Updating Space Doctrine: How to Avoid World War III

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What should the United States do if one of its satellites were attacked and the Pentagon had no way to respond in space? The answer to this question is surprisingly revealing about Washington’s space policy.

One of my congressional colleagues said recently, “Let’s take out their ground stations with cruise missiles,” but that made me cringe. When asked a similar question at the National Press Club in March, Gen. John Raymond, chief of operations of the Space Force, said, “There’s no such thing as space war. It’s war,” but that worried me, too. What is the right answer?

Bombing an adversary’s ground station means attacking a sovereign asset like an embassy, probably killing enemy soldiers. Even if the prior attack destroyed one of our key satellites (which is not clear in the hypothetical), retaliating by blowing up a ground station and killing its staff seems disproportionate. If the satellite attack were to fail, bombing a ground station seems belligerent, but not responding at all risks encouraging future attacks. Either way, lowering a space conflict down to Earth means climbing up the escalatory ladder because it forces U.S. leaders to either create casualties on the ground or condone aggression in space.



I thought the new Space Force and the revival of the old Space Command were supposed to give America better options. No U.S. president should be boxed in like that. America needs better answers — and clearer thinking — fast or the Space Force and Space Command will be failures.

The clock is ticking because the United States has been inviting an orbital Pearl Harbor for decades. Gen. John Hyten, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs, calls our military satellites “big, fat, juicy targets.” He’s correct. They are both exquisite and relatively defenseless, just as the U.S. Air Force designed them. There are also constellations of NASA, commercial, and allied satellites that are completely vulnerable. At least the fleet at Pearl Harbor had big guns — its mistake was being caught off-guard. In comparison, most satellites are naked.

Our NATO allies are getting worried. Last month, they confirmed that the alliance’s mutual defense obligations extend to space, in theory bolstering deterrence but in practice expanding the U.S. military’s responsibilities. America’s treaty commitments have astronomical reach because tens of thousands of U.S. and allied satellites may soon be targets, each one dry tinder for war. Sadly, Americans read more about Space Command’s new headquarters than about safeguarding our infrastructure.

The United States can’t fall back on deterrence in space, whether by denial or punishment. No one today finds U.S. space assets too daunting to think of attacking. Satellites follow predictable orbits — the lowest of which can be reached by a missile within five to 15 minutes — and they and their ground stations are equally vulnerable to non-kinetic attacks such as laser dazzling, electronic jamming, and cyber attacks. Countries like China and Russia are exploiting this, which is why they’ve developed arsenals of anti-satellite systems. North Korea and Iran are also in the hunt. With so few satellites of their own to protect, they can focus on playing offense.

Deterrence by punishment, the threat of U.S. retribution after an attack, also seems feeble. The first problem is attribution. Although early warning systems would likely spot the heat flares accompanying an anti-satellite missile attack, determining the source of a sophisticated cyber attack is far more challenging. Absent a “smoking gun” anti-satellite missile launch, the United States would find it difficult to make a persuasive case for retaliation should a sensitive (or classified) space asset suddenly go offline, particularly if officials were uncertain why. There are tens of millions of pieces of space debris too small to track already in Earth’s orbits. How do you prove that space litter was not guilty?

Assuming that the United States can persuasively attribute the attack, then it must convincingly defend against it. America has limited means of doing so but they are highly classified and would seem abstract and hard to believe to the world’s citizens. Forget the pretty pictures of the Rover on Mars — space attacks involve tracking bullets or lasers. America must be able to show its strength without compromising its sources. The U.S. House Armed Services Committee is already focusing on reducing such over-classification.

The sad condition of space deterrence is the reason that discussions of the Space Force and U.S. Space Command quickly turn to avenging satellite attacks on the ground. Since most officers in the Space Force were trained in other services, they over-learned the lessons the Pentagon has been trying to teach since the passage of Goldwater-Nichols in 1986. “Joint warfighting” and “multi-domain warfare” roll off the tongues of many officers. Those are usually the right answers — on Earth.

The Space Force should not take this thinking to orbit. Its official doctrine, published last year, lists multi-domain warfare as its fourth guiding principle, arguing that “not only are space operations global, they are also multi-domain.” That is entirely reasonable when it means that the Space Force serves U.S. troops on every continent. But another interpretation gives the Space Force a pass for 1) having no publicly declared deterrent capability of its own, and 2) risking a ground war following an anti-satellite attack. Such interpretations are either staggeringly presumptuous for a new service or a humble admission that it depends completely on its older, tougher siblings for protection. Neither explanation makes Americans feel secure.

Where does America go from here? First, the United States should create deterrence in space that the world knows and respects, not just reiterate empty and sometimes misleading space doctrines. America needs the will, the technology, and, yes, the publicity, to make deterrence real to potential adversaries. Establishing space deterrence will be made easier by the fact that any nation initiating a space attack would be transgressing a deep taboo, like dropping the atomic bomb on Hiroshima.

Another source of deterrence comes from fully understanding the space environment and its current players. Space wars are, by definition, remote-controlled robot wars. (I say robot instead of satellite because the latter term refers only to altitude and momentum, not other, more important, aspects of space machines.) Fortunately, the United States has a substantial advantage in virtually every field of space machinery. That alone should sober up an attacker.

Other ways of promoting deterrence include warning of denial of U.S. space discrimination capabilities — the ability to identify and track “space junk” — to any nation that crosses red lines, leaving their satellites more vulnerable to space debris. Another is to have legions of replacement satellites ready for launch, like modern terra-cotta warriors, rendering anti-satellite weapons useless. Impossible? That’s what was said about SpaceX’s reusable rockets. Expensive? Today you can 3D print rockets like Relativity Space is doing. Why not print enough rockets and satellites to make them safe through redundancy alone? Space has advantages: You can always make more robots.

Another fundamental of space is the recognition that no one should die for a robot. The laws of war haven’t caught up to this idea yet, but they will. This isn’t self-righteousness. It’s realism. The United States would have a hard time persuading a skeptical global public that it really knows why a U.S. satellite died without divulging national technical means. Even if it were able to positively attribute the attack, the Pentagon would then be put in the awkward position of arguing that twisted metal in orbit is answerable by spilled blood on the ground. Good luck with those arguments — especially in a world already addled with disinformation, which would cloud the credibility of any attribution. As expensive as satellites are, they are cheaper and less consequential than human life.

In my view, the Space Force and Space Command have unique obligations to deter conflict and, if they fail, to keep conflict in space lest it spread uncontrollably. Space attacks are like cancer: They easily metastasize. This is especially true at a time when the Space Force is far from self-reliant and self-sufficient in its hardware, software, or the people who support space systems.

As it matures, the Space Force should remember the phrase “What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas,” because what happens in space should stay in space. This is not permission for the Space Force to misbehave but a rule that the Space Force must clean up its own mess. Outside of Vegas, few people believe your story, even when you are telling the truth.




Jim Cooper is a member of the U.S. House of Representatives. He serves as chairman of the Subcommittee on Strategic Forces.

Image: Space and Missile Systems Center (Photo by Van Ha)