In the 1964 Cold War satire, “Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb,” the United States, the Soviet Union and the rest of the soon-to-be-annihilated world learn the hard way that the whole point of a doomsday machine is lost if you keep it a secret.
That line, delivered by a fictional presidential science adviser to the Soviet ambassador upon realizing that a single unauthorized nuclear first strike has triggered Armageddon, nicely sums up the challenge the U.S. military faces trying to deter China and Russia from initiating attacks against U.S. satellites.
The U.S. military’s most advanced space technologies and tactics to defend satellites are top secret. Deterring enemies is hard to do when you can’t talk about your capabilities to defeat them, said Rear Adm. Michael Bernacchi, director of plans and policy at U.S. Space Command.
Speaking at a National Security Space Association forum, Bernacchi said covertness is necessary to protect sensitive information that could help adversaries, but too much secrecy can run counter to deterrent goals.
“The over-classification is killing us,” he said. There are certain crown jewel technologies that need to be kept secret “in case you’ve got to use them to win. But you can’t keep everything in reserve.”
Since arriving at U.S. Space Command, he said, “I’ve noticed almost everything in space is of such a classification level that I can’t share with our allies. I can’t share with my fellow services … You get to a point where it’s just not productive.”
Lt. Gen. Nina Armagno, director of the Space Force headquarters staff, echoed that sentiment.
Classification “is holding us back,” she said at a Mitchell Institute event. “There’s a reason you protect your treasure, but bureaucracies over the years just keep classifying.”
Space Force leaders worry that keeping U.S. capabilities under wraps is emboldening China. A case in point, said Armagno, is the deployment of Shijian-17, a Chinese satellite with a robotic arm that the Space Force believes could be used to grapple a U.S. satellite.
China insists Shijian-17 is an unarmed technology demonstration satellite “but we see it as a weapon,” said Armagno.
The weapons the Space Force might have in its arsenal to counter aggressor satellites are not publicly disclosed or even discussed with U.S. allies. Armagno said this undermines the United States’ ability to deter development and deployment of systems like Shijian-17.
“If we’re going to be a force that is taken seriously and deters, we need to start showing them things, we need to show them what we have,” said Armagno.
Chief of Space Operations Gen. John Raymond has advocated for more declassification of U.S. space programs. “If you want to deter, you have to be able to message your adversaries,” he told the House Armed Services Committee.
Some small steps have been taken in declassification. The Air Force in recent years has shed new light on its X-37B spaceplane. The Space Force in 2020 disclosed it is operating a newly upgraded ground-based satellite communications jammer. Raymond in March revealed the Space Force is working on a constellation of small radar satellites to track moving objects on the ground, a project that began in 2018 but had been kept secret.
Matt Donovan, director of the Mitchell Institute’s Spacepower Advantage Research Center, said Raymond and other senior leaders have been working behind the scenes to get more information declassified but they face an uphill climb. Decisions are made at the Executive Branch level and several agencies are involved.
Donovan’s organization and other industry groups are making the case that some declassification can benefit national security.
He cited the Air Force’s B-21 stealth bomber as an example of how the military could handle the disclosure of space systems. The B-21 is a classified program so the Air Force only shows renderings and doesn’t disclose the aircraft’s specifications or capabilities. “But everybody knows that we’re building the B-21,” he said.
Donovan suggested the same approach could be applied to space assets. You can say you have a capability. Just don’t reveal specifics that might give an enemy a leg up.
Sandra Erwin covers military space for SpaceNews. She is a veteran national security journalist and former editor of National Defense magazine.
“On National Security” appears in every issue of SpaceNews magazine. This column ran in the July 2021 issue.