The 2011 National Security Space Strategy (NSSS) for protecting US space capabilities, passed in 2011, contained various elements, including developing international norms of behavior, building commercial and international coalitions, enhancing the resilience of space capabilities, deterring aggres
sion against critical space systems, and preparing to defeat attacks and operate in a degraded space environment.
Language in the 2015 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) suggests new focus on the last two elements — deterring and defeating attacks — in response to what the national security community perceives as a greater counterspace threat from Russia and China. But doing so at the expense of the other elements is likely to increase risks to critical space capabilities and jeopardize the strategy's objectives.
Russia and China have heightened their counterspace activities. Since 2005, China has conducted at least seven test launches of one, and possibly two, ground-based, kinetic-kill, anti-satellite (ASAT) systems that could potentially reach targets at 36,000 kilometers above the equator.
There have also been reports that Russia may be resuming work on air-launched ASAT systems, although there is no hard evidence in the public domain on actual testing. However, there is little detail on what threats these systems might pose to the US.
Over the past three years, the DoD and Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) have made modest progress toward implementing the 2011 NSSS. Normative efforts on space security have been limited to recommendations for transparency and confidence-building measures, voluntary guidelines to enhance space sustainability, and the European Union-led negotiations on the nonbinding draft International Code of Conduct for Space Activities.
Senior US leaders have spoken out against the testing of weapons in space that produce long-lived space debris. Greater international cooperation has largely been limited to situational awareness data-sharing agreements that do little more than formalize the existing model of a one-way data flow from the American military to other countries.
There are no public plans for the US military to include any of its allies in the development of new satellite systems or to utilize allied space capabilities instead of developing its own. And the DoD and ODNI have yet to detail a strategy for how to make national security space capabilities more resilient to attacks.
The NDAA for fiscal 2015 directs an update to the 2011 NSSS to include space control and space superiority aspects, and requires the majority of the $32.3 million allocated to the Space Security and Defense Program be used to develop "offensive space control and active defensive strategies and capabilities," capabilities that can be thought of as swords and shields for satellites.
Active defense includes taking action against a hostile object to prevent it from destroying a protected object. In the context of space, active defenses could mean cyber or electronic warfare capabilities to interfere with the ability of an adversary's ASAT weapon to target and track a protected satellite, or kinetic kill capabilities that involve destroying the ASAT weapon before it reaches the protected satellite.
Active defensive and offensive counterspace capabilities can contribute to the protection of US national security space systems, but only if they are implemented in conjunction with, and in a manner that reinforces, the other elements of the strategy. Establishing norms of behavior would help sensitize all countries to potential vulnerabilities and the dangers of conflict, and build critical communication links for use during a conflict. Building stronger international and commercial partnerships, and developing coalition space capabilities with key allies, would also reinforce deterrence, assuage allied concerns and potentially increase resilience.
Developing swords and shields by themselves without support from the norms, cooperation and resilience elements will likely make the situation more unstable and could potentially lead to an arms race instability scenario. The result would be increased threats to everyone's space systems and increased tensions that could lead to or escalate conflict.
The US needs to better articulate how it will implement all elements of the 2011 NSSS and how these elements will work together. At the same time, the US needs to weigh the perspectives of its allies and the possible consequences for the burgeoning commercial space sector, in the development of active defensive and offensive counterspace capabilities.
Failing to do so will undermine the desired objective of strengthening safety, stability and security in space, and lead to greater instability for all.
Weeden is technical adviser for the Secure World Foundation.