Doug Loverro, U.S. deputy assistant secretary of defense for space policy. Credit: SpaceNews/Kate Patterson.

WASHINGTON — The U.S. must rely on defense rather than offense in deterring a space war, one of the Pentagon’s top space officials said Friday.

Assuring space systems remain operational despite an attack will do more to deter adversaries than the direct threat of force, said Douglas Loverro, the deputy assistant secretary of defense for space policy.

“We think that going down the approach of assurance and denying [an adversary] the benefit from his attack and making it politically difficult for him to attack…that’s a better way to deter attacks in space than depend all upon retaliatory strikes,” Loverro told a breakfast hosted by the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies.

Part of the difficulty in relying on retaliatory attacks is determining when it’s an appropriate response to aggression in space.

“It’s really difficult to go ahead and justify how you might attack somebody’s homeland if they’ve taken out a satellite that you don’t even admit exists,” Loverro said. “It’s difficult politically, it’s difficult emotionally. Probably people are going to die on the ground where nobody’s going to die in space.”

Plus, no one’s exactly defined what an attack against U.S. space assets would look like.

“Is jamming an attack? Is a laser an attack? Does it have to be a kinetic hit on a satellite to be an attack?” Loverro questioned. “That is not even settled in international law and probably won’t be for a long time.”

A better approach, he said, is to “ensure an attack on space has no benefit to our adversaries.”

The U.S. has several options when attempting to make satellites more resilient, and Loverro said the military needs to pursue many different paths to maintain its superiority in orbit.

The Defense Department relies heavily on the capabilities provided by satellites, including global navigation and timing, communications, ground surveillance, and nuclear launch detection. Many military assets have now become integrated into the civilian world as well, such as the near-ubiquitous Global Positioning System.

But most satellites were launched at a time when space was considered a benign environment, and the United States’ near-peer adversaries couldn’t easily destroy assets in orbit. With both the Russians and the Chinese demonstrating the ability to jam satellites or shoot them down with ground-launched missiles, the environment has changed.

As a part of making satellites more resilient to attack, Loverro outlined six major areas the military needs to invest in, which he dubbed “D4P2”:

  • Disaggregation — Separating missions that have different purposes, so that a single satellite is not carrying both conventional and nuclear systems, for example, or surveillance and communication systems.
  • Diversity — Using multiple systems to achieve the same goal, such as having U.S. equipment that can use both GPS and Europe’s Galileo navigation system. That way if an adversary disrupts GPS, U.S. forces could still use allied assets.
  • Distribution — Spreading out capabilities across multiple satellites, so that no one satellite is fundamental to the system working. Loverro again used the example of GPS, where several satellites could be destroyed but the system would keep working.
  • Deception — Not letting adversaries know which satellites are carrying which systems, or other means of misleading an enemy.
  • Protection — Hardening satellites to defend against threats, or giving them ways to avoid incoming threats.
  • Proliferation — Deploying multiple satellites to conduct the same mission. It’s slightly different than distribution in that a single satellite can carry out the complete capability, but the other satellites are providing redundancy and back-ups if the first one is destroyed.

“We need to exercise all six of those different kinds of resilience….in different amounts, in different mission areas, in order to go ahead and get the true resilience we want,” Loverro said.

In addition to resiliency, Loverro said the Pentagon can also improve “reconstitution,” or the ability to quickly replace satellites in orbit if they are destroyed. This could lead to a trade-off for some systems, he noted, as the Defense Department would be more willing to accept losing a few satellites to an attack if they can be quickly replaced.

Yet as the Pentagon prepares for a potential war in space, it’s still not sure what it would look like, Loverro said.

“None of us know how a space war is actually going to turn out,” he said. “None of us actually know how a war — if and when it  extends to space – will actually evolve, where and what phase will it happen, when will it happen in the conflict, how will it be engineered, we don’t know any of that.

“What we do know is it’s our responsibility to assure space capabilities for our terrestrial forces,” Loverro continued. “At the end of the day, what really deters people from going ahead and attacking the U.S. is the notion that the U.S. can bring the other domains into a conflict and defeat any aggression that we may see against the United States.”

Related Reading:

“Space Domain Mission Assurance: A Resilience Taxonomy,” Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Homeland Defense & Global Security, September 2015

Phillip Swarts is the military space reporter for SpaceNews. He previously covered space and advanced technology for Air Force Times, the Justice Department for The Washington Times, and investigative journalism for the Washington Guardian;...