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A sitting target in space for Russia’s anti-satellite weapons?

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U.S. Space Command (USSPACECOM) has revealed evidence that Russia conducted a space-based anti-satellite (ASAT) weapon test on July 15. This is but the latest in a growing number of counter-space capability tests conducted by an ever-expanding number of countries, and flies in the face of our nation’s policy to not weaponize space. 

It is time to face reality.

With Russia, China and other countries moving to weaponize it, space is now a warfighting domain. The United States must ensure the organizations it recently stood up to deter and, if necessary, to defeat an adversary’s hostile use of space — the U.S. Space Force and USSPACECOM — have the necessary resources to fulfill their vital missions.

During the Cold War, the risk of an attack in space was thought to be low because it might be interpreted as a prelude to nuclear war. Historically, the United States and the Soviet Union broadly agreed not to interfere with each other’s national security space assets, because they were implicitly subsumed under the deliberately vague definition of national technical means for treaty verification. This view of satellites as strategic assets began to change starting with the first Gulf War, when space-based systems helped to provide coalition forces with decisive operational and tactical advantages during combat operations.

Today, the United States relies on space to project power globally — certainly to a greater extent than potential adversaries that would have the benefit, in the most likely conflict scenarios, of operating closer to home. Our civilian economy has become inseparably dependent on space-based capabilities, too. It should, therefore, come as no surprise that potential adversaries such as Russia and China have been actively developing the doctrine, organizations and capabilities to neutralize the asymmetric U.S. advantage in space.

Unfortunately, as the space domain has grown increasingly contested, the U.S. national security space enterprise has not kept pace. Many of the systems in use have designs dating to the Cold War, when requirements were driven by performance rather than resilience, resulting in systems that became increasingly complex, integrated and expensive. Although sensible at the time, such systems are not well suited to today’s strategic environment. As Gen. John Hyten, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, puts it, they present “juicy targets” to potential adversaries and would take years to replace, if degraded or destroyed.

The causes of our current state of affairs are numerous, including onerous, costly acquisition processes; fragmented authority for space acquisitions across dozens of agencies within the Department of Defense (DOD) and the intelligence community; the lack of sufficient numbers of space professionals; and the tendency of the military services — which are focused on other domains — to shortchange space investment when balancing priorities.

Addressing these issues, and the growing recognition of the vulnerability of U.S. space systems, are precisely why DOD re-established USSPACECOM and why Congress stood up the U.S. Space Force.

These two organizations have distinct yet complementary roles. The U.S. Space Force is tasked to organize, train and equip space forces and to provide an appropriate space component to each of the combatant commands. As one of 11 unified DOD combatant commands, USSPACECOM integrates and employs assigned forces from each of the military services to execute its directed missions in and through the space domain. 

Ensuring the success of both organizations will require the financial, human and organizational resources to sustain, protect and grow America’s critical space capability and capacity.

First, in terms of funding, the president’s FY2021 budget allocates $15.4 billion to the U.S. Space Force, just over 2 percent of the total DOD budget. This is neither reflective of the contribution of space-based capabilities to both civilian and military functions nor sufficient to counter increasing threats. Adequately funding the Space Force will require each of the services, as well as the intelligence community, to contribute resources that align with their space mission requirements that are provided by the Space Force, rather than relying entirely on the Air Force for funding.

Second, there are not enough trained space personnel to cover all the newly created military space organizations without double- or triple-assigning some critical space personnel. Congress stood up the Space Force with the caveat that it would generate no new personnel, primarily out of concern for rising costs and bureaucracy. Realistically, lifting the restriction on added personnel is necessary to ensure the national defense space enterprise has sufficient depth and flexibility in its cadre of space professionals to cover the U.S. Space Force, USSPACECOM, and the space components each service likely will want to retain to provide for their representation and support to USSPACECOM.

Third, at least some of the more than 60 government organizations that have a role in national security space should be integrated into the Space Force — a fundamental rationale for standing up the Space Force — along with their resources. An integrated U.S. military space enterprise would be better optimized than the disparate, overlapping, disjointed entities that exist today. Consolidating these organizations and their programs within the Space Force would allow it to assume control of the pass-through funding over which the Air Force currently has no authority. This would have the added benefit of promoting greater transparency in DOD resource allocation, to ensure each of the services is appropriately funded.

The recently published 2020 Defense Space Strategy rightly points out that space is no longer a sanctuary and that U.S. space systems will be targeted in future conflicts. Deterring these attacks requires increasing attention to space operations as well as developing and fielding capabilities to defend U.S. space systems and negate enemy threats in space. That starts with a U.S. Space Command and U.S. Space Force that are appropriately resourced for the missions they are tasked to accomplish. 

Action is required now. The adverse cost of waiting until Russia and China take offensive actions in space would prove utterly crippling to military and civilian interests. As history has proven time and again, the best way to dissuade an adversary from pursuing hostile action is through deliberate, smart preparation. In the Cold War, we called this “peace through strength,” and it still applies today. The time has come to get the U.S. space enterprise in order.   

David Deptula is a retired U.S. Air Force lieutenant general. He planned the Desert Storm air campaign, orchestrated air operations over Iraq and Afghanistan, was the first chief of Air Force Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance, and is now dean of the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies.

Tags China Russia United States Space Command United States Space Force

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