January 27, 2016

From Sanctuary to Battlefield

A Framework for a U.S. Defense and Deterrence Strategy for Space

By Elbridge Colby

The United States is profoundly reliant on the ability to use space for its security. Though little appreciated outside of professional and expert circles, space – or, more precisely, U.S. assets in and using space – are vital to U.S. defense and intelligence communications with and among national leaders, military forces, and others; command and control; positioning, navigation, and timing (PNT); intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR); and a host of other functions. While these may seem rather like “back office” functions to a lay reader, they are actually the stuff of which American global military primacy is made.

Space, then, is vital for America’s military preeminence and the national strategy it underwrites. But this reliance is becoming increasingly problematic. This is because potential U.S. adversaries have noticed the degree of U.S. reliance on its space architecture and the advantages that the United States has accrued from it and have been assiduously working to find ways to threaten U.S. space and space-related systems. Indeed, many observers have noted that these potential opponents judge the U.S. space architecture to be the “Achilles’ heel” of U.S. military power, in light of the depth of American reliance on these systems

and the vulnerability of the U.S. satellite architecture. As General Hyten put it, without access to space the U.S. military would be a greatly reduced force. As he put it, in such a circumstance the U.S. military would return to a model of “World War II” or “industrial age” warfare.

This is the problem. The question now is what is to be done about it. And, more specifically, what can be done to deal with it in a sustainable way that continues to maintain the U.S. ability to hold the military-technological high ground over plausible adversaries like Russia and China, meaning in particular the ability to exploit the use of space in the service of overall U.S. military superiority.

In other words, since space assets can increasingly be attacked segmentally and discriminately rather than totally, this means that credibly and effectively deterring such attacks requires a less than total response. Since the threat is more like a rapier than a broadsword, the United States needs rapier-like ripostes of its own. Accordingly, the United States needs a more discriminate deterrent for space. In particular, it needs a flexible deterrent capable of

meeting the intensifying challenge of deterring an adversary – and particularly a highly capable potential opponent like China or Russia – from attacking (or attacking to a sufficient degree) those U.S. space assets needed for the United States to effectively and decisively project power and ultimately prevail in a conflict in a distant theater. At the same time, this flexible deterrent must contribute to dissuading such an enemy from striking at the nation’s broader military and civilian space architecture, and in particular those core strategic space assets needed for central deterrence.

Put simply, the United States will need to find ways to limit war in space. Thus an effective U.S. strategy for space will need to be in substantial part an effective limited war strategy, meaning that the United States is going to want to find ways to favorably limit a war with such space-threatening adversaries. In essence, favorably limiting a war means that the terms of mutual limitation with the adversary allow the United States to prosecute the conflict successfully, at least with respect to the necessarily constrained political objectives that such a bounded conflict allows.

How might the United States go about developing the appropriate strategy and posture to accomplish this? Doing so involves two interrelated steps: developing formulae for bounding a conflict that allow the United States to operate effectively and developing the capabilities and deterrent threats to enforce them, with the idea of winning the adversary and third parties’ assent to these preferred boundaries. In other words, it means proposing the rules of the fight and then building the assets and strategy to incentivize an adversary’s observance of them.

The United States should continue to make clear that it would regard any attacks in space as constituting a grave form of escalation. But it should back that assertion with an ability to fight and prevail in a limited war in space. Nothing would be so likely to prevent any such war from happening, or to limit its baleful consequences should it break out, as a clear ability to do just that. 

The full report is available online.

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  • Elbridge Colby