Op-Ed | Applying Weeden’s ‘Real Talk and Real Solutions’ to real space robotic threats  

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Brian Weeden’s Nov. 26 SpaceNews op-ed, “Real talk and real solutions to real space threats,” could finally transform the current conversation from talking past each other to exchanging alternative ideas to arrive at the best solution.

I wholeheartedly agree with his conclusion that “it is critically important that we have a real understanding of the scope, degree, and diversity of the threats facing future use of space that sets the stage for an honest discussion about what step will improve the situation and avoid making it worse. The United States, and the world, has too much to lose in space to get this wrong.”

Surely, to understand the diversity of the threats, we must first understand each specific type of threat before we can draw on the strengths of solutions to individual types for a grander strategy for all threats. Space robotic threats would be the ideal type for the first application of Weeden’s approach because they are urgent, and yet the various solutions being developed for robotic threats lack the benefits of cross-examination and cross-pollination.

China, Russia, the United States, European Union, and other countries will deploy supposedly peaceful robotic spacecraft by the early 2020s and forever thereafter. However, an adversary can re-task these dual-use robotic spacecraft to sidle up arbitrarily close to our critical satellites and, should they attack from such a close proximity, the United States would not have adequate warning to protect the target satellites. The incapacitation of such critical satellites would result in far bloodier and longer warfighting. Fearing this, the United States could be deterred from coming to  the rescue of its allies, thus rendering the alliance system, and the foreign policy based on it, toothless and ineffective. On the other hand, if the United States proceeds to intervene, its adversary could effectuate a space Pearl Harbor.

At the outset, we must correct a wrong notion that bringing up robotic threats would raise doubts about the enormous benefits in the development and deployment of commercial robotic servicing spacecraft. Dual-use systems always have the dangerous side, which can be fixed if we do not ignore it. Thus, the goal is to confront and resolve these threats so as to ensure that robotic spacecraft have an undisrupted and bright commercial future.

In addition to having a real understanding of threats, I agree with Weeden on two other important points:

  • “The United States needs to play a leadership role in not only the development of military might but also comprehensive political and diplomatic solutions to space threats.” As Nobel Laureate Thomas Schelling and Morton Halpern have noted in their seminal study, “Strategy and Arms Control,” an efficient solution would need both “unilateral military strategy” and “arms control.” The military strategy consists of all unilateral measures, which can be carried out without the necessity of the consent of other countries. Arms control includes both multilateral legally-binding measures and voluntary measures. Examples of the former are treaties; examples of the latter are transparency and confidence-building measures (TCBM) and guidelines for the long term sustainability of outer space activities sponsored by the United Nations.
  • “Whether it’s due to political maneuvering, ideology, classification or technical complexity, important details and nuances are often glossed over or left out. This is a huge problem.” Indeed, diversity of ideology could make us pursue different solutions at the start. However, if we have a real understanding and honest discussion of different ideas and solutions including their important details and nuances, we can arrive at the best solution through compromise for the common good.

However, there are five areas needing further clarification from Weeden and others so as to arrive at the best solution to space robotic threats.

First, Weeden said that “the existence of counterspace capabilities is not new,” and “the situation in space today is a more a return to that historical contested space domain than a uniquely new situation, and the destructive counterspace threats of today are also neither newly hatched nor yet operational.” Indeed, counterspace capabilities such as ground-based direct-ascent anti-satellite weapons (ASATs) already exist, and robotic ASATs are not new in this sense. Yet, the truth of the matter is that, regardless of this robotic capability being old or new, the advances in unmanned rendezvous-and-proximity operations mark a quantum leap in a potent counterspace capability that can disable near-simultaneously an intolerable number of our critical satellites without usable warning at the opening of a war. Thus, this is a worrisome counterspace capability not previously seen. Now, in the eleventh hour, we still do not know what an effective strategy for dealing with these robotic threats looks like. With only a few more years to develop, equip and implement the strategy, the U.S. is in bad shape. The nation cannot let our guard down just because the robotic threats of today are not yet operational; rather, the U.S. must be ready to counter these threats, when they arrive. We must heed Weeden’s message and move full throttle toward real talk and real solutions to the robotic threats.

Second, Weeden noted that “while destructive ASATs get the most media and political hype, it is non-destructive attacks such as jamming that are actually being used operationally in conflicts today and pose the most likely military threat.” Unfortunately, space warfare is offense-dominant, and the U.S. needs to defend against all credible threats. Addressing the most likely military threat or threats is inadequate if a less likely threat is permitted to sneak through. Less likely does not mean unlikely. Along the same line, Weeden’s statement that “it is more likely the United States will lose a critical satellite to a space debris impact or a space weather event than to a hostile attack” also needs his explanation of why robotic threats are unlikely or how they can be countered.

Third, Weeden’s current op-ed, as well as his many other writings, focuses on multilateral legally binding measures and voluntary measures to preclude events that may compromise safety and security of other countries’ satellites during close-proximity space operations. I agree the United States “should proactively pursue both types of measures, because they can be highly beneficial. On the other hand, I presume that Weeden would agree that there is not enough time to arrive at a legally binding space arms-control measure that can deal with the robotic threats, when they arrive by the early 2020s. Also, the U.S. cannot count on its adversaries to observe voluntary restraints against threatening or attacking our critical satellites during a crisis or war, especially when their national interests differ from ours.

Fourth, Weeden considered that “the Trump administration’s 2018 National Space Strategy” “echoes the major elements of the Obama administration’s policy on these issues.” His observation seems to have missed Trump’s game changer in self-defense doctrine. All previous administrations including Obama’s were ambiguous whether the United States has the right to counter with self-defense before a space attack occurs. Instead, Trump declared in the National Space Strategy that “if deterrence fails,” the U.S. will “counter threats used by adversaries for hostile purposes.” Countering threats means the right to exercise self-defense when the threat is imminent but before the attack has occurred. As the U.S. is asymmetrically dependent on its satellites to project power over the horizon, it must counter threats before the attacks have a chance to destroy our critical satellites. Therefore, it is important to note that Trump’s doctrinal change makes the defense against robotic attacks more feasible.

Fifth, both Weeden and I likely agree that passive defenses, such as target satellites performing evasive maneuvering, satellite hardening, and using resilient architecture for new satellite constellations, are far less escalatory than active defenses such as bodyguard spacecraft to prevent robotic ASATs from reaching our critical satellites. However, these passive defenses are inadequate to protect vulnerable, large, expensive and few-in-number legacy satellites, which the U.S. will continue to rely on at least during the 2020s. I wonder what Weeden would think of the use of self-defense zones and bodyguard satellites or if there is a more effective solution he would recommend.

In sum, there are different solutions to space robotic threats being proposed. Yet, as Weeden keenly observes, the U.S. lacks a real understanding of these threats and an honest discussion about strengths and weaknesses of alternative solutions. Let all those who are developing solutions heed Weeden’s call to actions now so that we can still find the best real solution and be ready to address robotic threats by the early 2020s and beyond.


Brian Chow is an independent policy analyst and author of over 150 publications. His recent space-related articles appear in Strategic Studies QuarterlySpaceNews, the National Interest, Defense One, Defense News and The Space ReviewHe can be reached at [email protected]