Hence the enthusiasm for the code; for inviting potential space-faring adversaries to tour our military space operations centers; for wider sharing of what we know about foreign space activities; for considering the future merger of the US GPS system into a condominium using signals from the European, Chinese, and Russian navigation satellites; for depending on others for military space support; and for making “international norms” the first line of defense against all types of threats to our satellites, from jamming to nuclear detonations.
The administration’s rationale for these persistent efforts is presented in its National Security Space Strategy: “The current and future strategic environment is driven by three trends -space is becoming increasingly congested, contested, and competitive.” Controlling these trends, the argument goes, requires collective action: norms, best practices, global entanglements and international authority.
The relevant question is not congestion but whether the probability of collision is increasing, and at least one informal study suggests it has not changed over the past decade or so. That finding might be due in part to better information about the what/where/when of space objects; if so, it suggests that orbital conjunctions are already being managed successfully, due primarily to conjunction analyses and collision warnings provided by U.S. Strategic Command. As explained in a recent Time magazine article, the risk of accidents “is minimized by the fact that all objects orbiting at the same altitude also move at the same speed.” The Defense Department publication also mentions congestion in the electromagnetic spectrum, but there are longstanding measures to address both intentional and unintentional interference in this domain.
From a defense perspective growth in the orbital population is not all bad. As the environment gets more complicated, relative military advantage will accrue to the superior ability to identify and track objects and to conduct sophisticated maneuvers on orbit with great precision. In these capabilities the U.S. is generally ahead of potential antagonists and should be able to make it increasingly difficult for adversaries to identify, track, and target militarily critical satellites.
How about the second “c”: Is space becoming increasingly contested? There were fears during the Cold War that the Soviet Union might use nuclear weapons in a “scorched space” strategy, and both superpowers explored antisatellite capabilities, including kinetic, thermal, and radio-frequency kill mechanisms, together with conventional jamming. China has pursued similar interests during the past few years, and India suggested it would respond in kind. Only the United States has demonstrated the ability intentionally to destroy a non-cooperating target satellite during Operation Burnt Frost in February 2008 when the Navy shot down a failed NRO satellite.
Exploring and demonstrating such capabilities makes sense, but it is difficult to see how an adversary might use them to military advantage against the U.S. One can imagine circumstances under which specific tactical aims might be served by attacks on specific U.S. satellites, though even here one has to concede a very well informed and well equipped adversary and a very sleepy U.S. government. For actual combat operations, even broader, more extended, and completely successful attacks in space might not change the outcome of the terrestrial joint fight.
The relevant question is not whether space is increasingly contested but the prospect of military mission assurance-ensuring that capabilities essential to the joint fight will be effective despite misadventure or hostile action. The measure of effect is not what happens in space but in the consequences for the joint fight. And that is a topic that must surely frustrate an adversary’s planning, because it certainly bedevils ours.
And as for the third “c,” one can only conclude that the US space industry is as competitive as the government wants it to be. US companies dominate the worldwide commercial communications satellite market, according to the Space Quality Improvement Council; Boeing is justly proud of the fact that it earned more money than any other company from selling commercial communications satellites that were competitively awarded. But in other space market sectors, the US government’s policies and processes (restrictions involving the munitions list and the International Traffic in Arms Regulations) ensure that U.S. companies cannot compete.
A 2008 CSIS review, among many others, decried the reduced presence of the U.S. space industry in global markets (“The U.S. share of the global space markets is steadily declining, and U.S. companies are finding it increasingly difficult to participate in foreign space markets”) and its growing insularity (“The current export control policy is constricting U.S. engagement and partnership with the rest of the global space community, and is feeding a growing separation between the U.S. space community and an emerging non-U.S. space community”).
Nor does space appear to be increasingly competitive within the U.S. home market. One popular count shows the domestic industry congealing from 36 companies in 1993 to six in 2007, and the domestic industry overall is heavily dependent on government funding. “The implication is that the national security community ‘owns’ the U.S. space (manufacturing) industry, and must either provide for the health of the industry (“arsenal strategy”) or encourage it (and enable it) to participate more in the global market place to broaden its economic base” (CSIS 2008). The Defense Department’s “strategy” says it will take steps to do the latter, but the record of industrial policy initiatives suggests the opposite outcome is more likely (note, for example, the conversion of the heavy lift launch industry into a government-blessed monopoly).
And so it goes. One observer recently castigated those “three Cs” for continuing the “lamentable tendency” in policy discussions to reduce complex ideas to slogans of three or fewer words. The complaint is right on target: this consonantal alliteration is seriously misleading. Let’s leave behind the “lamentable tendency” and the sophistry. Let’s instead look carefully at how space fits with joint force development; let’s examine campaign analyses and try to take into account what the views and calculations of potential adversaries might be; and let’s derive from those efforts policy initiatives that can strengthen the U.S. defense posture, which may well include steps in some areas toward stronger international cooperation.
Bob Butterworth, a member of the AOL Board of Contributors, is a consultant and expert on intelligence, especially spy satellites and the policies governing them. He is former senior advisor to leader of Space Command.