Posted inCommercial, Military, Opinion

Op-ed | Let’s keep an open dialogue on how to protect satellites on orbit

The conflict in Ukraine has shined a light on the policy ambiguity regarding options available to the U.S. to protect commercial satellites
ASAT collision
A simulation of the Russian ASAT demonstration in November 2021. Much of the debris from that event is in an orbit that periodically lines up with satellites in sun-synchronous orbits. Credit: COMSPOC

The United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs estimated there are at least 8,261 satellites orbiting the Earth. These assets, worth upward of two trillion dollars, enable our national security, economy and civil society. As the National Space Council recognized, space is a “source of American innovation and opportunity.” 

Yet satellites on orbit remain remarkably unprotected. 

Recent Chinese and Russian counterspace tests have made it clear that space is no longer a sanctuary.  The conflict in Ukraine has shined a bright light on the policy ambiguity regarding the options available to the U.S. government to protect commercial satellite operators that are providing data and services in support of current operational requirements. 

Recently, the Office of the Undersecretary of Defense for Research and Engineering established a Defense Science Board Task Force on Commercial Space System Access and Integrity to help think through some of these issues.  As that task force starts to explore these issues here are a few recommendations to consider.

See No Evil

Protecting yourself means knowing that you are being threatened, knowing where that threat is coming from, how they are likely to attack you, and having the contextual understanding of the situation to enable an appropriate and hopefully overwhelmingly deterrent response.  The corollary for satellites is the need for space situational awareness. Previously this was the sole responsibility of the Department of Defense which leveraged ground-based telescopes and radars.

The Department of Commerce has inherited the responsibility for basic SSA, space traffic management and coordination for civil and commercial entities.  Additionally, driven by the enormity of the value of the physical infrastructure launched into space commercial entities are also investing in SSA. The best of these commercial companies bring integrated hardware and software solutions to improve upon the existing data set while also introducing new data and analytics to the users.  

Hear No Evil

When people think of protecting space assets, they may envision far-flung science fiction akin to Star Wars or Star Trek. They may be drawn into a specious debate conflating using space for military purposes versus space weaponization. But it is important to unpack what space protection could look like in the near, mid, and long- term.  

And the good news is that despite what you might hear, the DoD is already taking steps in the right direction. The architectural movement towards disaggregation of mission sets is a form of protection that builds mission assurance.  Popularized in the late 2010s, disaggregation started with breaking apart the strategic and tactical missile warning capabilities that resided primarily in a single unitary satellite. Distributing the mission across multiple satellites is also a form of protection, the rise of megaconstellations for communications reinforces this line of thinking.  

Lastly, embracing non-traditional space actors in new capability areas like radio frequency mapping, domestic synthetic aperture radar, and 3D imagery is also a way to build protection into broader mission architectures that incorporate both government and contractor capabilities.  

Speak No Evil

Space is notoriously overclassified at the expense of leveraging its true contributions to deterrence. Part of the space protection discourse should also include a genuine effort to responsibly declassify information and events, particularly if they are irresponsible and violate norms of behavior. As an international community we cannot hold a competitor accountable for their dangerous anti-satellite testing if we do not acknowledge it happens. Recently U.S. Space Command has been exemplary in attempting to call these actions out.  It is marked forward progress but there is more that needs to be done.  At the end of the day, you cannot deter an adversary with a capability you do not acknowledge exists.  

Two last parting thoughts. First, as are often the case, space operators tend to believe that space challenges require space-specific solutions. This is not true.  

Space protection can and should be fully integrated into the Department of Defense’s broader Joint-All Domain Command and Control Strategy. As Space Command and the Space Force continue to develop requirements and contributions to JADC2, they should also consider the breadth of space protection options to establish the data and technical enterprise.  

And finally, space protection and access need not just be about material solutions. Indemnification, compensation and other contractual relief could all play a part in the broader discourse of space protection options. 

Geosynchronous orbit is 22,236 miles from the Earth’s surface and right now contains over $2 trillion worth of infrastructure investment. Robust, pragmatic, creative, discussions about space protection in the public discourse are welcome and quite frankly overdue. 

Sarah Mineiro is a former staff director of the House Armed Services strategic forces subcommittee, focused on space, missile defense hypersonics, and nuclear weapons.