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Space Force should prepare for the threat we have — not the one we prefer

As the one-year anniversary of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine came and went, many commentators discussed and debated lessons learned and observations regarding the conflict — especially as it pertains to a potential conflict with China over Taiwan’s independence. Unfortunately, with respect to space-power capabilities and employment, too many commentators have been making assumptions based on the character and practice of the Russians in their war in Ukraine and applying them as the “way of the future” for space deterrence and warfighting techniques. 

For example, one such assumption is, given that Russian space forces have relied primarily on reversible or “soft kill” counter-space systems, and not on “hard kill” weapons systems like anti-satellite (ASAT) missiles, the future of space warfighting will be based on such “soft kill” options. This is a dangerous assumption to make. It is especially unwise to base the national security space strategies and posture of the United States on such a view.

Western military commentators and pundits around the world have been making the case that, because the Russians haven’t employed “hard kill” space weapons, and instead have used reversible counter-space systems such as jammers and cyber attacks, any future war with China likely will follow that equation. In addition, based on the success of Starlink’s proliferated low earth orbit (p-LEO) construct’s ability to defeat or deny Russian cyber and jamming effects, it is assumed that the resiliency of such an architecture has been proven. Indeed, the Space Development Agency of the U.S. Space Force is pursuing such systems in many of its next generation communications and missile-tracking system designs. 

But are these really the lessons learned by China and are the “soft kill” and reversible counter-space warfighting options the “wave of the future” for space integration in conflict? The short answer is no.

While the U.S. and its allies have been pursuing a strategy of norms, resilience and arms-control measures to ensure the security, safety and sustainability of the space domain, China and Russia have not. They have opposed the U.S.-led proposal to ban destructive ASAT testing. China in particular is taking a much more aggressive route, likely in preparation for eventual conflict with the U.S. and its allies. 

China has been developing and deploying a “multi-layered attack architecture” consisting of “kinetic kill missiles, ground-based lasers, and orbiting space robots,” coupled with “an expanded array of surveillance and tracing capabilities” necessary for targeting. Many of these capabilities, such as orbital ASATs, reportedly have engaged in “damaging on-orbit behavior” and, in the case of ASAT missiles, generated thousands of pieces of debris. All of these weapons systems, while providing both “hard kill” and “soft kill” options, lean more toward the “hard kill” in Chinese military writings than the softer, reversible side of counter-space options.

China believes that deterrence does not come from a combined effect of norms, arms control and resilience; it seeks to counter and unravel all of the above. In conflict, China aims to create options for escalation dominance by either destroying enemy satellites in orbit and/or creating “[adverse] influence … [upon] adversary space systems, as well as … [creating] certain psychological pressure on and fear in the adversary … [thereby] forcing the adversary to dare not conduct … [the] initiative” in conflict. These capabilities range from ground to space, space to space, and, as seen in August 2021, space to ground weapons such as fractional orbital bombardment systems (FOBS).  

For example, while the p-LEO concepts do provide some measure of resilience for individual satellites, China sees such systems not as a collection of individual satellites but as a single system target that poses a threat to their national security. As a result, China’s deterrence and warfighting concepts are designed to not just hit individual satellites, since that will not create the desired effect of “disposing” of such constellations in a sufficiently timely manner, but instead to take down the entire p-LEO system at once, through a combination of reversible and “hard kill” capabilities, which can escalate — up to and including nuclear detonations. 

Although this may sound far-fetched, China has undertaken studies and simulations that suggest a 10-megaton warhead “could create a serious threat to satellites if it detonates at an altitude of 50 miles.” This concept would create strong radiation that the mega constellations would fly through, leading to destruction of such p-LEO architectures.

Knowing the intentions behind the development and deployment of China’s space forces, senior leaders in Congress and the Pentagon should understand that the future for which we should be preparing is one where p-LEO resiliency would unravel in the face of superior Chinese space-power overmatch. Debris generation might be a concern for the West, but it might not necessarily be a concern of long-term strategists such as the Chinese. 

We should be preparing for a future where we not only can take a hit but can hit back — in a way that deters and prevents attacks in the first place. The current space deterrence and warfighting posture of the U.S. Space Force and U.S. Space Command is not ready for this reality. We must fix this posture.

Christopher Stone is senior fellow for Space Deterrence Studies at the National Institute for Deterrence Studies. A former special assistant to the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Space Policy, he is a senior adviser and consultant with Core-CSI in Washington. The opinions expressed here are his alone and do not reflect the position of the Department of Defense.

Tags China aggression Space force Space warfare

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