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We must acknowledge space as it is: A warfighting domain

AP Photo/Ng Han Guan
In this Oct. 19, 2017, file photo, visitors look at a display of satellite technologies at an exhibition highlighting China’s achievements under five years of President Xi Jinping’s leadership at the Beijing Exhibition Hall.

On Jan. 11, 2007, China launched a direct-ascent anti-satellite weapon (ASAT), which successfully intercepted and destroyed a Chinese satellite. It took fewer than 15 minutes from launch to impact. At the time, I was serving as the commander of Air Force Space Command, the predecessor of the Space Force. We could track the strike, saw its after-effects, but were powerless to offer leaders proactive options in case a U.S. satellite was targeted. Fifteen years later, threats to satellites have grown but we still lack meaningful options to deter and respond. 

China and Russia have made space a warfighting domain. It is past time that we recognize and respond to this reality.

Anti-satellite capabilities are not new; the United States and Soviet Union tested and deployed capabilities during the Cold War. With the fall of the Berlin Wall, these offensive systems were demobilized. Thereafter, the biggest threats for a while were the possibility of a satellite accidentally running into space debris, or a space weather event such as a solar storm.

When China upset this peaceful equilibrium in 2007, it was not a one-time event. Instead, it unleashed a broad range of aggressive Chinese and Russian actions on orbit — far beyond what we ever experienced during the Cold War. Not only did China pursue direct-ascent anti-satellite technology, but they also invested in “killer” satellites that can remain on orbit for years before being commanded to attack our satellites. These capabilities do not represent one-off tests; they are operational in scale and intent. In effect, China and Russia have weaponized space.

While the U.S. did not instigate or favor turning space into a warfighting domain, we must respond. We require a range of terrestrial and space-based defensive and offensive options to deter and, if necessary, defeat attacks on our critical space capabilities and hold our adversaries’ space capabilities at equal risk. This mirrors what we have in every other domain. We wouldn’t send a plane, ship, or soldier into harm’s way without the ability to defend themselves or attack their enemy, but this is the reality facing America’s satellites in space today.  

Fifteen years after China’s ASAT strike, we still lack the ability to defeat an attack on our space systems or launch an offensive strike if circumstances warrant. This position cedes numerous advantages to our adversaries and does nothing to deter aggressive action on their part.

Hostile action toward our space-based assets is not a question of “if,” but instead, “when.” Attacks are regularly occurring at lower thresholds. Our adversaries fully understand the U.S. military’s reliance upon these systems and will seek to compromise or destroy them to gain a decisive advantage in any terrestrial conflict.

Rectifying this situation first demands acknowledging that space is now a warfighting domain. Many in the policy community are still pushing back on this reality. They risk further eroding the time available to build the necessary capabilities to deter an attack.

We will know when we are making progress in this area when we pursue operational concepts, strategies and technologies that embrace both offensive and defensive capabilities; integrate space with the other warfighting domains to allow for combined combat actions, which may include terrestrial domains supporting actions in space; and train Guardians not just as technical experts, but warfighters. 

Added to this, space domain awareness needs to improve markedly to ensure that we understand the enemy threats — especially before they manifest. Further, robust training and exercises will prove crucial for Guardians to make sure that the first time they experience an attack in orbit is during a drill and not in real life.

These actions will add stability and decrease the likelihood of aggression in space. The goal is to develop resilient, defendable capabilities that can withstand an attack, while also developing offensive options that will deter strikes against our systems in orbit. The fact that I had no options to present to our national leaders when China launched the ASAT strike 15 years ago was incredibly frustrating. 

It is unacceptable to continue this status quo, despite dramatically more dangerous conditions. We did not choose this fight, but we must respond to the conditions set forth by our adversaries.

Retired U.S. Air Force Gen. Kevin Chilton is the Explorer Chair for Space Warfighting Studies at the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies. He previously led U.S. Strategic Command and Air Force Space Command, and was a NASA astronaut. 

Tags China Russia Satellite Space

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