Op-ed | Peace in the Era of Weaponized Space

by and

We are on the verge of a new era in space security: the age of diverse and highly capable dual-use space systems that can serve both peaceful and anti-satellite (ASAT) purposes. These new systems, such as spacecraft capable of undertaking rendezvous and proximity operations (RPOs), ground-based lasers capable of interacting with space objects, and actions in cyberspace, cannot feasibly be banned; nor should they be, as they promise immense civil and commercial benefits. Instead, we must find ways to maintain peace despite their presence.

“Beijing actively seeks space superiority through space and space attack systems. One notable object is the Shijian-17, a Chinese satellite with a robotic arm. Space-based robotic arm technology could be used in a future system for grappling other satellites.” — U.S. Army Gen. James Dickinson, testifying April 20 before the Senate Armed Services Committee. Credit: DoD photo by EJ Hersom

The steps currently being taken by the United States to mitigate counterspace threats are necessary but they will not alone be sufficient — the next generation of ASAT weapons will pose a much greater threat than current systems, and require tailored responses. We stand, as we did in the 1950s and 1960s, at the brink of poorly understood but potentially catastrophic risks. The solution now is the same as it was then: first, to exploit the United States’ democratic advantage in untapped intellectual capital; and second, to harness the power of dissent and rigorous contestation to improve predictions, strategic planning, and cost-effective readiness. To that end, the U.S. Department of Defense should establish an open and permanent forum for submission of ideas by all concerned parties, both inside and outside government, and facilitate on-the-record debate regarding their validity and desirability.

Three next-generation ASATs likely to mature during the 2020s — namely rendezvous spacecraft, ground-based lasers, and cyberattacks — illustrate the urgent need for collaboration, critical interrogation of assumptions, and (re-) examination of a wide range of old and new ideas. All three ASAT types can be developed and deployed under the guise of peaceful applications. Each of these threat vectors will, as they advance, enable counterspace operations with substantially greater strategic and operational impact than is currently achievable.

Moreover, all three next-gen ASATs can be used while producing little space debris — a feature clearly important to China, as evidenced by its pivot to non-debris-producing ASAT tests following major international backlash to its 2007 test of a direct-ascent ASAT, namely a ground-launched ballistic missile that generated thousands of pieces of long-lasting space junk when it collided with China’s Fengyun-1C weather satellite.

THE DUAL UTILITY OF SATELLITE-SERVICING SPACECRAFT

Rendezvous spacecraft provide an excellent case study in the challenges plaguing the status quo. These spacecraft are inherently dual-use: if a satellite can remove space debris from orbit or grapple a friendly satellite for servicing (e.g., for repair, refueling, or in situ upgrades), then it can likely also grapple an adversary’s satellite to change its orbit or disable it. Since 2018, at least 11 high-level space officials and organizations (including former Vice President Mike Pence, Gen. John Hyten, and Gen. John Raymond) have expressed concerns that such RPO spacecraft could be used to threaten our critical satellites from close range. Gen. James Dickinson, the commander of U.S. Space Command, is one of the latest voices to join this authoritative group, testifying on April 20 before the Senate Armed Services Committee that:

“Beijing actively seeks space superiority through space and space attack systems. One notable object is the Shijian-17, a Chinese satellite with a robotic arm. Space-based robotic arm technology could be used in a future system for grappling other satellites.”

It is good news that U.S. government awareness of the rendezvous threat is growing. However, the signs that it is on the horizon have been there for years (China testing began in 2008, if not earlier) and a decade or more is far too long a lag in threat recognition. Worse yet, noticing a serious threat is merely the first step in a chain of traditionally time-consuming moves — e.g., selecting a solution, developing a concept of operations, programming the acquisition, and deploying the measures — to ready our deterrence and defenses. To adequately deal with emerging threat vectors, the U.S. must greatly expedite these processes.

In addition, the solutions required for many next-gen ASATs must be carefully tailored and crosscutting. Three facets of the rendezvous threat illustrate this particularly well.

First, in 2018, the Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space attempted to establish voluntary “measures for the safe conduct of proximity space operations,” but they were promptly blocked by Russia. This highlights that discussions in decision-by-consensus international forums cannot be relied upon to solve the rendezvous threat unless reinforced by external action. China and Russia have a strong incentive to block any such rules — namely, that they could undercut China and Russia’s ability to hold our critical satellites at risk by positioning rendezvous attackers arbitrarily close to them. There are, however, means by which the U.S. could incentivize agreement and compliance: for example, the U.S. could attach economic incentives (e.g. conditioning market access), or push for the use of lawful countermeasures to enforce international legal obligations such as the Outer Space Treaty’s Article IX requirement of “due regard.” But identifying and implementing the ideal solution will not be easy: this exemplifies an issue on which a range of experts should propose alternatives, debate one another, and synthesize the results.

Second, replacing legacy constellations comprised of small numbers of large and expensive satellites with new proliferated constellations of many small, inexpensive satellites has gathered many proponents as a means of reducing vulnerability. Doing so is indeed necessary, but it cannot adequately counter the rendezvous threat. This is because for certain critical and vulnerable satellites in higher orbits — e.g., SBIRS early missile warning satellites, and AEHF satellites for communications in nuclear-disrupted environment — proliferated constellations are technically infeasible, prohibitively costly, or both. Additionally, as noted by Christopher Scolese, Director of the National Reconnaissance Office, there will be “some number of large [and vulnerable] satellites to address questions that only they can.” Thus, these legacy systems and their similar follow-ons are likely to remain vulnerable well into the 2030s, requiring timely warning and defense mechanisms to keep them safe.

Even GPS is likely to be vulnerable by the late 2020s. Thus far, GPS has been broadly resilient to ASAT attack due to various countermeasures and its redundant design. The GPS constellation consists of about three dozen satellites, each orbiting twice daily, only four of which need to be over a given area at once to sustain service. For this reason, degradation is gradual, not catastrophic: even destroying six satellites at once would only deny service to a localized area for about 95 minutes per day. If, however, one could disable most of the constellation, the result would be near-total loss of GPS services worldwide. While this is largely infeasible with current ASATs, by the late 2020s China may have enough RPO-capable small spacecraft to preposition near every GPS satellite, allowing at-will disablement of the entire constellation. These threats underscore the need to carefully examine each next-generation ASAT individually, in order to identify in advance any unique characteristics which might upend prior assumptions. Doing so is the only way to avoid strategic surprise, and would reveal which threats do (and don’t) deserve priority and how solutions should be designed.

Third, the forum would facilitate serious and open debate regarding what capabilities the U.S. should procure and field, and how to do so in time (likely but a few short years). Most counters to the rendezvous threat, for example, will likely require bodyguard spacecraft to implement. This is feasible: both the U.S. government (e.g. DARPA) and the private sector (e.g. Northrop Grumman) have demonstrated increasingly sophisticated RPO capabilities, including the ability to autonomously dock with a target in GEO and make such spacecraft far smaller and cheaper (e.g. via DARPA’s Blackjack program). Despite these advances, however, the U.S. has yet to develop spacecraft for active defense, much less deploy them, and its handful of RPO-capable spacecraft are 10 times as heavy — and, probably, costly — as those under development by Russia and China. The U.S. must quickly develop and deploy bodyguards comparable in quantity and cost to the potential rendezvous ASATs it faces, or it risks adversaries being able to overwhelm our defenses.

LASERS AND CYBERATTACKS

Nor is the need for such a forum limited to rendezvous spacecraft. Two other emergent ASAT threats reveal similar requirements and lack of preparation: ground-based lasers (GBLs) and cyberattacks. As U.S. intelligence agencies including the Defense Intelligence Agency have noted, GBLs will almost certainly become much more capable over the next decade, moving from dazzling or harming sensors to damaging external structures on satellites in LEO. This fundamentally changes the nature of the threat, and requires new solutions — yet, to date, there has been little discussion of such solutions.

Cybersecurity, too, requires swift action and innovative thinking. Many commercial and civilian space systems remain vulnerable. As the U.S. plans to continue increasing military integration with commercial systems, security standards must be improved. Additionally, there is little basis for confidence that military space systems, and particularly their ground segments, are truly cyber-secure now, or that they will remain so going forward.

At the same time, potential adversaries’ cyber capabilities and doctrine are advancing quickly. China’s rapid progress in emerging technology fields could also be a game-changer. One example is Chinese development of quantum communications satellite technology which, as evidenced by the launch of its Micius satellite in 2016, leads all other countries; the result could be that they can hack our space systems but hamstring U.S. response via quantum cryptography.

WHAT’S NEEDED TO KEEP PEACE

As these cases highlight, navigating the era of weaponized space will require a meeting of the minds. For this reason, the Biden administration should establish an institutional mechanism through which a range of ideas can be solicited, exchanged, and directly challenged and defended to filter the signal from the noise.

There is precedent for this. On his first day in office, President Obama signed the Memorandum on Open Government, which stated that “executive departments and agencies should offer Americans increased opportunities to participate in policymaking.” The ensuing Open Government Directive reaffirmed that “the three principles of transparency, participation, and collaboration form the cornerstone of an open government,” and led DoD to quickly establish its Open Government Plan (OGP).

The Biden administration should direct DoD to build on its OGP by adding an Initiative on Public Collaboration for Peace and Prosperity in Space. The first project should be a series of workshops in which relevant experts from the Pentagon and its partners (e.g., contractors and Federally Funded R&D Centers) collaborate with outside experts to assess, compare, and synthesize different proposals to counter specific, individual ASAT threats emerging in the 2020s and 2030s.

As a democracy, the U.S. naturally generates a diversity of ideas. We can either keep them in silos, as we do now, or we can exchange these ideas and subject them to rigorous cross-examination and potential cross-pollination. Standing now at the brink of a new era of weaponized space, our choice should be clear.


Brian Chow is an independent policy analyst with over 160 publications. He can be reached at brianchow.sp@gmail.com. Brandon Kelley is the Director of Debate at Georgetown University, and a graduate student in the Security Studies Program. He can be reached at bwk9@georgetown.edu.

This article originally appeared in the July 2021 issue of SpaceNews magazine.