Michael KreponIs Space the Final War-Fighting Frontier?

Quote of the week:

“ASATs possess considerably greater capacity for transforming a crisis into a war, and for enlarging wars, than they do for assisting in military missions or enhancing deterrence.”
—Kurt Gottfried and Richard Ned Lebow, “Anti-Satellite Weapons: Weighing the Risks,” 1985.

There are two generic kinds of failure in the arms control and threat reduction business: failure despite trying, and failure by not trying. Neither one is comforting, but the latter is particularly galling. The dangerous military competition is space now unfolding reflects both kinds of failure. None of us really know how fast and how far this competition is progressing because major powers don’t advertise once they have demonstrated kinetic energy ASAT capabilities. The only point of clarity at present is that there are few diplomatic instruments and no active diplomacy among major powers to serve as even a slight counterweight to the military space competition now underway.

It’s extremely hard to negotiate limits on dangerous military technologies. When success occurs, it’s due to their exorbitant costs and the relative ease of their nullification. When adversaries perceive common interests to constrain dangerous military technologies, they can focus on preventing tests that are verifiable by national technical means. Controls on the production of weapon systems incorporating dangerous military technologies are also possible, as was demonstrated in the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty, where production monitoring was accomplished by a combination of on-site inspections and sensors located at and orbiting above production facilities. Controls on deployments of military systems incorporating dangerous technologies can also be monitored by cooperative measures and NTM. This is how Washington and Moscow managed to slow down and then downsize their strategic nuclear competition.

All of this was very hard to do for ground-based systems. It’s far harder to control dangerous military technologies applicable to space warfare, where these methods have yet to be applied. A long-range missile that carries a nuclear warhead doesn’t have military applications beyond the obvious. Because nuclear warfare stands apart from other types of warfare, states willing to place constraints on nuclear capabilities, whether for reasons of cost, signaling, or threat reduction, can find the means to do so. In contrast, a laser beam could be used as a space weapon, or it could be used for monitoring or satellite station keeping. To prohibit a technology on the basis of one application would be to prohibit it for other essential uses. The same problem applies to the delivery vehicles that could be used for space warfare. An airplane that could be used to launch an anti-satellite weapon could be used to ferry cargo or strike the planners of the next 9/11 attacks.

Beijing and Moscow champion an ambitious space treaty as they ramp up ASAT capabilities, knowing full well that they can posture as good guys while counting on Washington to pour cold water on an unverifiable treaty riddled with loopholes. The hard reality is that formalized arms control and threat reduction treaties relating to multi-purpose technologies are not negotiable – and not acceptable to two-thirds of the U.S. Senate. As long as treaties are beyond reach, norm-building is the best way to prevent dangerous practices in space.

In diplomacy as in warfare, you can’t beat something with nothing. One way to counter the bogus Russian and Chinese space treaty is to seek, either by tacit or executive agreements, a ban on hit-to-kill ASAT tests. A kinetic energy ASAT test ban is verifiable and possible because the United States, China, and Russia have already demonstrated this capability, and everyone now recognizes the blowback consequences of explosive debris generation in space. Agreeing not to carry out such tests would have some symbolic value, as it would demonstrate top-down awareness of the dangers of the current competition. But it would not be reassuring, as it would not constrain competition elsewhere, including ASAT tests designed to miss.

A broader, more practical and common sense approach would be for major space powers to agree to a code of conduct for responsible behavior in space. This diplomatic initiative wouldn’t seek the impossible – constraining military technologies – but would instead focus on promoting cooperative and avoiding dangerous activities. A code of conduct among major space-faring nations faces serious hurdles, but is possible because all major powers are investing heavily in space – on top of considerable sunk costs. War-fighting capabilities in space cannot safeguard these investments because no major power has a monopoly on them.

At the outset of the Obama Administration, it seemed possible to make headway on a space code of conduct, as relations among major powers were in decent enough shape. But as I have written in the Nonproliferation Review, Team Obama had other priorities. One reason for taking a pass on championing the code of conduct was that any initiative constraining U.S. freedom of action in space would have driven Republicans on Capitol Hill even deeper into treaty demolition mode – endangering New START, which was the administration’s top priority and which eventually passed the gantlet of Senate consent with only six votes to spare. Another reason for the Obama administration’s reluctance was a lack of domestic enthusiasm. All of the excitement was initially around abolition and a new treaty securing deeper cuts. By comparison, a space code of conduct seemed like small potatoes.

Consequently, Team Obama decided to hand this initiative over to the European Union. The EU faced an immediate fork in the road: to bring others into the drafting process within a UN-sanctioned body – with the prospect of another easily stalled multilateral negotiation – or to do the drafting, eliciting comments along the way. It chose the latter course, producing an admirable draft, but was unable to bring others on board who were excluded. A meaningful code of conduct requires buy-in by the Big Three space powers, but there was no way that European diplomats could sell this initiative to Moscow and Beijing. That was Washington’s job, and Washington punted. The Obama Administration never did get around to declaring its unequivocal support for the EU’s handiwork.

By the time the EU’s draft code was ready for consideration, relations between Washington and Moscow had soured badly, and Beijing backed off engaging in a serious way. The nadir of this effort was a meeting convened by the EU at the United Nations in July 2015, in which the EU’s handiwork was roundly criticized by Russia, China, India, Brazil, South Africa and others. One of the arguments against the code was that it would legitimize a preemptive war in space because it included a provision, based on the UN’s Charter, recognizing the right of national defense. The draft space treaty proposed by Russia and China also explicitly endorsed the right of national defense. But when proposed by the EU, with the implicit support of Washington, the right of national defense was deemed dangerous and unacceptable by other states, including those with active anti-satellite programs.

Military competitions in space are cyclical. They subside and regenerate when competition intensifies between major powers on land or at sea. By my count, this is the third round of intensified competition – the others punctuated by Sputnik and the Strategic Defense Initiative. This time, there are three, not two, serious competitors. This time, the military competition has extended to geostationary orbit, and this time, space isn’t the private domain of national governments and military establishments. The private sector and consortia are major players. Profit taking can add friction or have palliative effects. If we’re smart in space, as on Earth, the pursuit of profit and existing co-dependencies can have a restraining effect on military adventurism.

Competitions in space, unlike strategic competitions involving missiles, bombers, subs and missile defense deployments, are mostly out of sight. Outsiders are left with inferences, not hard data. We know, at least roughly, the status of nuclear forces. We don’t know the balance of forces in space warfare.

Even if we don’t know adversarial capabilities in space, we can assume that satellites are hostages to space warfare, just as cities are hostages in nuclear warfare. Satellites are as vulnerable as cities. Where there’s a will, there’s a way to disable or destroy them. Nuclear detonations and kinetic kill mechanisms could be employed to kill satellites, but they are indiscriminate weapons; their use will hurt one’s own assets in space. The real competition in offensive counter-space capabilities lies elsewhere, by non-explosive means.

Deterrence absent diplomacy, whether in the nuclear domain or in space, can have a sharp offensive edge. A code of conduct clarifying responsible and dangerous operational practices can take something off this edge. It will not lead to a false sense of security, nor diminish the means of national defense in space because states will still possess counter-space capabilities. If, however, states follow agreed norms and avoid dangerous military practices in space, all major powers will benefit. If they disregard the code of conduct and engage in dangerous practices, major space-faring nations will have indications and warning signs of trouble ahead, warranting preparedness measures. Success will come only when the United States, Russia and China are on board. The wisest course for Washington at this point would be be to seek a trilateral agreement, which could serve as a model for a wider negotiation.

In the meantime, the messages conveyed by U.S. officials and military leaders about this competition are crucial. The best messenger at this point is General John Hyten of the Strategic Command, who has repeatedly clarified the U.S. preference to avoid fighting a war in space, while noting that the Pentagon will be quite ready if others want to go there. The worst messenger is newly confirmed Secretary of the Air Force Heather Wilson, who has asserted that, “We must develop space airmen who have the tools, training, and resources to fight when – not if – war extends into space.”

Asserting that warfare in space is inevitable is as dangerous as asserting that nuclear warfare is inevitable: If this is the case, then constraints of any kind, including norms of responsible behavior, are worse than useless. The record of the last seven decades suggests that nuclear warfare is not inevitable, and that diplomacy has been essential to avoid this outcome. The record of the last six decades suggests that warfare in space is not inevitable, either. What’s painfully missing now is the diplomatic piece to help avoid worst cases.

Note to readers: A shorter version of this essay appeared in the July 17 issue of Space News.


  1. Gregory Matteson (History)

    I would like to point out a quandary for Hit-to-Kill ASAT: In order to kill mid-level or Geo-synchronous satellites, each kill requires a major launch. If you look at the listing of operational satellites used by us, an attempt to seriously compromise our space assets would require a full-up World War Three Is On assault. This is pretty much true of Russian, Chinese, and European assets. If you are going to start World War Three, there are probably better uses for that many launch assets. If you consider taking out an individual low-earth-orbit asset, presumably in order to either hide something or to gain momentary tactical advantage, you would be provoking the nastiest imaginable level of umbrage on the part of the victim. I am suggesting there is good reason to reign in HTK, based on public knowledge.

  2. Jonah Speaks (History)

    “To prohibit a technology on the basis of one application would be to prohibit it for other essential uses.” A technology with multiple uses (both malign and beneficial) may not need to be prohibited, if it can be effectively regulated as to use. This is the premise for safeguarding nuclear material for peaceful use while providing for international inspections or other verification to prevent weaponization.

    Whether it makes sense to regulate or prohibit such dual use technology depends on how likely and how bad the bad uses would be, how likely and how good the good uses would be, and how expensive and how effective it would be to regulate or inspect those uses to prevent the bad uses. This requires a cost-benefit analysis of technical details, that necessarily vary from technology to technology.

    • Gregory Matteson (History)

      Consider one entirely possible near term bad outcome of militarizing space: Creating a debris field around the Earth that could deny humanity access to space for generations.

    • Jonah Speaks (History)

      Some technical issues: How many satellites must be killed to create the multi-generational debris field? One, two, ten, a hundred?

      What military objective would motivate a “limited” kinetic attack on a satellite? Deny GPS to an opponent? Deny surveillance of mobile assets? Anything else?

      Would it be possible temporarily (by some technical means and by agreement) to turn off all military uses of satellites during hostilities? That way, there is no military incentive to attack satellites during a war. Hence, no debris fields.

    • Gregory Matteson (History)

      Not all satellites are created equal. Navigation satellites are medium sized. Communication and spy satellites can be as big and heavy as a bus, and contain hundreds of kilograms of highly energetic hypergolic fuels. Plus there may be other types of vehicles, maybe fighting vehicles, that a civilian like me hasn’t thought of. As a long time reader of Sci-fi and speculative technical articles I can be paranoid enough to imagine, for example, an X 37b being used to deliver the Rod From God Weapon. That would be a heavy vehicle with a lot of energetic fuel, just a bit above LEO. According to Donald Kessler’s scenarios as popularized, if I understand correctly; deliberately blowing up one such vehicle could trigger a catastrophic debris cascade.

    • J_kies (History)

      Lest I go off on a tangent – I should remind people that Donald Kessler is merely retired not dead and I think it would be rather wise for someone to resource him to study the ASAT / SBI concepts as presently directed by Congress. I don’t get to write checks and do tasking in my day job or I certainly would do so.

      Consider the hundreds to thousands of KKVs implied by NDAA-17 directing MDA to look at a space based architecture. Given some small but reasonable failure rate releasing debris on satellite deployments; at what point would a constellation of KKVs with large explosive cross-sections (when convolved with ordinary debris crossings) self-destruct during the emplacement phase? (I am betting well under 30% populated)

      The end-state of a fully populated constellation would obviously be vulnerable to a satellite launch ‘failure’ that happened to put a population of counter-rotating debris into play.

  3. J_kies (History)

    Gregory Matteson gets the key point; launching to Geo is a serious endeavor and Michael gets the essence of the suicidal nature of KKVs. Donald Kessler’s debris cascade is a real constraint on all thoughts of ‘space war’ as debris + time = no viable space assets. What Don didn’t look at was the types of innately explosive payloads or large rocket engines on satellites as that causes the debris cascade to accelerate hugely. None of the advocates of space capabilities is thinking on the timelines necessary to have a viable strategic view that retains US capabilities (at all) at the exit of some conflict.

  4. Michael Krepon (History)

    Thank you for your comments.
    Yes, what matters is the application of multi-purpose technologies.
    Some applications can be addressed in part by flight test limitations or bans.
    This would be useful, in my view, with respect to kinetic-energy ASAT tests. These might be banned by tacit agreement (as may now be the case), executive agreement, or treaty.
    It’s hard for me to identify at this moment what other types of test bans would be useful and verifiable. I am open to suggestions from readers of ACW.
    The on-site inspection piece, which is crucial for limitations on nuclear forces, does not transfer well to military peace applications.This is a very serious constraint.

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