The 21st Century Space Race Is Here

October 17, 2019 Topic: Security Region: Americas Tags: SpaceTechnologyArtificial IntelligenceMilitaryWar

The 21st Century Space Race Is Here

If the international community were to seek a meaningful arms control agreement or behavior-restricting treaty for space, it would need to consider what on the spectrum of offensive tactics constitutes an “attack” or “weapon,” which are the most likely to occur and which can be reasonably constrained.

The latency of offensive capability inherent in these inspector satellites and probes makes them difficult to characterize as explicitly dangerous or escalatory, and would, therefore, make them challenging to regulate. Yleem Poblete, former assistant secretary of the Bureau of Arms Control, Verification and Compliance, expressed this concern in her remarks made in August 2018 in Geneva:


What Russia tells us diplomatically and publicly may be the opposite of what it intends to do with that satellite … So the question before this body is: how do we verify what countries say their spacecraft are doing? … It is difficult to determine an object’s true purpose simply by observing it on orbit—unlike inspection for a traditional arms control agreement. Based on the drafting of the treaty language by Russia, there is nothing in the proposed PPWT that would prohibit this sort of activity or the developing, testing, or stockpiling of anti-satellite weapons capabilities, so long as it doesn’t damage another object in space. The only certainty we have is that this system has been “placed in orbit.”

This sentiment echoes Ambassador Robert Wood, U.S. Permanent Representative to the Conference on Disarmament in 2017, where he stated, “The draft PPWT fails to resolve definitional problems of what constitutes a ‘weapon in outer space,’ given the dual-use nature of many space technologies.” Various drafts of the PPWT, along with similar declarations and proposals, have been continually reintroduced since 2008 to no avail. 

In addition to verification challenges for co-orbital ASAT, creating an agreement that restricts ground-based, direct-ascent ASAT would be quite difficult, as breakout capabilities could easily be concealed.

THE THIRD complication for ASAT arms control and norm building is that the dynamics of space behavior are changing and will continue to change as private players represent a growing proportion of the assets in orbit.

The fortification of the commercial space industry, sometimes termed the “democratization of space,” throws a wrench into an already unstable space dynamic. According to the csis report, only about 4 percent of all satellites launched from 1957–1990 were commercially owned. In the “Second Space Age” (from the end of the Cold War on), however, that figure rises to 36 percent.

While it may initially seem like a stabilizing factor to have a higher proportion of non-government satellites in orbit, it poses new potential scenarios where privately-owned satellites can be both victims and aggressors. These new possibilities demand that several questions be answered: Who will be accountable for any irresponsible actions of private players in space? Will these players be considered their own entities, or will the state within which they operate be held responsible? How would privately-owned satellites fit into arms control agreements? To what degree can and should government control industry? Who will protect these commercial satellites from potential aggressors? As of now, there are more questions—many of which echo concerns in the cyber domain—than answers.

Accompanying the rise of privately-owned satellites in orbit is an increasing chance that a commercial satellite’s signals could be mistaken for a military satellite and targeted in the event of an attack. At the very least, commercial satellites would likely become collateral damage in a kinetic ASAT warfare scenario or with prolonged kinetic ASAT testing, held at risk by harmful space debris. With the global space economy valued at roughly $323 billion annually, some are hoping that the creation of a Space Force will provide the luxury of enhanced protection for commercial space assets from either intentional or mistaken enemy advances. Former Air Force strategist Peter Garretson optimistically wrote in a June 2019 Politico article that, 

the national leadership has an expansive view of America’s economic future in space. It is designing the service that will secure and enable an expanding multi-trillion-dollar economy in space and protect its commerce as the Navy protects commerce on the seas. 

Key representatives from the private sector such as SpaceX’s Elon Musk have already enthusiastically praised President Donald Trump’s plans to create this co-equal branch of the military. Yet it is still unclear what the main directives of Space Force will be and to what extent it would protect commerce.

While the influx of private satellites does pose complications to space dynamics, it may also pose some opportunity for stability. For example, the U.S. military has already begun to experiment by “hosting” its sensors on numerous commercial satellites in the hopes of creating more distributed and resilient satellite constellations. This would reduce the likelihood that, in case of an attack, the entire constellation’s capability would fail—a strength that may also help deter an adversary’s attack in the first place. Since 2009, the Department of Defense has hosted three sensor “payloads” on commercial satellites and is planning to expand the effort with three more through 2022. A 2018 report by the Government Accountability Office recommends this strategy to improve survivability and substantially reduce costs. James Acton and others have explored expanding this concept to include early-warning NC3 systems over a series of twenty to thirty host satellites, though it is not clear if this stratagem would be limited only to other government satellites or would ever utilize commercial satellites. Acton notes, however, that this dispersed NC3 system “would be less capable than the status quo of a small number of highly sophisticated satellites dedicated to early warning.”

Each of these hypothetical scenarios and unanswered questions could impact escalation dynamics, norms-building or arms control measures and need to be considered should additional draft legislation be introduced.

WITH AN increased focus on space, more voices are advocating for gaps in international space policy to be filled. Skeptics counter that arms control and norm building will constrain U.S. freedom to act in space—something too valuable for Washington to negotiate away. But America’s overreliance on and hefty investment in this domain might incentivize us to proactively safeguard our assets where possible. As Michael Krepon, co-founder of the Stimson Center and director of its space and nuclear programming, argues in a 2014 SpaceNews article,

A free-for-all in space would impair everything the United States has gained and stands to gain in this domain. Freedom of action to engage in certain types of bad behavior — such as anti-satellite (ASAT) tests that generate long-lasting, lethal space debris — can ruin space for everyone.

One thing is clear: proposals like the PPWT are not treaties the international community needs. They are poorly-concealed attempts to constrain American primacy in the domain rather than an earnest, thoughtful measure to make space a safer place.

The reality is that any useful or worthy arms control agreement would need to consider each of these three obstacles that complicate norm building or blur accountability for potential inappropriate space behavior: challenges to potential verification regimes, the full kinetic and non-kinetic spectrum of offensive ASAT tactics (both space-based and ground-based), and the increasing proportion of commercial assets in orbit. If the key players in space reach a point where ASAT arms control is a desirable goal, working groups and delegations should first consider and define what constitutes an “attack” or “weapon,” taking into account which of these are most likely and most harmful. Then they should decide which of these can be reasonably constrained and to what benefit. Conversations should also consider novel technologies that are being tested, developed, planned or funded (space-based 3d printing is of some concern). In some scenarios, the benefits that particular capabilities offer may have to be weighed against the threats that they can pose. Modest steps that have been floated include a limited test ban or a norm against debris-causing ASAT tests, or an agreed exclusion zone around satellites. Each idea will come with its own tradeoffs, challenges and level of utility.

Until we get a promising draft that satisfies these concerns, we’ll have to resort to other solutions. It might be useful to look at norm-building strategies and lessons learned from another Wild West domain: cyberspace. A number of experts believe that cyber restraint—summarized by Brandon Valeriano and Benjamin Jensen in a 2019 paper from the Cato Institute as “preserving the digital commons for commercial and social interests, thus limiting military action to the greatest extent possible”—can help shape norms in the international community and make escalation taboo. As Ambassador Wood, the eu delegation to the Conference on Disarmament and others have suggested, the most practical approach, for now, may be to aim for transparency and confidence-building measures in lieu of more formal, binding arms control agreements.

And, like many national security trends, the moral of this story seems to be this: if you can’t constrain, harden. The first in a series of up to ten GPS III satellites from Lockheed Martin, designed to be more jam-resistant, was launched on December 23, 2018. A new, more cybersecure GPS ground control station project called OCX is also underway but won’t be fully functional until 2021. Tech companies are designing some satellites to be much smaller, easily replaceable and ready for launch into orbit as needed. Many in the nuclear security community are pressing for the funding and creation of a next-generation NC3 system to phase out the existing one.