by Malcolm Davis
SpaceWatch.Global has been granted permission to publish selected articles and texts. This is “Warfighting in Space: Managing risks and seizing opportunities to avoid space weaponisation”, originally published 18 October 2021 at ORF Online by Malcolm Davis
Modern military forces cannot fight and win without space, and the loss of access to vital space support for terrestrial forces dramatically raises the risk of tactical surprise, and ultimately, military defeat
Space is a militarised domain, and it has been since the dawn of the space age, with both superpowers deploying satellites to support terrestrial military operations, especially in relation to the command and control of nuclear weapons. The growing dependency of modern military forces on space capabilities has seen the military role of space expand across a full spectrum of relevant activities, perhaps, most importantly in positioning, navigation, and timing (PNT) services provided by global navigation satellite systems, satellite communications, and space-based intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance, as well as targetting.
Simply put, modern military forces cannot fight and win without space, and the loss of access to vital space support for terrestrial forces dramatically raises the risk of tactical surprise, and ultimately, military defeat. Victory can only be achieved at a much greater cost in blood and treasure, absent the knowledge edge provided by space capabilities.
It is, therefore, no surprise that major power actors—notably, China, Russia, India, and the United States (US)—are either poised to, or have crossed, the rubicon to dramatically expand counterspace capability and develop a new generation of advanced anti-satellite (ASAT) capabilities. There is great incentive to develop counterspace capabilities designed to deny an opponent access to vital space support, and in doing so, achieve a decisive advantage, tactically and operationally.
China and Russia have demonstrated a range of counterspace-related technologies, including the operational deployment of ground-based direct-ascent ‘kinetic kill’ ASATs by China, to hold at-risk satellites in Low-Earth Orbit (LEO), and have demonstrated the technology for delivering an ASAT against satellites in geosynchronous orbit (GEO). India too, has tested a hit-to-kill ASAT. China, Russia, and the United States all have demonstrated the technologies relevant to co-orbital ASAT systems that could carry out ‘soft-kill’ attacks at close range, which can disable or damage, but do not physically destroy. All three have ground-based counterspace systems, such as uplink and downlink jamming, or as in the case of China, laser-dazzling. Finally, the potential for cyberattacks on satellites or on the ground facilities controlling them is increasingly likely.
The growth in counterspace capabilities and the increasing threat that the operational domain of space will soon become a warfighting domain is driving organisational change, as major and middle powers develop ‘space forces’ to respond to rapid change in space operations
The growth in counterspace capabilities and the increasing threat that the operational domain of space will soon become a warfighting domain is driving organisational change, as major and middle powers develop ‘space forces’ to respond to rapid change in space operations. The establishment of the US Space Force by the Trump Administration in 2018 was preceded by China’s PLA Strategic Support Force (PLASSF) in 2015 and Russia’s Aerospace Force in 2016. Australia is now developing a ‘Space Division’ within RAAF headquarters, to be established in 2022, whilst the UK has established its own UK Space Command earlier in 2021. Japan is also establishing its own space squadron to protect satellites from both debris and hostile activity.
This certainly sounds a lot like major actors are proceeding on the basis that space will be a warfighting domain. There’s a risk that security dilemmas will drive all states towards rapid weaponisation, sharpening the risk of conflict and instability, especially given the potential for ‘grey zone’ actions in orbit prior to a conflict. The prospect of a slippery slope to space war is real, and, so far, there seems to be little effort on the part of major powers to find an off-ramp.
The 1968 Outer Space Treaty (OST) is the basis of international space law and the foundation for efforts to curtail and constrain a rush to space weaponisation. The OST makes it clear that weapons of mass destruction cannot be deployed in space, but does nothing to constrain the development, testing, and deployment of non-nuclear space weapons. Also, defining what constitutes a ‘space weapon’ is becoming increasingly difficult. Cyberattacks and jamming of satellite datalinks could be employed by non-state adversaries, and can be facilitated from Earth’s surface, and even crude anti-satellite attacks could be achieved by taking control of a satellite and colliding it with another.
The UN General Assembly Resolution 75/36 on responsible behaviour in space represents the latest effort towards constraining a rush to weaponisation of space. Sponsored by the UK government in December 2020, the resolution is non-binding and seeks to establish norms of responsible behaviour to allow further diplomatic progress that could make it legally more difficult to pursue space weapons. That resolution has set a process in motion that might eventually see some sort of binding resolution banning direct-ascent kinetic kill ASATs. Even this faces challenges once again, in terms of what constitutes such a capability, given that ballistic missile defence (BMD) interceptors have an inherent dual role as ASATs, as demonstrated by the US in Operation Burnt Frost in 2008. Verification, monitoring and enforcement of any agreement is also unclear.
The ultimate solution may lay with a combination of updated and enhanced space law and regulatory reform carried out within international bodies such as COPUOUS, combined with enhanced deterrence by denial through space resilience. The latter would see vital space capabilities being less susceptible to an attack through greater augmentation of satellites, disaggregation of critical space support functions across larger numbers of small satellites, and the ability for rapid reconstitution of space capabilities—together with an inherent defensive and retaliatory capacity. The goal would be to change the decision calculus of an adversary such that it is no longer in their interests to use ASATs because such a use would be ineffective, and the diplomatic, political, and military costs would be too high.
Deterrence in space also demands that an adversary cannot exploit anonymity because enhanced space domain awareness—both from Earth and from space—will ensure attribution of any aggressive activity
Deterrence in space also demands that an adversary cannot exploit anonymity because enhanced space domain awareness—both from Earth and from space—will ensure attribution of any aggressive activity. This is particularly vital given the risk of grey zone actions in space. Investment in space-domain awareness, and diplomatic agreements, such as the ‘Combined Space Operations Initiative’ (CSpO) between the ‘five-eyes’ states, plus Germany and France, that facilitate information sharing on space activities, will be vital to ensure deterrence does work.
There is no sure way to prevent a rapid spiral into space weaponisation. Despite our best efforts, space may ultimately become a warfighting domain in the next war. The best path forward is to raise the cost of using counterspace capabilities for any would-be aggressive major power, backed up by meaningful and enforceable space law that delivers immediate and significant diplomatic, political and even economic consequences for a state which violates the norms of responsible behaviour. It is the combination of deterrence and diplomacy that has the best chance to prevent space from becoming a warfighting domain.
Malcolm Davis joined ASPI as a Senior Analyst in Defence Strategy and Capability in January 2016. Prior to this he was a Post-Doctoral Research Fellow in China-Western Relations with the Faculty of Society and Design at Bond University from March 2012 to January 2016, and he currently retains an Honorary Assistant Professor position in the Faculty. He has worked with the Department of Defence, both in Navy Headquarters in the Strategy and Force Structure area, and with Strategic Policy Division in the Strategic Policy Guidance and Strategic External Relations and Education sections.
The original can be found here –https://www.orfonline.org/expert-speak/warfighting-in-space/
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