The time has come for America to confront the reality that space has been weaponized by our adversaries. Space has long been a peaceful environment for research and commerce on Earth with conditions that deny tyrants the luxury of concealment, the advantage of surprise, and establishes parity on the battlefield.
But all of this has changed.
China and Russia have carefully studied how the United States is uniquely advantaged by, and dependent upon, space. For the last 20 years, they have invested heavily in developing anti-satellite weapons, deploying them here on Earth and in orbit.
There’s a purpose for this — to enable aggression on Earth by denying America and her allies the advantages of space. Allies fight as one force, in communication, aware of the enemy’s disposition, and maximizing our impact through coordinated action. Space gives us that. Russia and China know it. Taking space out of our reach would greatly disadvantage us, emboldening these authoritarian governments to act with coercion and violence to achieve their regional and global objectives.
To keep peace on Earth, we must keep peace in space.
We must deter aggression through a system of capabilities and norms that inspire restraint in our adversaries. There is no simple, single, and quick solution to this problem. It must be viewed within the classical context of nation-state deterrence in a peer environment. This means understanding the motivation for aggression, choosing a deterrent strategy, and fielding credible, obvious capabilities, with a dash of hesitancy inducing uncertainty.
Fundamentally, a nation attacks to achieve a beneficial change in the status quo. Our mission, as a peacekeeper, is to discourage hostile and destructive action.
To do this there are two approaches. One, a nation can allow the adversary the ability to attack, do harm, and achieve the benefit sought. However, to deter this action, we would need to make it clear that we would respond with an overwhelmingly destructive retaliatory cost that far outweighs any potential perceived benefit. This approach is known as the artificial imposition of a reciprocal cost, nuclear deterrence being the classic example.
Alternatively, a nation can seek to render any practical attack ineffective. In an environment where aggression will stimulate severe consequences, an adversary is discouraged from acting when no conceivable attack can succeed. This is clearly the correct approach for deterring aggression in space for several reasons.
An attack in space would not immediately threaten U.S. territory or involve the loss of life. A retaliation on Earth, however, would likely do so, making it morally ambiguous, and likely inspiring wide disapproval. A retaliation in space, meanwhile, would risk fowling the global orbital commons, potentially doing more harm to all involved than the adversary’s initial attack. We must instead seek the means to render attacks upon our space assets ineffective.
There are three legs to accomplishing this goal. We must make our assets more resilient, able to absorb attacks and damage without immediately collapsing. We must also be prepared to rapidly replace critical satellites faster than the attacker can exploit their destruction, and finally, we must deny aggressors easy and unfettered access to our satellites while on orbit.
We can improve resiliency by several means. Firstly, by distributing functions across multiple spacecraft where possible. Next, we should network distributed satellites whenever practical. This ensures that capabilities degrade slowly as individual satellites are destroyed, creating a system that absorbs attacks while continuing to fight. Thirdly, it would complicate the aggressor’s task if our satellites had more ability to maneuver away from threats. Last, but not least, protecting satellites from hostile cyberattacks will ensure they can continue to function, denying this easy attack vector.
Unfortunately, not all space functions can be distributed, networked, or proliferated. To safeguard these critical assets, we should deny the attacker access to them. Today, China and Russia are free to observe our launches and spacecraft with largely unfettered access to approach and attack them. Denying this easy targeting and access is critical.
We must also expect that an adversary will succeed in disabling or destroying some of our limited critical assets as well as clusters of contiguous proliferated low Earth orbit (pLEO) satellites, thus opening temporary windows of action. We can counter this strategy by replacing these with assets stored on the ground or in orbit before adversaries exploit their loss.
There is significant concern today about our adversaries’ lead in developing, deploying, and improving anti-satellite weapons. This challenge has led some to pursue strategies that seek to match or catch up to potential adversaries as quickly as possible.
This is the wrong approach. We must leapfrog our adversaries. While their decades-long effort and massive investment might seem daunting, it is also an opportunity to leverage our most fundamental and enduring advantage — American innovation. This is only possible in a free and open society. Unlike authoritarian governments that stifle individual initiative, freedom of thought, and any challenge to the status quo, we celebrate these things.
The capabilities that Russia and China are using today to threaten the peace in space are many of the old ideas we abandoned at the end of the Cold War when we focused on prevailing in the Global War on Terror. They adopted them and have spent enormous treasure and time turning them into capabilities.
We must seek to make these space weapons irrelevant. In doing so, we will reset the clock. We will deter aggression in space, ultimately deterring violent territorial expansion here on earth.
Tory Bruno is the President and CEO of United Launch Alliance (ULA), the nation’s most experienced space launch company with more than 145 consecutive launches and a 100% mission success rate.