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The Space Force needs deterrence and war-winning capabilities

The Space Force needs deterrence and war-winning capabilities
© Greg Nash

In 2019, Congress established the U.S. Space Force (USSF) as the “armed force” capable of addressing deterrence and warfighting requirements in the space domain. Under the new Department of Defense organization, space is seen as a separate theater and area of responsibility at “100 km and up.” Given the threats we face in space, especially from peer adversaries such as China, it is crucial that the USSF establish a credible, viable space deterrent force. This requires a service capable of degrading and/or destroying an adversary nation’s critical space infrastructure and their space forces.

The USSF lacks key elements that are necessary to empower effective deterrence on orbit: sufficient offensive and defensive means to achieve its statutory functions as an armed force. Credible deterrence requires kinetic and non-kinetic capabilities, political will to use those systems, and the clear communication of a specified threat of force linked to a specific action (i.e., attack) that the U.S. wants to prevent. The armed forces behind the threat must be credible in the mind of the adversary. That means they must be sufficient to win after an adversary attack. And while this discussion focuses on war-winning capability in, from and to space, it is important to realize that the entire point of this effort is to deter war by embracing the principle of “peace through strength.”

With China as a key military pacing threat in space, it is important to understand how they view the domain strategically. Government documents indicate the indivisibility between deterrence doctrine and space-based war-winning capability. They believe that to deter an attack in, from or to space, the Chinese military must have the means to defeat their enemy’s space forces and infrastructure. This posture requires a framework far different than the present U.S. military space construct on orbit. China believes in an “attack to deter” doctrine that extends past the U.S. concept of space warfare as non-kinetic jamming, but instead “rapid, destructive” actions against space targets.

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This difference in mindset cuts to how China views the purpose of the space domain. Unlike the United States, Chinese space strategists do not believe that space capabilities are primarily supporting infrastructure for terrestrial actions. China is constructing their forces to use space as a medium for warfighting. As such, China views U.S. advantages provided by our critical space infrastructure as being America’s “soft ribs” capable of leading to victory in both crisis and conflict.  

Taking all of that into consideration, U.S. space leaders need to consider key actions to address this situation:

  • Congress and the Biden administration must change the Defense Space Strategy’s acquisition approach from one focused on post-strike resiliency and integration to one of tailored, credible deterrence against space attack and true space superiority. This means not just comparative technological superiority, but through the fielding and will to use a broad range of weapon systems capable of gaining and sustaining space superiority. If necessary, that means achieving escalation dominance in a crisis.

  • The U.S. must field a near-term, ground-based kinetic anti-satellite (ASAT) capability as a means of negating the imbalance of forces between Chinese and U.S. space forces. This can be accomplished at low expense by adapting and repurposing current missile defense programs of record into USSF attack squadrons. This is a proven model used by the U.S. in 1965-1975 when it modified Thor missiles into ASATs deployed in the Pacific.

  • In addition to a near-term kinetic ASAT force, the U.S. must rapidly field on-orbit forces capable of rapid maneuver across multiple orbital regimes — including cis-lunar space — to ensure both space domain awareness and active defense of critical space infrastructure become a reality sooner rather than later. 

The USSF was created for a specific reason: as a response to our adversaries’ decision to turn space into a warfighting domain. For the service to meet the objectives for which it was created, the administration and Congress must empower USSF to build a credible space deterrent-based strategy and the corresponding tools. This means deterring conflict in space by building space-based forces that will deny any advantage opportunistic aggressors are creating today. That requires a force capable of providing independent kinetic and non-kinetic options beyond electronic warfare actions. 

With this kind of approach and the requisite systems in place, it then will be crucial for U.S. leaders to clearly articulate the conditions that will see their use. Deterrence is only effective when an adversary understands the realities of force capability available and the penalties in play if they choose the path of aggression.

Christopher M. Stone is senior fellow for space studies at the Spacepower Advantage Research Center, Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies. He is the former special assistant to the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Space Policy in the Pentagon.