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Forthcoming U.S. Space Deterrence Strategy

Apr 08 , 2016
  • Zhao Weibin

    Researcher, PLA Academy of Military Science

Following the White House submission of a cyber-deterrence strategy to Congress in December 2015, the Center for a New American Security released a report titled From Sanctuary to Battlefield: A Framework for a U.S. Defense and Deterrence Strategy for Space (hereinafter referred to as “the Report”) in January 2016. As pointed out by the Report, the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2016 mandated that the U.S. government should develop an integrated policy to deter adversaries in space, hence it can be expected that a U.S. space deterrence strategy is forthcoming, completing American system of strategic deterrence. From the Report as well as other documents and researches, we can get a glimpse of the target, ways and means, and supportive measures of the forthcoming U.S. space deterrence strategy.

First, the target of U.S. space deterrence seems to be China. During the Cold War, the purpose of U.S. space deterrence was to deter an adversary from launching a nuclear or conventional war by use of outer space dominance. Now the purpose is to deter potential adversaries from attacking American space assets. There are many indications that the main target will be China. As early as 2001, the first Schriever space-war exercise regarded China as the confronting “red side”. The National Security Space Strategy (2011) criticized China’s anti-satellite test (ASAT) for increasing congestion in space. In China Dream, Space Dream: China’s Progress in Space Technologies and Implications for the United States, a report prepared for the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission in March 2015, the authors concluded that “China’s improving space capabilities had negative-sum consequences for U.S. military security and require the United States to prepare to confront an adversary possessing space and counterspace technologies.” (p.107) The Report mentioned China 20 times, implicating it as a major threat to U.S. space architecture.

Second, the ways and means of the forthcoming U.S. space deterrence might include enhanced defense, preemptive strike, improved resiliency, less reliance on space assets and increasing political costs, as summarized in the Report. Although the Report emphasizes that these methods are facing many challenges, such as being difficult to develop and high in costs with unsatisfactory deterrence effects, they remain indispensable ways of “deterrence by denial”. They are intended to decrease the benefits of disrupting U.S. space capabilities, thus reducing an adversary’s motivation. Scattering in the Report, there are also ways of “deterrence by cost imposition”, such as threatening to escalate the space war if any adversary dares to start it, and threatening to make responses outside of space. They are intended to punish the perpetrator and let him pay the price.

Third, for the future U.S. space deterrence strategy to work, supportive measures might include formulating some rules of combat, enhancing space situational awareness, and gaining international support. The Report proposes five rules of war in space: (i) Being the first to carry war into space is escalatory and irresponsible; (ii) Kinetic attacks that cause lasting damage to humanity’s ability to exploit space abilities are prohibited; (iii) Attacks on or interruptions of strategic space assets would be construed as highly escalatory, and should be presumptively disfavored; (iv) Satellites and space assets not directly and substantially involved in a conflict are not legitimate targets for attack; (v) Attacks in space justify responses outside of space.

As we see it, the first rule involves “no first shot”. As space-faring states are relying more and more on outer space, this rule will be a double-edged sword, constraining all sides. The second rule involves “the legitimacy of kinetic attacks”, which might be welcomed by the U.S. government, particularly by the U.S. military, since the latter has developed a lot of non-kinetic counter-space technologies. The third rule involves “setting a red line” between strategic and less-important space assets. It has been very controversial, since drawing a red line will encourage an adversary to attack those below the threshold, without escalating the space war. The fourth rule involves the “dual-use problem”, because it is hard to distinguish between a civilian satellite and a military one. Therefore, it is hard to implement the rule. The fifth rule involves “cross-domain deterrence”, which has been adopted by the newly released cyber deterrence strategy. Given the significance of outer space to U.S. national security and economic prosperity, the U.S. government might as well accept the whole-of-government and whole-of-nation approach.

Space situational awareness (SSA) has been elevated to be the top priority of U.S. military space missions, as listed in the Joint Publication 3-14 Space Operations (May 2013). The United States now has different layers of SSA capabilities, from the land-based Space Fence, to low-earth-orbit Space-Based Surveillance System (SBSS) and Space Tracking and Surveillance System (STSS), to low and high Space-Based Infra-Red Systems (SBIRSs), and to Geosynchronous Space Situational Awareness Program (GSSAP). Enhanced SSA will be a powerful deterrent to malicious space activities.

The Obama administration has attached great importance to space cooperation, as stressed in recent official documents on space security, like the National Space Policy of the United States of America (June 2010), National Security Space Strategy (January 2011), and Department of Defense Directive No. 3100.10 Space Policy (October 2012). International space cooperation can not only make good use of such scarce space resources as electromagnetic spectra, but also increase the risks and costs of space attacks by a third party, thus effectively supporting space deterrence.

China has always been strongly against the militarization and weaponization of outer space, and put forward, together with Russia, the Treaty on the Prevention of the Placement of Weapons in Outer Space, the Threat or Use of Force Against Outer Space Objects (PPWT). With a U.S. space deterrence strategy around the corner, space arms control will be harder and diplomatic competition will be fiercer. For China, the best way ahead is to proactively participate in the formulation of an international code of behavior for the interests of all space-faring countries and for the peaceful and sustainable development of outer space.

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