U.S. Partisan Divide is Impairing Space Preparedness

September 15, 2023 Topic: Space Force Region: Outer Space Tags: Space ForceSatellitesPearl HarborHawks And Doves

U.S. Partisan Divide is Impairing Space Preparedness

To catch up to China’s recent gains in space, the United States must advance its space strategy beyond party politics.

America’s partisan divide has infected the space defense policies of both the Biden and Trump Administrations. While President Joe Biden has leaned too excessively toward a dovish posture, President Donald Trump’s was too hawkish. Both administrations’ lack of desire for a practical solution could encourage China to develop and launch a “shock and awe” precursor to a campaign to seize Taiwan. This one-two punch might well be part of the operational capabilities that President Xi Jinping wants China to attain by 2027. The current course of action will render us unprepared to counter this space threat and save Taiwan.

In 1985, nuclear strategist Albert Wohlstetter and I penned an op-ed, Arms Control That Could Work. It considered that “satellites can be anti-satellites.” We worried about the Vice President of the USSR Academy of Science Yevgeny Velikhov’s disturbing statement: “If we can dock with a satellite, then clearly we can dock with an American satellite, but a bit carelessly, and thus destroy it.” The op-ed and the study behind it proposed a solution of creating self-defense zones to provide a buffer and warning that U.S. satellites are being targeted in time to mount a defense.  

While Wohlstetter’s ideas on nuclear deterrence became the foundation of U.S. nuclear strategy, starting with the Kennedy and Johnson Administrations, this proposal was not adopted. On the other hand, if this space proposal had been accepted three decades ago, the United States and international space policies would have ensured peace in that domain.

In 2001, the 164-page report of the Rumsfeld Commission assessed U.S. national security space and questioned “whether the U.S. will be wise enough to act responsibly and soon enough to reduce U.S. space vulnerability. Or whether, as in the past, a disabling attack against the country and its people—a ‘Space Pearl Harbor’—will be the only event able to galvanize the nation and cause the U.S. Government to act.” Again, the United States neglected to act quickly to reduce vulnerability. 

President Trump envisioned that the Space Force would ensure U.S. extraterrestrial security. However, the internecine fights over how best to organize the Space Force are consuming so much financial and political capital that two of the four pillars underlying his 2018 National Space Strategy are hardly getting the attention they deserve: 1) “transform to more resilient space architectures” and 2) “strengthen U.S. and allied options to deter… and counter threats.” In sum, the Trump Administration’s program for space dominance lacks more dovish measures, such as making China’s continued participation in the lucrative Western space market dependent on its adherence to a space traffic management regime. Even if Trump’s program resulted in space resilience, it would take at least a decade to complete. By then, it might be too late.

Opposing Trump’s hawkish goal of space dominance, the Biden administration’s dovish approach focuses on passive satellite protections. The current strategy is to replace legacy satellites (those already in orbit) and their legacy-like follow-ons (those slated to be in orbit soon) composed of a small number of expensive large satellites with proliferated constellations of many cheap small satellites. The doves argue that if an adversary disables some satellites, the remaining ones can continue to perform much of the same mission. In January 2023, however, I showed that deploying proliferated constellations will be too late to replace many of the critical but vulnerable legacy constellations within this decade. Again, while this strategy is attractive and necessary, it must be supplemented by active defenses such as bodyguard spacecraft to monitor, inspect, and harmlessly move invaders out of zones established to protect our critical satellites.

Ironically, the opposite approaches of the two administrations will end with the same problem: offering a window of satellite vulnerability throughout this crucial decade. A practical solution demands the inclusion of the strategies of both administrations and both parties. 

In January 2022, China’s developing dual-use spacecraft successfully docked with its own non-responsive (dead) satellite in a geosynchronous orbit and maneuvered it to a higher orbit, less than two years behind the United States doing the same. Many space experts were surprised that China’s dual-use spacecraft capability developed so fast. Moreover, China will soon be able to manufacture 440 small satellites annually and plans to launch 13,000 satellites quickly to prevent SpaceX from hogging all the attractive low-earth orbits. Considering these developments, my joint updated study of Henry Sokolski’s China Space Wargame estimated that China could likely develop and deploy about 200 attacking spacecraft by 2026. This anti-satellite capability could catalyze China’s Taiwan “reunification” efforts.

Specifically, China could pre-position some or all of these 200 attackers next to our three dozen global-positioning-system satellites and their follow-ons at semi-geosynchronous orbits. There is currently no rule to prohibit China from doing so. Upon further command, these attackers—already at close range—could quickly and forcibly dock with our satellites and bend or disconnect antennae and solar panels, thus disabling these navigational satellites upon which military, civil, and commercial operations are all critically dependent. Alternatively, these attackers could harmlessly relocate these satellites into the wrong orbits where they can no longer perform their functions. Worse yet, there would still be plenty of leftover attackers to impair our other critical satellites serving as our eyes and ears at geosynchronous orbits and highly elliptical orbits.

At this pivotal junction, we must ward off this possibility lurking at the door of the free world without falling into the trap of ideological rigidity. Our window for action is closing, and we must take corrective steps now. 

Brian Chow is an independent policy analyst with more than 170 publications. Follow him on X at @briangchow

Image: Shutterstock.