WASHINGTON — Now more than ever, American war fighters depend on space-based capabilities for their missions. In response, adversaries have developed counter space weapons meant to degrade or deny those capabilities.
Even before the U.S. Space Force was established, the Pentagon pivoted to describing space as a war-fighting domain, claiming it reflects a change in the environment led by American adversaries. U.S. officials have laid the blame for the militarization of space squarely at the feet of nations, including China and Russia, that have developed, tested and fielded various weapons capable of destroying or disabling satellites on orbit.
Gen. James Dickinson, head of U.S. Space Command, said a common question he gets asked is, “So why have we militarized space? Well, the answer is we really haven’t. Our competitors have.”
That narrative, which he shared Feb. 26 at the virtual Aerospace Warfare Symposium, was a major part of the messaging put out by Pentagon officials and the Trump administration to justify creating the Space Force. Some, however, question the characterization that the militarization of space is a recent development.
“Space is not a sanctuary, and really it never was a sanctuary. As soon as we were able to use space for military purposes, nations — including the United States — started developing counter space weapons,” said Todd Harrison, director of the Aerospace Security Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “Space has been militarized from the beginning. There’s no question of that.”
By nearly every definition, space has already been weaponized, he added.
“The cat’s out of the bag,” said Harrison.
And while the Space Force doesn’t often talk about counter space weapons publicly, it is developing and fielding its own.
Regardless of who initiated the militarization of space or when it happened, the fact remains that America relies on space systems for military operations, and its adversaries have developed counter space weapons to deny those space-enabled capabilities.
“This is a war-fighting domain. It is contested. That’s just the fact of life,” said Harrison.
So how can the Space Force and other space operators defend space systems?
A new report from the Center for Strategic and International Studies outlines the various threats posed to space systems and the strategies the Space Force and others can adopt to counter them.
Titled “Defense Against the Dark Arts in Space” and peppered with Harry Potter references, the report categorizes the different types of threats, the various defense strategies and their efficacy, and makes several recommendations for the Department of Defense and Congress.
“What we wanted to do with this report is look at the other side of the equation. So yes, you see all of these threats to space systems, but what do you do about it? How can you defend against all of these different forms of attack?” said Harrison.
The report examines passive and active defenses. Passive defenses are efforts to mitigate the effect of counter space weapons. Those defenses could include architectural changes, such as adopting distributed architectures, as the Space Development Agency has done, in which the loss of a single satellite will not disable a space-based capability. Other examples are technical defenses such as jam-resistant waveforms, antenna nulling, and using filtering or shuttering for sensors. Passive approaches also include operational defenses such as stealth, maneuvering satellites away from threats, and rapidly deploying new satellites to replace damaged or disabled ones on orbit.
Active defenses are kinetic or nonkinetic options that attack a counter space threat. That could mean a satellite-mounted laser used to blind an incoming missile, or some mechanism that could grab and remove enemy satellites positioned to attack. Such defenses also include strikes on ground systems or enemy satellites in response to an attack.
Harrison said one challenge with active defenses is making sure they are seen as defenses and not on orbit offensive weapons.
The report lays out the objectives of attacking and defending in space, and runs through some hypothetical scenarios. It concludes with several recommendations, including increasing space domain awareness, the development of new distributed architectures and the addition of non-kinetic active defenses such as lasers and jamming devices to high-value satellites. Though the report makes recommendations for the Pentagon and Congress, Harrison noted that CSIS’ analysis could be applied to other nations and organizations.
“The reason we did this study is there has not been a lot of public discussion made about these issues. And so what that’s lead to is that we’ve seen folks at other think tanks and in government and even other parts of government have started to act and behave as if space is not defendable,” said Harrison. “That’s not the right answer. That’s not a plausible answer, either. We can’t just do without space.”
“What we’re trying to do is open up the public dialogue and give nonspace experts and space experts alike a tool, an ability, to have that discussion in open forums,” he said.
Nathan Strout was the staff editor at C4ISRNET, where he covered the intelligence community.