Recently, with the launch of the critically important National Reconnaissance Office-Space Force SilentBarker mission into orbit, Space Systems Command leader Lt. Gen. Michael Guetlein has said this system will “deter aggression” by allowing “our competitors to know that we have eyes in GEO [geosynchronous orbit].” While openly discussing the deployment of this indications and warning system for GEO is helpful for enhancing strategic communications, it is not a deterrent to aggression in space.
To have a deterrent effect requires three major components: credibility of a threat, capability (i.e., weapons) the threat is based upon combined with the determination to use them, and communicating the will to use that capability to prevent an attack on critical space infrastructure. It is important to understand all of these are required both physically and psychologically to ensure our Space Force provides a true deterrent of aggression upon U.S. interests in space.
When the United States, or any country for that matter, declares a deterrent threat to an adversary state, that threat must be seen as credible by the enemy. A lack of a credible deterrent threat will end in failure when the threat is not taken seriously either by the one giving the threat or by the receiver of the threat.
One point to make here is that rhetoric alone is not a threat. Some commentators in foreign policy and diplomacy argue that rhetoric and verbal comments that appear to be threatening are dangerous and destabilizing to an already tense situation. However, a true threat is not mere words, but is the capability, will and determination of the one giving the threat in the mind of the adversary that is required for a threat to be perceived as credible.
Credibility is based upon several things. One is the will of a state. A nation’s willingness to oppose its adversaries is inferred from its past behavior. If a state is willing to retaliate or actively deter an adversary’s action regardless of escalation level, then most likely the status quo can be maintained through deterrence.
If, however, a state is unwilling to follow through on its threats and continues not to follow through over time, then the credibility of the threat will degrade to ineffectiveness. Appearing to do nothing in response to an act of aggression by an enemy demonstrates a lack of will. Standing fast and being willing to assume the costs and risks associated with that threat displays determination. The United States must be ready when that testing comes, otherwise, if it fails to respond proportionally or with enough escalatory power, a change to the status quo or threshold of acceptance could result.
Capability and will are the requisites for any deterrent threat. A capability refers to an armed force that is able to alter the behavior of a state or nonstate actor either by deterrence, by its very existence or through warfighting. Capabilities serve to provide an idea to others; that is, what a nation with a similar level of willpower will do in a certain situation. If the state that is leveling a deterrent threat on another has a high capability, sometimes termed as superiority, then that enables the deterrent force to have a credible means of escalation dominance, should deterrence fail. High capability will enable an adversary to perceive that the capability and will of the United States is high, even if the determination to go to war over a crisis is low. All of these components create the baseline for a credible declaratory policy, or communications method, toward the adversary.
Declaratory policy, sometimes called strategic communications, serves as the mechanism to assure understanding of the United States’ determination, capability and will toward deterring aggression by a certain adversary in a specific area of responsibility or domain. Depending on the type of deterrence theory, the audience of declaratory policy may be different.
For second wave deterrence theorist Thomas Schelling, the audience is the enemy power targeted for deterrence, and the allies are the actors for which assurance of deterrence was promised. For Herman Kahn, another deterrence theorist, credible deterrence was communicated to the American and allied public, as they were the ones the state was duty-bound to protect from attack.
Having a space indications and warning system like SilentBarker operating in GEO is a very important step in preventing potential attacks on our critical space infrastructure from being a surprise attack. This is a great step forward for space domain awareness. However, the U.S. has not been demonstrating it has the credibility, capabilities (i.e., weapons), and the clear communication of our country’s determination and will to use these weapons as a credible deterrent to aggression. China operates under the proper understanding of what a deterrent is. This view, combined with its unique, proactive posture, is why the U.S. has been attacked every day reversibly and threatened kinetically in space.
If the U.S. is serious about deterrence in space, it must be serious about building the war-winning space forces capable of achieving space superiority and escalation dominance over an aggressive China seeking to control the high ground of space. If not, we will have great tools to watch the attacks, but nothing to really deter the attacks in the first place or win the war in space that follows.
Christopher Stone is a senior fellow for space deterrence at the National Institute for Deterrence Studies. Stone is a former U.S. special assistant to the deputy assistant secretary of defense for space policy. This opinions expressed in this commentary are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Core-CSI nor the Defense Department.