Space Council meeting
The National Space Council, meeting Feb. 21 at the Kennedy Space Center, heard testimony about both the threats and opportunities of China's space program. Credit: NASA/KSC

Should dominance be our immediate space security priority? The short answer is no. Why? Doing so jeopardizes achieving the more urgent task of protecting our critical satellites. Dominance may be desirable but, for now, the United States must tackle the weightier task of preventing Russia and China from disabling our key satellites.

Lt. Gen. Robert Ashley, director of the Defense Intelligence Agency; the Air Force’s National Air and Space Intelligence Center; and Defense Intelligence Agency have warned us our satellites are facing a new threat. They’ve spotlighted recent Chinese and Russian testing and demonstration of robotic spacecraft that can switch from refueling, repairing and repositioning their satellites to damaging and pushing ours out of position. This emerging threat will be realized in a few short years.

Our space efforts, however, are not quite focused on this. Of the four pillars underlying President Trump’s National Space Strategy unveiled on March 23, 2018, two focus on enhancing satellite self-defense and strengthening space partnerships with the private sector and our allies. Both pillars are needed. Yet, the internecine fights over how best to organize our space force and efforts to achieve space dominance are consuming so much financial and political capital that space self-defense and partnership strategies are hardly getting the attention they deserve.

Trump’s National Space Strategy states we will strengthen U.S. and allied options to “counter threats used by adversaries for hostile purposes” when deterrence fails. The administration’s Space Policy Directive-3, National Space Traffic Management Policy also mandates that the United States explore “common global best practices, including … a common process by which individual spacecraft may transit volumes used by existing satellites.” These transit volumes are the legalese way to say “safety zones” or “keep-out spheres,” which are the more descriptive terms used by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s Consortium for Execution of Rendezvous and Servicing Operations statement issued Feb. 1.

Super space hawks, however, are uncomfortable with safety zones. Why? They want to protect America’s right to conduct close-up inspections of Chinese and Russian satellites, one satellite at a time (something the United States has actually done since 2016). Their desire to preserve America’s freedom of action to conduct close one-on-one inspections, however, comes at a cost. It unwittingly validates China’s and Russia’s right to threaten our key satellites at close range with an unlimited number of hostile robotic spacecraft.

Space Policy Directive-3, states that “the United States should encourage the adoption of new norms of behavior and best practices for space operations by the international community through bilateral and multilateral discussions with other spacefaring nations, and through U.S. participation in various organizations.”

Why not uphold current practice by announcing that no state should have more than one spacecraft close to any other state’s satellites, without prior consent? This would allow continued close-in space inspections but deprive China and Russia the right to simultaneously attack more than one of our key satellites at close range.

Would China and Russia ever agree? Skeptics say no. The current lack of space rules, they note, favor Moscow and Beijing’s efforts to threaten our satellites to deter us from intervening unilaterally or on behalf of our allies. As authoritarian governments, they can switch their dual-use commercial spacecraft to an offensive mode far more easily than we.

Perhaps, but China and Russia also claim they want to expand their commercial space operations. A June 2019 report found that “in the next two decades, the United States will still have the largest market share in practically every space industrial sector.” If the Western countries adopt space control rules designed to reduce the chance of collisions, China and Russia would have to choose: Observe these tighter rules to enhance their share of the Western commercial space market or stand out as international space security pariahs and rely on domestic and small non-Western markets.

Some question if pushing such space diplomacy will constrain our unfettered access to, and freedom to operate in, space. Wouldn’t this be contrary to the president’s stated desires? Actually, no. The United States and its allies could declare and operate what France calls “space exclusion zones.” The French would protect their zones with their own space situational awareness assets and non-space debris producing protective bodyguard spacecraft. This would hardly restrict our freedom of action. Instead, it would strengthen U.S. and allied options to deter potential adversaries from extending conflict into space.

None of this will be easy. The choice, however, is simple. We can concentrate our political efforts and financial capital in hopes of dominating space in the 2030s. Or we can make a greater effort now to protect our key satellites so we can get to the 2030s safely.

Brian Chow is an independent policy analyst. Henry Sokolski is executive director of The Nonproliferation Policy Education Center in Arlington, Virginia.

Brian Chow (Ph.D. in physics, MBA with distinction, Ph.D. in finance) is an independent policy analyst with more than 170 publications.

Henry Sokolski is executive director of The Nonproliferation Policy Education Center in Arlington, Virginia, and served as Deputy for Nonproliferation Policy in the Cheney Pentagon.