In 2007, China succeeded in an anti-satellite (ASAT) test that alerted the U.S. about the broad vulnerability of its satellites. Since then, the Pentagon has focused on developing resilient solutions to space threats of the 2030s and beyond, while neglecting the rendezvous spacecraft threat that could result in a Space Pearl Harbor in the 2020s. This article proposes a strategy for the Pentagon to improve its current public discourse for deterring this catastrophic attack.
In 2008, China started testing dual-use spacecraft capable of rendezvous and proximity operations. By January 2022, Beijing had successfully docked a rendezvous spacecraft with its own dead satellite in a geosynchronous orbit and maneuvered it to a higher orbit, less than two years behind the U.S. doing the same. The combination of China’s rendezvous and robotic advances and rapid small-satellite manufacturing capability could yield about 200 rendezvous spacecraft capable of forcibly docking and disabling U.S. critical satellites as early as 2026; this army of agile spacecraft is well suited to serve as a “shock and awe” precursor to its military campaign to seize Taiwan.
Back in 2001, the Rumsfeld Commission issued a prescient warning: “Whether the U.S. will be wise enough to act responsibly and soon enough to reduce U.S. space vulnerability. Or whether, as in the past, a disabling attack against the country and its people—a ‘Space Pearl Harbor’—will be the only event able to galvanize the nation and cause the U.S. Government to act.”
Now that such an attack could turn the free world into a hellscape under the thumb of an authoritarian regime in a few years, how well has the Pentagon assured the U.S. public, as well as the international public, that the U.S. will have the capability in time to deter and defend against this fateful assault?
In a discussion with retired Gen. Kevin Chilton on June 12, Vice Chief of Space Operations Gen. David D. Thompson was asked how the Space Force plans to avoid a Space Pearl Harbor. Thompson said that the Space Force has several capabilities to handle an adversary, including an operating “space intelligence enterprise” to analyze “space-based and counterspace threats”; “a broad understanding of space domain awareness” that “focuses on possible threats rather than ‘managing the traffic’”; “joint cyber defense forces” that should prevent surprises from adversaries; and an “emerging ground moving target indicator capability” for the Space Force to “observe and call out bad behavior anywhere on or above the planet.”
In addition to these observational capabilities that warn Washington of an imminent attack, there must be defensive capabilities that prevent any attack from seriously degrading the functions performed by the targeted satellites. Gen. Thompson did highlight “satellite proliferation as key to preventing a devastating surprise attack.” However, I have shown that, while proliferated constellations can make a major contribution to space resilience in the 2030s and beyond, production will not be fast enough to replace or supplement many vulnerable legacy constellations and their legacy-like follow-ons during the 2020s.
Lt. Gen. DeAnna Burt, Deputy Chief of Space Operations, Cyber and Nuclear, shares Gen. Thompson’s sentiments and explained in an interview, reported by SpaceNews on July 11, that if the U.S. wants to prevent a Pearl Harbor-style attack in space, the Space Force has to attribute any nefarious actions, provide warnings, have resilient architectures, and conduct responsible counter-space campaigns that, for example, minimize debris creation.
It is hard to recall any senior space officer, now or in the past, who had openly said more about the plan to counter a Space Pearl Harbor than the two mavericks above recently did. That is to say, in its communications with the public, the DoD has long been focused on the impacts of this aggression but little on how to prepare for it. Talking about the horrors of a looming Space Pearl Harbor without offering the public a basic understanding of its preparedness, the DoD could be creating public fear and losing all-important public support for military spending and actions. Both of these would “undermine the Department’s effort to remain a good steward of the public trust.”
Beyond creating public fear and reducing public support, the repercussions of the DoD’s opacity about its plan could be far worse. Rendezvous spacecraft is a new kind of threat with unfamiliar nuances, and far from adequate data exists from traditional analyses and counters. Fortunately, since 2015, many credible, open articles have made specific suggestions on how to address this rapidly emerging threat. Yet, the DoD has hardly commented on these recommendations publicly, and its preparedness plan disclosed to the public does not reflect that these ideas have been adequately considered. Thus, the DoD’s undisclosed plan remains unchallenged by outside expertise. The DoD and Americans may realize too late that our preparedness was too insufficient and slow to counter a Space Pearl Harbor. This is far from a groundless worry. As Gen. John Hyten, then Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said in 2021, “although we’re making marginal progress, the DoD is still unbelievably bureaucratic and slow” in its response to China’s rapidly advancing space weapons. Instead, the DoD should proactively involve these expert authors as sources of ideas or additional sets of eyes to assure that the U.S. is on the right path to timely preparation.
Moreover, better unclassified dialogue and collaboration may well be sufficient for the Pentagon to attain timely preparedness for a Space Pearl Harbor and assure the public of its safety, provided that these efforts start as soon as possible.
What More the Public Needs to Know Now
The Pentagon has long been using unclassified scenarios and wargames to concretely inform the public as well as itself about planning for readiness. While there are informative wargames relevant to a Space Pearl Harbor that happens as early as 2026, they should be supplemented by frequent interactions and collaboration with individuals who publish openly on issues pertaining to a timely solution to counter such an attack. These activities include on-the-record discussions with these analysts with openly accessible transcripts. There are plenty of patriotic individuals — I include myself among them — who would feel honored to donate their services to help the Pentagon deter this looming disaster.
Gen. Thompson, Lt. Gen. Burt, or the Pentagon can initially address three sets of questions. Following the spirit of scenarios, these questions are specific so that the discussants can, instead of talking past each other, constructively criticize each other and seek common ground. If compromise still cannot be attained, the different camps will write their own positional papers.
Scenario 1: A Space Pearl Harbor within this decade via the use of China’s rendezvous spacecraft. How likely does the Pentagon project this scenario to be? How does the Pentagon plan to be ready to deal with 200 rendezvous spacecraft attackers as early as 2026? Or, for planning purposes, does the Pentagon use a different number of rendezvous attackers and a different date for readiness?
Scenario 2: A Space Pearl Harbor within this decade or later via a different mechanism. If Gen. Thompson and Lt. Gen. Burt have different threat(s) in mind that China may use to generate this game-changing attack, roughly estimate the number of attackers and the soonest date that China is capable of launching such an attack via these alternative or additional means. How does the Pentagon plan to be ready for such threat(s) and what is its target readiness date?
Scenario 3: China creates an imminent threat by prepositioning its rendezvous spacecraft within attacking range. Since 2018, at least 11 high-level space officers and intelligence agencies, without any notable dissent, have publicly stated concerns that rendezvous spacecraft could be used to threaten U.S. critical satellites from close range. As stated above, proliferated constellations cannot be implemented in time to have appreciable effects on space resilience within this decade. What other defensive measures, such as bodyguard spacecraft, is the Pentagon developing and implementing to protect these critical but vulnerable satellites during the second half of the 2020s?
Why the DoD Should Seek More Help from Credible Unclassified Sources
In space, the DoD has been providing a bird’s eye view of space policy, space strategy, space threats, and space defense programs to the public. As for the design, development, and implementation of solutions to specific space threats, the DoD relies on in-house works supported by federally funded R&D centers, the defense industrial base and others. Such a U.S. defense enterprise might be adequate for the first half-century of the space age. The same can no longer be said, as the DoD has been, since 2007, playing catch-up to repair its long neglect of satellite resilience. Moreover, adversaries’ rapid advances in space technologies and weapons, especially those pertaining to ASAT operations, have kept DoD’s hands more than full.
In addition, First Chief of Space Operations Gen. John W. Raymond emphasized that “recent resurgence in deployment of modern direct assent [sic] and co-orbital ASAT capabilities require us to develop and deliver offensive and defensive options in the near-term, while we transition to a resilient architecture able to mitigate attack, assure capabilities, and rapidly reconstitute in the mid- to long-term.” (Emphasis in original.) Yet, the Space Warfighting Analysis Center has been pursuing space resilience for the mid- to long-term but has done inadequately for near-term resilience, especially against “co-orbital ASAT capabilities” (e.g., rendezvous spacecraft threat).
With excessive workloads and already apparent signs of inability to counter space threats of the 2020s, the DoD must seek help. Fortunately, unclassified studies published in credible sources that the DoD has not been taking advantage of are mostly free to the DoD, and the intellectual capital of these authors is an invaluable American resource waiting to be fully utilized.
It is unconscionable not to seek this help in this critical time window to ensure the Pentagon, the U.S., and the free world are prepared for a looming Space Pearl Harbor.