Recently, the U.S. Navy thwarted Iranian Navy attempts at seizing a few merchant tankers in the Gulf of Oman. During one incident, the U.S. Navy received a distress call from the Bahamian-flagged oil tanker Richmond Voyager 20 nautical miles off the coast of Oman in international waters. The guided-missile destroyer McFaul responded toward the merchant ship at maximum speed. Before the destroyer arrived, the Iranian Navy opened fire on the Richmond Voyager but withdrew upon the arrival of the armed and ready McFaul.
As U.S. Naval Forces Central Command stated, an increased presence of ships and aircraft patrolling the Strait of Hormuz and nearby waters has aided — through deterrence and response — commercial shipping. While this is good for U.S. sea power projection capabilities to defend commercial interests in international waters, what happens when similar actions occur with commercial satellite constellations and exploratory craft in orbital and cislunar space?
While some may think a scenario of attack and seizure of commercial and allied spacecraft seems like science fiction, it is a common reality. As Gen. David Thompson, vice chief of space operations, has stated, the United States, its allies and commercial partners endure daily attacks. These attacks come from electromagnetic interference (jamming) of data flowing to and from a satellite; threats by co-orbital anti-satellite vehicles conducting close approaches to vital national and commercial assets in various orbits; and the rapidly growing kinetic and non-kinetic weapons systems designed to deny, degrade and destroy those vehicles that are deemed contrary to Chinese national interests.
From a seizure standpoint, the Chinese have demonstrated their capability of using grapplers and robotic arms to capture uncooperative spacecraft in geosynchronous Earth orbit and pull them into a disposal orbit. They have sufficient speed and range to move throughout geosynchronous Earth orbit, where much commercial business occurs in satellite communications and related data arenas.
Given the commercial sector is expanding its operations into manned and unmanned commercial ventures into cislunar space, these spacecraft will continue to be at risk as China continues to modernize and expand its spacepower reach and weapons systems. What can the Space Force — the service created to “protect and defend” the vital interests of the U.S. and its partners in space — do about this problem?
At present, not much.
The Space Force and U.S. Space Command are restrained by policies articulated in the White House’s U.S. Space Priorities Framework as well as supporting policies and doctrines from Space Force’s leadership. The primary mission of Space Command and the Space Force is to enable and support terrestrial operations, with protecting and defending U.S.-flagged civil, military and commercial spacecraft as its secondary mission.
As a result of these policies, the Space Force, which has correctly advocated both hard kill and soft kill capabilities to deter, fight and win against aggression in space, is now being throttled back to a support function for the other services.
Time is not on our side: We must do what we can now to create a multi-orbital fleet (including cislunar) capable of enforcing the free access and use of space. However, norms and anti-satellite testing bans, instead of capabilities that directly protect, defend,= and deter, are being promoted by the White House and Department of Defense leadership, while our commercial interests and critical defense infrastructure in orbit and beyond continue to be attacked regularly.
The Space Force does not have sufficient numbers of systems in space or on the ground to do what the McFaul did, nor does it have the doctrine or policy direction to do so. While norms are important diplomatic tools, they do not protect or defend commercial or military assets like hard power does. The McFaul is not a situational awareness ship to just watch events occur; it is an armed destroyer enforcing the norm of free access and use of international waters, and keeping sovereign, flagged vessels from harassment and seizure.
With the economic benefits of space commerce projected by Morgan Stanley and others to reach at least $1 trillion, and the growth of Chinese space aggression intensifying, the Space Force must be given the policy direction and resources necessary to provide agile, responsive and lethal destroyer-like capabilities to ensure our nation and our partners operating in space have the same protections that our Navy provides. If we don’t immediately develop an enduring enforcement capability, the Chinese will be able to do what the Iranians did, but no one will come to the aid of our allies and partners.
Christopher Stone is a senior fellow for space deterrence studies at the National Institute for Deterrence Studies think tank. He previously served as special assistant to the deputy assistant secretary of defense for space policy. This commentary does not necessarily reflect the position of the U.S. Defense Department.