicles in vanguard and rearguard positions protecting more vulnerable satellites. Another model could involve placing guardian satellites in retrograde orbits adjacent to the orbits they are intended to protect by sweeping them clean of threats, such as debris fields.
Technical, tactical, and operational space wargames should be organized around answering these and other questions. That will provide Space Force acquisition executives and other leaders foresight as they rush to fill near-term gaps in America’s space posture and capabilities mix.
Explore the Role of Commercial Space Systems
The U.S. military and others increasingly rely on commercial satellites for communications and sensing. This trend has intensified in recent years as the $400 billion worldwide space economy expands into what is expected to become a $1 trillion economy in the next decade or so. Recognizing this shift, the White House has directed that space traffic management transition from the U.S. military to the Department of Commerce.
Commercial constellations, such as SpaceX’s Starlink system of more than seven hundred satellites in low-Earth orbit, provide 5G LTE services worldwide to private customers. Other similarly ambitious projects are poised to follow. This reality creates new opportunities and vulnerabilities for space powers that a tailored series of wargames could help assess. Key questions worth exploring along these lines include: How might the national security architecture make better use of commercial systems? How might the Space Force deter aggression against commercial space assets? To what extent can data gathered by or transmitted across commercial space networks be trusted, given their vulnerability to near-peer cyber capabilities?
The implications of developments in private-sector space launch capabilities also merit more focused treatment. As launch capacity increases, new space deterrence and resiliency options will no doubt appear both for the United States and its great-power competitors. For example, a kinetic attack on a U.S. military satellite need not demand a symmetrical response in a world where large numbers of low-cost replacements or decoys could be rapidly deployed into affected orbits to reconstitute and insulate a beleaguered constellation. Alternatively, competitors could also pursue “preconstitution” by launching numerous satellites into orbit during a crisis to demonstrate capacity and resolve while complicating adversary operational planning. Passive responses of this variety are far more realistic if access to space is relatively cheap and plentiful. They could also offer decision-makers more flexibility in response options and hence more control over escalation dynamics.
Anticipate Technology Competitions
Wargaming helps analysts and the decision-makers they support think through competitions and where they might lead. For instance, if the Space Force puts additional protections on satellites, how might an adversary adjust to compensate? Might investing more in exotic propulsion technologies offer better defensive returns on investment? What would be the relative costs imposed on both sides as this and other cycles of measures and countermeasures unfold? The core problem is that no competitor, even the world’s leading great power, has the resources to dominate all dimensions of high-priority science and technology competitions simultaneously. Looking back to the Cold War, even the technologically moribund Soviet Union maintained advantages in several niche technology areas, such as tank armor, throughout much of that long-term competition. Similar cat-and-mouse games between the United States and its leading competitors continue today in other areas, such as remote sensing and signature reduction. In this context, the United States will have to make informed decisions about which space technology offsets to pursue and which to deemphasize or put aside entirely. A robust space science and technology wargaming program could help inform these decisions at a very low cost.
Tie Space Operations to Combat on Earth
What happens in space will have a decisive effect on Earth militarily, and vice versa. However, many studies and wargames treat one or the other as afterthoughts. For example, in a game focusing on a Western Pacific scenario primarily concerned with clashing naval and air forces, it would not be uncommon for actions in space to be portrayed in the most generic of ways. For example, if there is a sense that some number of the blue team’s space-based communications assets have been disabled, an adjudicator might just make it slightly harder for strikes to hit mobile targets. In reality, a shooter either has sufficient targeting data at a given moment or it does not. In cases like these, players and analysts will seek to understand the real difference between “partially degraded” and “heavily degraded” space communications in terms of impacts on combat outcomes, but will leave with few answers. I’ve participated in wargames and workshops in which participants have recognized that the status of space is vital to answering thorny operational or tactical questions surrounding sea control in highly contested environments and heard adjudicators and analysts push back that “This isn’t a space game,” or “We aren’t prepared to explore that.” It is no longer enough to shrug and press on in situations like these. A new generation of joint wargames with unambiguous, high-fidelity space components could help senior uniformed and civilian leaders identify critical space dependencies for operational concepts. And that will help them ensure the right space-based building blocks for military operations are available to warfighters when and where they need them.
Surface New Concepts, Theories of Victory, and Redlines
Given the range of space platforms, relative orbital dispositions, supporting technologies, and other factors characterizing the military space competition, how do warfighters intend to integrate and employ them for operational advantage? What does victory look like in a space war? Even assuming the United States is well positioned to win future space battles, how far should it press that advantage? These are difficult questions with no easy answers. Arguably, the battlefield information competition lies at the core of future high-intensity conflict, and contested operations in space is the key to that information competition. As such, early and aggressive moves to degrade an adversary’s space control, command and control, and ability to perceive the space environment would appear desirable. Further, disabling their space-based communications and intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance constellation could help seize operational initiative on Earth. On the other hand, carrying out a first strike in the space domain could have far-reaching implications for future use of space given how debris behaves in low Earth orbit. And, of course, there is the risk of rapid escalation if nuclear-armed adversaries fear loss of their space-enabled capacity to sense large threats or command their most critical deterrence assets. Identifying risks and redlines of this variety and integrating them into both operational planning and strategic communications frameworks will be increasingly important.
A Path Forward
The establishment of the U.S. Space Force sets the stage for the defense space community to expand its capacity to think critically about space as a warfighting domain. As a first step, the Department of Defense should establish a space wargaming program, modeled on the Third Offset Strategy’s Wargaming Incentive Fund, established in 2015 by senior defense leaders to reinvigorate analytical wargaming in the U.S. defense establishment. Over the next several years, it yielded 73 wargaming activities across the Office of the Secretary of Defense, the Joint Staff, the services, and combatant commands. These efforts cost only $10 million per year and revealed critical gaps in the department’s thinking and new solutions for further study. While most wargame outputs are classified, U.S. Transportation Command has publicly noted that its events supported by the Wargaming Incentive Fund, exploring logistics challenges in contested environments, yielded a “surprising number” of updates to its tactics, techniques, and procedures.
Establishing a Space Wargaming Incentive Fund structured along similar lines would send an unambiguous demand signal to government, industry, and other potential space wargame suppliers that resources and attention have been mobilized to rapidly expand the space wargaming base and seed early efforts. The fund would also encourage the development of new wargaming visualization tools, supporting models, and approaches.
Taken together, even modest outlays along these lines promise substantial returns in terms of the cost, survivability, and overall effectiveness of the future national security space architecture. As deterrence alone, that is an investment well worth making, because there is no stopping the expansion of great-power competition into space.
Shane Bilsborough is a lead analyst at MITRE’s Center for Technology & National Security. MITRE is a not-for-profit company that operates federally funded R&D centers. The opinion expressed is the author’s and does not necessarily reflect the views of MITRE.