On Feb. 20, the USS Lake Erie successfully shot down USA-193, an ailing spy satellite, using a modified anti-ballistic missile interceptor. The shot was not directed at any specific country, but some have suggested it was in response to the Chinese destruction of one of their own satellites 13 months prior. Missile defense as a foothold in space warfare is no longer a theoretical ambiguity. This show of anti-satellite force was a costly mistake if it only serves to instigate or accelerate an arms race in space. However, the United States has an opportunity to forestall the space arms race, and build a more stable space security regime.
If nothing else, the intercept of USA-193 speaks in a language that the Chinese military understands. In the run up to their own anti-satellite test, China’s military academics posited the idea of “space deterrence” as a justifying doctrine. Their reasoning was that China needed a means of threatening foreign assets to deter an opponent. The United States is the nation most dependent on space systems for its warfighting, a dependence that China’s strategists consider in the context of the long “external lines of communication” needed in any Taiwan scenario. By shooting down a satellite of its own, the U.S. military has demonstrated to the Chinese that their act of “space deterrence” could be matched, but what next? In this opening act of space deterrence, the United States has the opportunity to dissuade any other parties from trying to run an arms race, not by threatening greater reprisals, but by asset diversification.
Both the United States and China have now shown the ability and willingness to destroy space-based assets. However, because the United States has an asymmetric dependency on space, there is an acute incentive to move beyond offensive deterrence and mutually assured destruction. To defeat an adversary’s attack – defensive deterrence – would require costly on-orbit defenses, such as radiation hardening, evasion, redundancy and stealth. The economics of space dictates that the cost to defend a satellite system in orbit is much higher than to threaten it. While defensive deterrence is useful, even necessary, to defend certain U.S. space capabilities, it is costly and not always effective.
The Pentagon’s program of Operationally Responsive Space (ORS) is a good example of this. The idea behind ORS is that any satellites that are taken out by an adversary, or by natural causes, can be replaced quickly. In a potential scenario where blinding or cutting off communications to a carrier battle group for a window of minutes or hours may be all that is needed, the days required to redeploy a satellite would render ORS irrelevant.
What is needed is a form of deterrence that the Chinese philosopher-general Sun Zi would have advised: defense in formlessness. Any adversary contemplating an attack on U.S. space assets should be dissuaded by uncertainty as to where and what to strike. In short, the United States should diversify its portfolio of service delivery platforms. By spreading the risk, the incentive to strike any one segment is proportionally reduced. If done decisively and credibly, potential adversaries may even be dissuaded in investing further in anti-satellite weaponry.
New technologies in unmanned aerial vehicles provide an excellent alternative to some satellite platforms, and applications are being explored by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and others. High-altitude long-loiter aircraft can provide redundant or replacement services, and can be on station faster and cheaper than any orbiting asset. Sounding rockets, airplanes, dirigibles and other “air breathing” platforms can serve as redundancies or replacements if a satellite system is disrupted. These should be incorporated into operational use as soon as feasible. Some applications only can be delivered by satellite, and for these assets, such as the early warning Defense Support Program satellites, there may be no atmospheric alternative. But for many other applications, backup systems can serve as a useful risk management role.
To protect the satellite communications network, the mix of commercial and military communications satellites should operate on a packet-based architecture, similar to how the Internet routes communications. This way no single satellite can be targeted as the carrier of a specific communications link, and if one is disrupted, others in the network can shoulder the burden. Extending this architecture to a consortium of satellite networks makes sense, particularly in the context of existing alliance structures, such as NATO. As other allied nations create linked networks of commercial and military satellite communications, the United States should lead the way in forming a robust, interconnected system in which the sum of parts is more reliable and redundant than the individual networks. As with Galileo and GPS compatibility agreements, this relationship with the European Union and other allies should be seen as a strategic partnership that is core to U.S. interests. The U.S. alliance network is one of its unique national security assets, and should be leveraged in space as an asymmetric advantage.
By obscuring the assets that provide U.S. information dominance, the Feb. 20 shot can be more than a step toward confrontation in space. It also can be the first step in avoiding an arms race that is heavily weighted against the incumbent space power. The task is to build a robust, diversified and redundant system of service delivery platforms, which until now had been provided by satellites only. This is a technical policy and, perhaps especially, a diplomatic challenge that should be taken up now. U.S. national security and international stability depend on it.
David Chen is a research analyst in Arlington, Va. His views are solely his own.