Commentary | Space Resilience, Deterrence, Fast Ships and Harm’s Way

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In 1778, Capt. John Paul Jones was in an anxious search for a frigate that would lead the fledgling U.S. navy in bringing the Revolutionary War back to British shores. In a letter to his French benefactors, he clearly set out his requirements for such a vessel: “I wish to have no Connection with any Ship that does not Sail fast, for I intend to go in harm’s way.” 

In John Paul Jones’ day, you survived at sea first by moving quickly to avoid being hit, and second by being able to rain fire upon the opposing vessel. Jones knew this, which is why he preferred a fast frigate with 30 to 40 guns over a “first rate ship of the line” with many more. In essence, Jones’ requirements were a micro-encapsulation of deterrence theory: Deny benefit to the adversary (move fast to avoid being hit) and impose cost (hit him hard in return). It is a universal axiom as relevant to 21st century naval, land and air planners as it was to their 18th century counterparts. 

And it’s true for space as well. While space capabilities do little to impose costs directly on an adversary, they enable other U.S forces that do. From target identification to precision-guided munitions to long-haul communications and beyond, space underpins the modern way of war and provides the United States with an overwhelming offensive advantage. Regrettably, the corollary to Capt. Jones’ axiom is not true — U.S. space services are not the “fast ships” he sought, and an adversary can gain substantial benefit by targeting those systems. As Jones implied, a credible basis for a defense is built upon your ability to survive in the hostile environment in which you expect to fight.

In his recent testimony to Senate and House Intelligence overseers, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper asserted bluntly that “threats to U.S. space services will increase as potential adversaries pursue disruptive and destructive counterspace capabilities.” His testimony also described Chinese writings that “highlight the need to interfere with, damage, and destroy reconnaissance, navigation, and communication satellites.” 

In all candor, the Department of Defense’s response to this reality has been halting. Not because of a disagreement over the facts; they are accepted and undeniable. Nor is the struggle one of administration or departmental intent — both the National Space Policy and National Security Space Strategy emphatically direct DoD to consider warfighting survivability, or more specifically resilience, in the design and fielding of future defense space architectures. We know we have to restructure space forces for the environment they are likely to face. The struggle is over how one does it — if it can be done at all, how to afford it, and whether or not the non-space DoD majority should even care.

I think they should. Our joint warfighting strategy currently depends upon a space force structure that was, by and large, not designed to go into harm’s way. Over the past three decades, the United States made the choice to leverage space systems for conventional warfighting as we traded numerical force structure for qualitative superiority — superiority based to a substantial extent on those space-derived services. This choice has been reaffirmed in the 2014 Quadrennial Defense Review.

Unfortunately, those services were designed for survival in a strategic environment that counterintuitively does not provide protection in a conventional fight. Where we recognized tactical threats, such as GPS jamming or satellite communications jamming, U.S. space architectures are fairly robustly designed. But against the new threats that Director Clapper describes, or where we have used space services without being mindful of known threats (such as jammable UAV links carried on commercial communications satellites), space forces are the proverbial paper tigers.

The result is a strategically unstable and dangerous situation; one in which U.S. warfighting forces have high reliance on services that have limited resilience. In the eyes of an adversary intent upon achieving its own national goals, and where the United States is likely to stand in their way, space therefore becomes, according to some Chinese writings, an “irresistible and most tempting choice.” With our current architectures, attacks on U.S. space forces provide substantial benefit to an adversary, allowing him to significantly diminish U.S. warfighting effectiveness without engaging manned U.S. systems, while simultaneously reducing the ability of U.S. land, sea and air forces to impose costs. Restated at the strategic level, and as coined by the Chinese, space capabilities are the “soft ribs” of the U.S. conventional force deterrence equation. 

Enter space resilience. Over the last several years, the internal debate on resilience has been framed as a dispute about cost effectiveness, technological achievability or acquisition stability. It’s been peppered with terms like “disaggregation,” “fractionalization,” “small satellites” and “responsive launch.” It focused on specific technical solutions, which in retrospect were too narrow. The result of this debate, however, was to bring focus and attention to the growing vulnerabilities and begin a much-needed dialogue on how to ensure space capabilities are there when needed. 

It is now time to recast the discussion as one of U.S. conventional deterrence and how we assure space can hold up its end of the strategic bargain we all made. For U.S. space leaders and advocates, it is probably the most important discussion many of us have ever faced, and it is one where space planners, strategists, theorists, warfighters and technologists need to band together to derive a solution.

It will take a reframing of our fundamental philosophies in how we design, configure, build, deploy, operate and defend space forces. It will require us to re-examine old notions such as ones that say U.S. space power must only be nationally and governmentally owned and operated, or that protecting the classification of space systems is more important than protecting the system itself. 

It will require that we remind ourselves that Johannes Kepler did not ordain a limited set of four or five fundamental orbits, but that choices exist to move from static, predictable and easily targetable places to ones where we can see the adversary approaching, avoid the attack, and still provide the service. 

It will require that when space units participate in exercises, they, like their land, sea and air brethren, actually maneuver forces, practice tactics and engage in operational deception, rather than simply simulate system failures.

It will require that space leaders adopt new notions about how best to leverage fundamental strengths of U.S. national power, not just the high-end technological capabilities this nation bestows, but the entrepreneurial and commercial competitiveness that differentiates the United States from other nations, and the philosophical world view that enables us to build coalitions with them, just the same. And it will require that we move away from the engineer-derived and cost estimator-validated “conventional wisdom” that the most cost-effective space system is the one that packs the most capability into a single structure to be launched on a solitary rocket. We must realize that, in fact, the system that can be dismantled by a foe with a single shot is the least cost-effective solution you shouldn’t buy.

U.S. space leaders have articulated the vision we seek for our space forces. We, more than anyone else, understand the strategically unstable and dangerous place we now find ourselves in. We also know we can do something about it. For if we don’t, we degrade our ability to deter attacks on space-based forces, as well as attacks on U.S. conventional forces in all domains. 

Our resilience discussion may have gotten off to a slow start, but we are now at a point where we have a shared understanding of the threat and a realistic approach to address it. So while it is interesting to note that we have existing programs, with existing baselines, and existing operational paradigms, space leaders must assure that future resource decisions are aimed at the resilient force structure heading we need, rather than the course we find ourselves on today. We must move swiftly to correct the course, because turning a ship takes time and others are not standing still.

Speaking for myself, I wish to have no connection with any space systems that are not resilient, because I intend to go, and survive, in harm’s way.

 

Douglas Loverro is U.S. deputy assistant secretary of defense for space policy.