March 25, 2019

The Influence of Commercial Space Capabilities on Deterrence

Recent U.S. space policy initiatives underscore the far-reaching benefits of commercial space activities. The White House revived the National Space Council to foster closer coordination, cooperation, and exchange of technology and information among the civil, national security, and commercial space sectors. National Space Policy Directive 2 seeks to promote economic growth by streamlining U.S. regulations on the commercial use of space. While the defense community generally appreciates the value of services and capabilities derived from the commercial space sector—including space launch, Earth observation, and satellite communications—it often overlooks one area of strategic importance: deterrence.

To address the current shortcoming in understanding, this paper first describes the concept of deterrence, along with how space mission assurance and resilience fit into the framework. After explaining how commercial space capabilities may influence the decision calculus of potential adversaries, this study presents actionable recommendations for the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) to address current problem areas. Ultimately, DoD—including the soon-to-be reestablished U.S. Space Command and possibly a new U.S. Space Force—should incorporate the benefits and capabilities of the commercial space sector into flexible deterrent options and applicable campaign and contingency plans.

Deterrence, Mission Assurance, and Resilience

Thomas Schelling, the dean of modern deterrence theory, held that deterrence refers to persuading a potential enemy that it is in its interest to avoid certain courses of activity. One component of deterrence theory lies in an understanding that the threat of credible and potentially overwhelming force or other retaliatory action against any would-be adversary is sufficient to deter most potential aggressors from conducting hostile actions. This idea is also referred to as deterrence by punishment.

The second salient component of deterrence theory is denial. According to Glenn Snyder’s definition, deterrence by denial is “the capability to deny the other party any gains from the move which is to be deterred.” The 2018 U.S. National Defense Strategy (NDS) highlights deterrence, and specifically deterrence by denial, as a vital component of national security. The NDS notes that the primary objectives of the United States include deterring adversaries from pursuing aggression and preventing hostile actions against vital U.S. interests. The strategy also observes that deterring conflict necessitates preparing for war during peacetime. For the space domain, the peacetime preparedness needed for deterrence by denial occurs in the context of space mission assurance and resilience.

Mission assurance entails “a process to protect or ensure the continued function and resilience of capabilities and assets—including personnel, equipment, facilities, networks, information and information systems, infrastructure, and supply chains—critical to the performance of DoD mission essential functions in any operating environment or condition.”

Similar to mission assurance but with a different focus, resilience is an architecture’s ability to support mission success with higher probability; shorter periods of reduced capability; and across a wider range of scenarios, conditions, and threats, despite hostile action or adverse conditions. Resilience may leverage cross-domain solutions, along with commercial and international capabilities.

Space mission assurance and resilience can prevent a potential adversary from achieving its objectives or realizing any benefit from its aggressive action. These facets of U.S. preparedness help convey the futility of conducting a hostile act. Consequently, they enhance deterrence by denial.

Commercial Space Enables Deterrence

The commercial space sector directly promotes mission assurance and resilience efforts. This is in part due to the distributed and diversified nature of commercial space launch and satellites services. Distribution refers to the use of a number of nodes, working together, to perform the same mission or functions as a single node; diversification describes contributing to the same mission in multiple ways, using different platforms, orbits, or systems and capabilities. The 2017 U.S. National Security Strategy, in noting the benefits derived from the commercial space industry, states that DoD partners with the commercial sector’s capabilities to improve the U.S. space architecture’s resilience. Although U.S. policy and joint doctrine frequently acknowledge the role of the commercial space sector in space mission assurance and resilience, there is little recognition that day-to-day contributions from the commercial industry assists in deterring would-be adversaries.

The commercial space sector contributes to deterrence by denial through multi-domain solutions that are distributed and diversified. These can deter potential adversaries from pursuing offensive actions against space-related systems. Commercial launch providers enhance deterrence by providing options for getting payloads into orbit. These include diverse space launch capabilities such as small and responsive launch vehicles, along with larger, reusable launch vehicles; launch rideshares for secondary payloads; and government payloads on commercial satellites.

Various on-orbit systems also promote deterrence. For example, if an aggressor damages a commercial remote sensing satellite during hostilities, similar commercial satellites in a different orbital regime, or those of the same constellation, may provide the needed imagery. If satellite communications are jammed or degraded, commercial service providers can reroute satellite communications through their own networks, or potentially through the networks of another company using a different portion of the frequency spectrum.

Regarding deterrence by punishment efforts, the commercial space sector can play a role, albeit an indirect one, through improved space situational awareness (SSA) and space forensics (including digital forensics and multispectral imagery). The commercial industry may support the attribution process following a hostile or illegal act in space through its increasingly proliferating network of SSA ground telescopes and other terrestrial tracking systems. The DoD may also leverage the commercial space sector’s cyber expertise to support digital forensic efforts to help determine the source of an attack.

By supporting a credible and transparent attribution process, commercial partners may cause a would-be adversary to act differently if it perceives that its aggressive, illegal, or otherwise nefarious actions will be disclosed. Doing so can help bolster the perceived ability to conduct a legitimate response following a hostile attack, which may improve deterrence by punishment efforts.

Commercial space capabilities may also facilitate the application of force to punish a potential aggressor. In addition to traditional military space systems, commercial satellite imagery and communication capabilities may be used in cueing and targeting for punitive strikes against an aggressor. Although the commercial space sector is not expected to be involved directly in the use of retaliatory force following a hostile act, commercial partners may help in providing the information used to identify those responsible and to facilitate any consequent targeting efforts.

Implications and Recommendations

The benefits of commercial space capabilities for deterrence efforts have implications for the development of space strategy and the execution of operations there. One caveat is that while commercial capabilities that enhance space mission assurance and resilience may deter potential U.S. adversaries, these same capabilities may also constrain U.S. actions. The NDS suggests that potential adversaries with access to commercial products and services may affect the U.S. competitive advantage:

New commercial technology will change society and, ultimately, the character of war. The fact that many technological developments will come from the commercial sector means that state competitors and non-state actors will also have access to them, a fact that risks eroding the conventional overmatch to which our Nation has grown accustomed.

Because the commercial space sector operates and provides services globally, many companies will desire to honor licensing and service agreements regardless of growing tensions or customer allegiances. Consequently, it will become increasingly difficult for belligerents to pressure commercial companies into denying access to space products and services. Because of the contractual obligations contained in licensing and service agreements—coupled with the inherently diversified and disaggregated nature of the commercial space sector—the United States should presume that many products and services will be available to a potential adversary during times of conflict. This will likely affect U.S. decisionmaking when considering military action against space-related systems. Therefore, the commercial space sector’s sword can cut both ways in a world of great-power competition.

Space-enabled business, commerce, and trade are vital national interests that the United States must protect. Underscoring this point, the 2017 U.S. National Security Strategy notes that the nation will “consider extending national security protections to our private sector partners as needed.” Future space policy and strategy will need to address under what conditions and how the United States should protect commercial space systems. Such protection and defense further contributes to space mission assurance and resiliency efforts, in addition to impacting an adversary’s decision calculus.

Given that the commercial space sector can directly affect deterrence, it is recommended that U.S. space policy makers and service members, including those at the soon-to-be-reestablished U.S. Space Command:

  • Incorporate applicable commercial space capabilities into the joint planning process, including for multi-domain operations and associated flexible deterrent options.
  • Determine which commercial space systems are critical due to their associated products or services, along with whether and in what manner the United States should defend them during times of conflict.
  • Ensure sufficient commercial licensing or service level agreements are in place well before the onset of potential hostilities, because many companies will seek to honor existing contracts and agreements already in place during a conflict.
  • Understand the strategic importance that commercially enabled space mission assurance and resiliency initiatives have in mitigating the consequences of hostile actions in space, both for the United States and for its competitors.

Looking Up and Forward

This industry can help convey the futility of conducting a hostile act in space, thereby causing a potential adversary’s leadership to avoid military confrontation in the first place. As a result, the commercial space sector’s deterrent effect can improve international peace and stability. These commercial efforts will occur regardless of great-power competition in space or the desires of space powers.

As the capability of the commercial space sector continues to grow—whether in reusable launch vehicles or mega-constellations of Earth imaging and communications satellites—the ability to deny space services or degrade missions will become even more challenging. Therefore, deterrence by denial may play a greater role than deterrence by punishment during future strategic deliberations. This situation is an advantageous development, because governments can focus less time and resources on military-related programs for use in times of conflict, instead giving more support to those commercial services and capabilities that can be used for the benefit of all.

Dr. John J. Klein is a Senior Fellow and Strategist at Falcon Research, Inc. and Adjunct Professor at George Washington University’s Space Policy Institute. He frequently writes on space policy, strategy, and deterrence. Dr. Klein is the author of the forthcoming book Understanding Space Strategy: The Art of War in Space (2019). The views expressed in this article are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Falcon Research, the George Washington University, or the U.S. government.

  1. The White House, “Presidential Executive Order on Reviving the National Space Council,” June 30, 2017,
  2. The White House, “Space Policy Directive-2, Streamlining Regulations on Commercial Use of Space,” May 24, 2018,
  3. Thomas C. Schelling, Arms and Influence (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1966), 2, 31–34.
  4. Glenn H. Snyder, “Deterrence and Power,” Journal of Conflict Resolution, 4 no. 2 (June, 1960), 163.
  5. Snyder, 163.
  6. Department of Defense, 2018 National Defense Strategy of the United States of America: Sharpening the American Military’s Competitive Edge (2018), 4,
  7. Department of Defense, 2018 National Defense Strategy, 6.
  8. Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Homeland Defense and Global Security, Space Domain Mission Assurance: A Resilience Taxonomy (September 2015), 2,
  9. Joint Chiefs of Staff, Space Operations, Joint Publication 3-14 (April 10, 2018), I-8,
  10. Joint Chiefs of Staff, Space Operations, I-8.
  11. Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Homeland Defense, Space Domain Mission Assurance, 6–7.
  12. The White House, National Security Strategy of the United States of America (December 2017), 31,
  13. Department of Defense, 2018 National Defense Strategy, 3.
  14. White House, National Security Strategy, 31.
  15. Joint Chiefs of Staff, Joint Planning, Joint Publication 5-0 (June 16, 2017), F-1,


  • John J. Klein

    Senior Fellow and Strategist, Falcon Research Inc.

    Dr. John J. Klein is a senior fellow and strategist at Falcon Research Inc. and adjunct professor at the George Washington University Space Policy Institute. He writes on spac...

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