A U.S. Space Force technician conducts GPS interference training with a GPS electromagnetic attack system at Schriever Space Force Base, Colorado. U.S. adversaries will attempt to jam GPS signals during conflicts. Credit: SpaceNews photo illustration/U.S. Space Force photo by Ethan Johnson

In the evolving landscape of space warfare, conflict is shifting into what experts commonly call the “gray zone.”

Unlike traditional conflicts defined by clear boundaries, rules of engagement and identifiable actors, space battles in the gray zone are ambiguous, with military and civilian activities that can be difficult to discern.

“It’s crucial for U.S. policymakers and military leaders to understand the nuances of future competition in space, and how it will likely play out,” said John Klein, military strategist and adjunct professor at George Washington University’s Space Policy Institute.

As the U.S. military seeks to defend American interests in space, it must prepare not only for outright war but also for gray zone tactics that allow rivals to achieve strategic goals without triggering full conflict, Klein said in an interview.

U.S. strategic competitors like China and Russia have become skilled at gray zone activities both on Earth and increasingly in space, he said, such as cyberattacks, satellite jamming and other activities that are hard to attribute definitively.

Chief of Space Operations Gen. Chance Saltzman said the U.S. has recognized these new dynamics taking shape in the space domain, and the Space Force has adopted a strategy of “competitive endurance” to handle protracted rivalry with China and Russia.

The challenge is to actively contest the space power of foreign rivals, he said, even when nations are not actually at war.

“I would prefer to be in a state of competition with the People’s Republic of China, compared to the alternatives of crisis or conflict,” Saltzman said Oct. 18 at the Center for a New American Security.

More attention paid to conventional war

Some experts worry the U.S. military remains too focused on conventional warfighting rather than honing its skills for gray zone competition.

Audrey Schaffer, a former space policy official at the White House National Security Council, said the U.S. government is not structured to deal with these less-than-war activities.

Schaffer is now vice president of policy and strategy at Slingshot Aerospace, a space tracking and data analytics firm.

“One of the challenges that I saw when I was in government is that our entire force structure, not just for space, but arguably our entire force structure is architected for wartime, and more specifically for conventional conflict,” Schaffer said Oct. 12 at an Atlantic Council event.

Honing irregular warfare skills should be part of the Space Force’s strategy of competitive endurance, she said. “We have come a long way in the last few years in terms of thinking about what conflict might look like in space and how we prepare,” Schaffer added.

The U.S. Space Command Joint Operations Center is the commander’s strategic-level command and control node. It provides a unified operational picture of the space environment. Credit: U.S. Space Command photo by Christopher Dewitt

There’s been progress in the cyber domain, but space is going to be even harder, she said, “both because the number of actors in space is growing, but also just for broader geopolitical reasons. The world is becoming more multipolar, and that creates challenges to achieving consensus around difficult topics.”

When the conflict in Ukraine broke out, said Schaffer, threats to space assets became a major issue. It also became clear that “we do not have good benchmarks or understanding of incidents that are happening.”

“Whether we’re talking about irregular warfare or conventional warfare, everything that landed on my desk regarding Ukraine was new,” she said. “It was like we were building the playbook at the moment.”

“We had plans,” she added. “But we had never used them before … and we were learning things in real-time,” Schaffer said.

“The biggest lesson for me is how nascent we are in our thinking about warfare in space, regardless of whether we’re talking above or below the threshold of armed conflict.”

China embraces irregular war

Western military doctrine has traditionally gravitated toward decisiveness and clearly delineated combat operations, making the ambiguity of gray zone warfare harder to grasp, said Dean Cheng, defense analyst and senior fellow at the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies.

China plays the long game, he said. “In the West, we have a very dichotomous view. We are either at peace or we are at war. For China, politics is war by other means.”

These perspectives explain why China has embraced and thrived in gray zone warfare. “The Chinese perspective, which is also true across much of Asia, is that you can trade with someone and still be in conflict with them. You’re always in competition.”

China also understands the information advantages conferred by space systems, Cheng noted. Accordingly, the U.S. should be concerned about its satellite networks being hit by cyber attacks in any type of conflict. China’s thinking is that it will attack satellites or ground stations “because we are at war and we need to establish information security,” Cheng said.

“Cyberwarfare is absolutely a tool for effecting space systems because when the Chinese look at space, it’s very holistic,” he said. “Space is just about what’s in orbit. It’s about the ground stations and the data links that tie it all together.”

‘Revisiting the art of war’

To prepare for irregular warfare and competition with other nation-states, Space Force guardians must cultivate an “adaptive mindset,” said Col. El Gardner, Space Force director of strategy, policy and plans.

“We have to make sure that we are constantly revisiting the art of war and understanding how war might unfold and its various permutations,” he said Oct. 12 at an Atlantic Council forum.

In the Space Force, he said, “We have to raise our collective IQ with respect to warfighting.”

The conflict in Ukraine has become an illustrative case study in gray zone space activities interwoven with terrestrial fighting, and the Space Force is learning a lot from it, said Gardner.

Russia jammed Ukrainian satellite communications, and Ukraine targeted Russian satellite navigation signals. Hackers potentially linked to Russia disrupted a U.S.-owned satellite network providing broadband to Ukraine.

“What we learned from Ukraine is that technological superiority alone does not ensure victory,” said Gardner. “We need to reimagine our strategic thinking.”

‘Lawfare’ in space

In his new book “Fight for the Final Frontier: Irregular Warfare in Space,” Klein highlights another tactic used by China and Russia, which is to exploit legal ambiguities in treaties. This practice, known as “lawfare,” is meant to distort and interpret international treaties or norms in ways that restrict opponents’ actions while permitting their own development of counter-space systems.

China, for example, has carried out cyberattacks while arguing they do not breach existing accords, Klein noted. Its decade-long buildup of artificial islands in the South China Sea is an example of gray zone lawfare tactics in the maritime domain, as the country was able to claim disputed maritime territories without overt naval conflict.

Expert space watchers note that China has made notable advances in rendezvous and proximity operations. Not only did China demonstrate such capabilities in geostationary orbit, but it also has put satellites in lower orbits to perform maneuvers around other Chinese spacecraft.

Klein speculates that China could extend the South China Sea model to space, building quasi-military infrastructure on the moon, which is prohibited by the 1967 Outer Space Treaty.

China conceivably would exploit provisions of the 2020 Artemis Accords to strengthen its competitive edge in a future space economy, where the United States also intends to participate, said Klein.

The NASA-led Artemis Accords, signed by 29 countries to date, are a non-binding set of principles that establish basic norms to guide civil space exploration while ensuring activities comply with the Outer Space Treaty.

Using lawfare tactics, said Klein, China could build out infrastructure and extract resources from the moon within “safety zones” permitted under the Artemis Accords.

“China’s planned expansion in cislunar space isn’t much different than what they’re doing in the South China Sea,” said Joshua Huminski, director of the Mike Rogers Center for Intelligence and Global Affairs at the Center for the Study of the Presidency & Congress.

“They’re trying to push and prod and see what they can get away with in claiming certain areas,” he said.

If China begins an expansionary push on the moon, it should come as no surprise, Huminski said. “They have stated their direction in which they want to go, and that is to unseat the United States.”

International treaties, he said, lack specific provisions and enforcement mechanisms to address the nuances of modern space conflict.

Use of inspector satellites

An emerging tool in gray zone warfare in space are dual-use satellites developed for in-orbit services that are capable of close-proximity maneuvers.

These vehicles — now being deployed by Russia and China — have drawn the attention of the Pentagon because of their sophistication. So-called inspector satellites are used for benign purposes like assessing satellites for damage or debris monitoring. But the same rendezvous capabilities can also enable intelligence gathering and counter-space actions.

Some equipped with robotic arms, these vehicles exploit the inherent dual-use potential of most space technologies. In early 2022, it was revealed that China’s Shijian-21 docked with a defunct Chinese satellite in the geostationary belt and towed it to a graveyard orbit. That demonstration raised the specter of counter-space applications conducted under the guise of debris cleanup initiatives.

“It’s an example of the co-orbital threats that we face now,” said Saltzman. “We saw them use a grappling arm to take one of their own satellites and pull it out of its operational orbit into an unusable orbit. And if you can do it with one satellite, you can do it with another,” he said.

“Those are the kinds of threats that we’re trying to create resiliency against,” he said. “And it’s a daunting proposition.”

Russia, for years, has deployed small inspector satellites capable of maneuvering near other space assets, raising concerns about their true intent.

Slingshot Aerospace, in early October, released its analysis of recent maneuvers by Russia’s Luch Olymp K-2 geostationary spy satellite, suspected of conducting signals intelligence-gathering missions in the vicinity of U.S. commercial communications satellites.

This is significant, said Schaffer, considering that in late 2022, the Russian government warned that commercial satellites from the United States and its allies would be viewed as legitimate military targets if they were involved in the war in Ukraine.

“If there was a lesson that we learned from Ukraine is how involved the commercial sector will be in conflict that extends into space,” she said.

“Thinking about warfare in space through an irregular warfare lens or gray zone lens is exactly what we should be doing,” Schaffer said. “Because the very last thing our national leadership wants to do is go to war. We want to deter war.”

The U.S. plans to field more advanced spacecraft with maneuvering and proximity-operations capabilities to counter Chinese threats, and virtually all that innovation is coming from commercial companies.

However, she noted, “If we’re talking primarily about actions short of armed conflict, we don’t have the doctrine, we don’t have the capabilities, we don’t have the plans, we don’t have the theory to really compete in that realm.”

Expert space watchers note that China has made notable advances in rendezvous and proximity operations. Not only did China demonstrate such capabilities in geostationary orbit, but it also has put satellites in lower orbits to perform maneuvers around other Chinese spacecraft.

Proximity operations by Chinese satellites is “something we’re seeing in increasing numbers,” said Dan Ceperley, CEO of the space tracking firm LeoLabs, which uses phased array radars to monitor low Earth orbit.

“It used to be that proximity operations with satellites flying close together were rare, and it took immense budgets and many years to build a system,” Ceperley said Oct. 11 at The Economist’s Space Economy Summit in Los Angeles.

“We started to see a number of proximity operations by China and Russia over the last few years,” he said. “They are getting quite sophisticated … Satellites are getting a lot more nimble.”

LeoLabs, for example, has observed Chinese satellites operating around one another and Russian satellites operating around one another. This might not be an immediate threat to anybody, but it shows how technology is rapidly advancing, he said.

In response, the U.S. military is investing in space monitoring technologies and commercial tracking services.

“Attribution is a key piece,” Gardner said. “We need to ensure that we are properly equipped with the necessary tools and space domain awareness so when the adversary is trying to play this gray zone game, we can say, ‘I see you.’”

Klein noted that the commercial space industry writ large has an important role to play in providing tools that the U.S. military needs to counter gray zone tactics.

While the Chinese space sector is rapidly advancing, he said, the U.S. commercial industry retains an edge in technology, investment and entrepreneurial culture. Maintaining this competitive advantage, Klein said, is viewed as vital to U.S. space defense in the era of great power competition and irregular warfare.

The U.S., in the coming years, plans to field more advanced spacecraft with maneuvering and proximity-operations capabilities to counter Chinese threats, and virtually all that innovation is coming from commercial companies.

Industry analyst Armand Musey of the investment firm Summit Ridge Group said the new space race requires governments to better understand the technologies coming out of the commercial space sector.

Just a decade or two ago, major governments worldwide knew exactly where satellite development was going and relied solely on internal R&D to compete with space rivals, Musey said Oct. 12 on the CNBC “Manifest Space” podcast.

Commercial businesses today are “out-innovating the big aerospace defense companies, and governments really have no idea what’s going to be coming out” in terms of next-generation satellite technology, said Musey.

For the Pentagon, this means it has to be involved “much more deeply in the supply chain, and interact with these companies at earlier stages,” he said. “Otherwise, they’re going to be surprised by something that comes out of another country” that could potentially be used to target U.S. systems.

The grappling satellite that China fielded and raised alarms among U.S. officials relies on technologies available in the commercial market, he noted.

Commercial companies are working on vehicles that can go to space to repair and refuel satellites. “That technology today remains marginally commercially viable,” said Musey. “But it’s incredibly important for defense agencies around the world because that same technology could grab onto a Russian satellite or a Chinese satellite and put it out of commission.”

New era of space warfare

The prospect of protracted competition and irregular warfare in space also creates a political challenge for the Space Force, a new military branch that has to frequently explain to lawmakers what it does and why.

The Space Force will need to learn how to communicate the nuances of this emerging gray zone landscape, as many people still tend to associate space conflict with dramatic kinetic battles akin to Star Wars, Huminski said.

“We need to demystify space,” he added.

The future is not going to be laser cannons in orbit, Huminski said, but Space Force guardians tracking what the Chinese are doing near U.S. satellites, the Department of State pushing back against Chinese and Russian lawfare, and commercial companies trying to harden their systems against cyber intrusions.

“Educating leadership and building support for policies and doctrines addressing this complex new paradigm will be crucial going forward,” he said.

This article originally appeared in the November 2023 issue of SpaceNews magazine.

Sandra Erwin writes about military space programs, policy, technology and the industry that supports this sector. She has covered the military, the Pentagon, Congress and the defense industry for nearly two decades as editor of NDIA’s National Defense...