“While we’re not at war in space, I don’t think we could say we’re exactly at peace either,” Vice Adm. Charles Richard, STRATCOM vice commander, said March 23 at a conference in Washington. Credit: CSIS video

WASHINGTON — Speaking the day after a North Korean missile exploded within seconds of launch, U.S. Strategic Command’s second-in-command said March 23 that the reclusive nation still poses a security challenge, but one that the space domain can help meet.

“The bottom line is that launching a rocket is hard,” said Vice Adm. Charles Richard, STRATCOM vice commander. “Our own history is somewhat of a guide. We weren’t terribly successful at it when we first started doing it, either. But every time we had a failure we learned from it and eventually got to the point where we are today. I think the same thing will happen with North Korea. They are learning from every one of those and it is incumbent upon us to think through where does this end logically in terms of the capabilities that we have.”

One of the biggest aids in dealing with nations like North Korea would be to establish norms and practices of behavior in space, Richard told attendees at “Space Security: Issues for the New U.S. Administration,” a one-day conference hosted by the Center for Strategic and International Studies and the Prague Security Studies Institute here.

Such norms would help nations better understand each other’s actions in space, and give a better indication of when a country like North Korea might be taking offensive action.

“If we have an agreed to set of norms and behaviors, now you start to minimize the chance of miscommunication,” Richard said. “You start to minimize misinterpreting something such that I don’t wind up doing an inappropriate or disproportionate response…Dialogue among all space faring nations goes a long way.”

The U.S. itself needs to decide on how it wants to act in space and potentially respond to an attack, the admiral said. If it doesn’t, the military could have “difficulty determining the appropriate response at times due to a lack of rules of engagement in space.”

“We’re still sorting out answers to the question like what constitutes an attack in space,” Richard said. “What is the indisputable evidence required within the international community to assert violation of sovereign territory in space? What constitutes provocation in space in our view point? If we’re going to act decisively in real time, we have to address these issues both legally and operationally.”

But he warned that the U.S. should not start from scratch when trying to determine how it wants to respond to threats in space.

“We have a lot of history in the other domains that gives us the beginning points of how we probably ought to think our way through this,” Richard said. “Space is different: the physics is different, engineering is different. But some of the questions we are answering have already been answered in the maritime domain and in the air domain so we have precedent to at least start from.”

Having clear agreements in space and clear understandings of what nations consider to be an attack would help not just with North Korea, but with U.S. adversaries like China and Russia, Richard said.

“While we’re not at war in space, I don’t think we could say we’re exactly at peace either,” he said.

The U.S. needs to pursue “a strategy of preparation without provocation,” Richard said.

“It’s our first job at STRATCOM to defend this nation against all strategic threats, and right behind that is to defend and protect the space environment so that every generation in the future, no matter which country that you come from, can dream about exploring it one day,” he said. “It is still something special. It is still a domain that people look up to and dream.”

Phillip Swarts is the military space reporter for SpaceNews. He previously covered space and advanced technology for Air Force Times, the Justice Department for The Washington Times, and investigative journalism for the Washington Guardian;...