An arms race is under way in space—insidious, invisible, and at this point probably inevitable. The Bush Administration’s dream that the United States could control access to earth orbit as the British had once controlled sea lines of communication has been, as the bureaucrats say, overtaken by events. So has the Obama Administration’s emphasis on international “cooperation” (the word appears 13 times in the first few pages of the Administration’s 2010 National Space Policy document), an approach that served chiefly to demonstrate that no international consensus on the future of space exists, and that none is likely. Even the sensible, if vague and entirely voluntary, “Code of Conduct for Outer Space Activities” floated by the European Union and pushed hard by the State Department for most of a decade found only tepid support. It was easy for the Chinese and Russians to portray it all as just the latest example of Western imperialism. Earlier this year, the Code was quietly put to rest. Leading from behind on space, the United States has been outmaneuvered and left for dead.Not so the Chinese and Russians, who occupy the diplomatic high ground with their Treaty on Prevention of the Placement of Weapons in Outer Space (PPWT), all the time working feverishly to put their own weapons in space, and anywhere else they might do some damage, including, we can safely assume, in the cyber domain. Dean Cheng of the Heritage Foundation describes a recent reorganization of the Peoples Liberation Army (PLA) structure to emphasize “information dominance,” defined as the ability to exploit battlefield information while denying the enemy that same capability. The information satellites provide is key to power projection; there can be no “pivot” to Asia without satellites; so disabling or dismantling our space infrastructure is a high priority for Beijing. Kinetic hit-to-kill weapons like the one China tested in 2007 and again in recent years are one way of doing this, but hardly the most efficient. Far better in an “informationalized” war to ensure that the data satellites gather and transmit never makes it to the end user—or that it arrives there in a form that looks reliable but isn’t. It’s the perfect way for a country like China to leap over the present imbalance and arrive as a fully fledged and dangerous adversary at the next stage of conflict in space. The key words on this new battlefield are hack, dazzle, jam, and spoof.For their part, the Russians recently tested a small, maneuverable “Luch” satellite dangerously near a commercial communication satellite operated by Intelsat Corporation in geosynchronous orbit. Satellites that can maneuver freely in space have several legitimate functions; they can serve as space tugs, moving satellites from orbit to orbit, or refuel, inspect, or repair them. They might also be used to shadow national security satellites, modify their orbits, hit them with a burst of electromagnetic energy, collide with them or perhaps plant listening devices or limpet mines on them. Ten years from now, space will be filled with small, highly mobile satellites like this, many of them put into orbit by commercial operators for legitimate purposes, but many others by states for other, less benign reasons.Time to run up the white flag? Some Pentagon officials don’t think so, in large measure because the White House has quietly changed course in the face this evolving strategic challenge, first by admitting the problem (there isn’t enough international support for rules of order in space, and meanwhile the bad guys are catching up) and then by taking steps to do something about it. The vehicle for this change was the 2014 “Strategic Portfolio Review,” a bottom up reassessment of space policy that spawned dozens of action items now in the process of implementation. The Obama Administration hopes its revamped approach to space will provide a sound legacy for the next Administration and is working hard to build bipartisan support for its continuation and completion. The White House has forbidden talk of space weapons or space war, so Space Command commander John Hyten speaks instead of a more “muscular defense.” Particulars are highly classified, but enough hints have leaked into the public domain to indicate that muscular defense will include good deal of kinetic, electromagnetic, and cyber offense —enough, it would seem, to satisfy congressional hawks, at least for the moment.Seismic changes are also afoot in how the Pentagon policy leadership views possible collaborators in space. The Defense Department’s key man on space policy, Deputy Assistant Secretary Doug Loverro, argues that in our space confrontation with the Chinese and Russians we have two trump cards: our greater ability to form alliances, and a burgeoning and innovative commercial sector that none of our likely adversaries can hope to match.Historically we have been better at building alliances than the Chinese and Russians, but coalitions depend on trust and a common perception of the threat, which are lacking in space. Perhaps now we have abandoned our hegemonic ambitions we will regain some of our old coalition-building chops, but in the meantime our opponents are having some success building coalitions against us, as they did in defeating the EU Code of Conduct. In particular, any initiatives aimed either explicitly or implicitly at the Chinese in space will have trouble garnering support. Space-capable nations, excepting Japan and a very few others, simply don’t see the Chinese threat as we do.The other supposed trump in the U.S. hand is more promising. Loverro argues for leveraging the burgeoning and innovative commercial sector to both multiply our capabilities and complicate the options of those who would dare try to cripple them. Two key figures in this evolution are former NASA Director Mike Griffen, who made some NASA money available for commercial space start ups, and Elon Musk, who used that money and a great deal of his own to bring Silicon Valley culture and entrepreneurial flare to the business of putting things in space. (Watch the video of his Falcon 9 first stage sticking the landing on a barge in the Atlantic to see how well he has succeeded.) In his considerable wake has come an explosion of commercial enterprises doing things in space that only governments used to be able to do; in some cases, they’re even doing them better. The advances in launch, surveillance, space situational awareness, and miniaturization have been astonishing, far beyond what heritage industry greybeards were predicting even five years ago. The Pentagon is now moving to take advantage.Consider space situational awareness (locating and tracking objects in orbit). The gold standard had been the government’s Joint Space Operations Center (JSpOC) at Vandenberg AFB. No more. Frustrated with the lack of data shared by JSpOC, the big commercial satellite operators formed something called the Space Data Association, which, in collaboration with the space tracking company AGI, has created a Commercial Space Operations Center (COMsPOC) that can map the location and movement of satellites more accurately than anyone has before. The Pentagon once tried to discourage all this. Now, like a hopeful hippo in ballet shoes, it has pivoted to exploit it, announcing earlier this month that the Air Force has signed up to receive a year of ComSpOC orbital data. In the long run, Air Force leaders hope to turn over responsibility for space traffic management and even GPS responsibilities to civilian agencies. Civil military cooperation has the potential greatly to improve space situational awareness, increase the carrying capacity of orbit, and allow the military to concentrate limited resources on the heavier strategic burden of contested space.The Defense Department thinks public/private collaboration will also improve satellite protection. The idea is to fill orbit with a multitude of government and commercial satellites providing communication, timing signals, images, and channels for command and control; then add the satellites of your friends and allies, making your hardware interoperable with theirs. It’s a variation on the nuclear strategy called “multiple aim point basing,” which is meant to complicate an adversary’s targeting options, deny them the expectation of success, and thereby persuade them not to attack at all. It might be called, if policymakers had a better sense of irony, the “thousand-points-of-light” approach to space.The Chinese and Russians can buy commercial services too, of course. In a sense, everybody will be in the pool. But that will also add to targeting complexity. And they will be burdened by the same autarchic impulses and corruption that retarded the old Soviet space programs and has just forced the Russian government to bail out the bankrupt maker of the Proton launch vehicle That’s why all the energy and genius are concentrated here in the United States and, to a lesser extent, in Europe and Japan. Once the door was opened a crack to free enterprise, it came flooding in. That evolution won’t stop. Taking advantage is no more than making virtue of a necessity. Other, secret things will have to happen too, including the development and deployment of space and cyber weapons of our own. Captive heritage industry will have a roll to play. But, Pentagon leaders think, the emerging entrepreneurial market gives us an edge.It would be too much to say that all elements of the Obama Administration are on board with this new approach, or that it solves all of our problems. In particular, there seems to be no provision in the new approach for public policy, and no strategy for getting the U.S. government off the schneid in international forums. In the public arena we have been fumble-footed for a decade at least, searching in vain for international consensus while the Europeans beat a faint drum for their voluntary code of conduct. Now, with that initiative come to naught, we can liberate ourselves consensus mongering to pursue our own, more focused national interests. We’re not the only ones with an interest in cosmic order; business investment—whether in satellite operation, mineral extraction, or space tourism—depends on it. So does much of the civilized world. If we lead from the front, others will follow. That means insisting on a regime of law in space, or, rather, resurrecting and updating the one that already exists. It means aggressive diplomacy to put the other guys on the defensive. They have plenty to be defensive about.The legal basis for this effort has been hidden in plain sight. The Outer Space Treaty will soon celebrate its fiftieth anniversary still legally untested, partly because some of the things it was intended to prohibit (like atomic tests on the far side of the moon) were fantasies in the first place, and partly because many activities it was designed to regulate, like potentially “harmful interference” in orbit, were never defined. This ambiguity might seem a weakness, but in fact is a potential strength: It allows for what might be called creative interpretation. Congress recently underlined the point by passing a law allowing those who hope to mine asteroids and the moon to enjoy legal ownership of whatever they find. No one had defined the Outer Space Treaty’s ban on “national appropriation” of objects in space until Congress did, after which international lawyers pondered and, for the most part, concurred. As with sovereign appropriation, so with “harmful interference.” The Bush Administration didn’t cite the treaty in its mildly disapproving commentary on the 2007 Chinese ASAT test, which created the largest space debris field in history. The Obama Administration ignored the OST in noting the Russian “Luch” maneuver, although a slight miscalculation could have caused a collision that would have rendered an orbital position in GEO unusable until the end of time. If these are examples of potentially harmful interference nothing is, and it’s past time we said so.We don’t say so because of the fear that others will challenge our behavior—and so they will. Eventually, however, some sort of dialogue may arise from this process of charge and counter charge, as it did in the Cold War nuclear standoff. In any case, the transparency we have prattled about for the past decade has arrived in a form we didn’t expect but can do little about. Whether we like it or not, in space all hearts will be open, all desires known, and very few secrets will be hid. So it’s time to take advantage by evoking the Outer Space Treaty, revealing the hypocrisy at the heart of Chinese and Russian space policy, and reasserting the rule of law. That won’t stop an arms race. History teaches that dreams of a technological breakthrough bestowing a persistent advantage to one side or the other are as irresistible as they are illusory. Each advance will either be matched or offset in due course. Eventually, with much treasure sunk, perhaps we can reach some tentative agreements. In the meantime, we have to get a lot better diplomatically at fighting out of our corner. Aggressive diplomacy, added to more “muscular defense” of satellites, would make a good beginning.
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Published on: April 29, 2016
AstropoliticsThe Invisible Arms Race
We’ve finally admitted that the space race is on. Time for bold steps to compete.