Jeffrey LewisHair Trigger in Space

Adam Herbert, a senior editor at AFA Magazine, writes that Air Force Space Command is attempting to install a hair trigger in outer space:

Over the years, space essentially has been a militarily benign environment. For that reason, operators had come to assume that failures were the result of equipment malfunctions – not the deliberate and malicious acts of enemies.

Space Command is trying to break operators of that thinking. The first response when something goes wrong, said Maj. Gen. (sel.) Daniel J. Darnell, commander of AFSPC’s Space Warfare Center, should be “think possible attack.”


Of course, operators start from the assumption of malfunctions because U.S. space assets have never been deliberately attacked—a point that I’ve made over and over on this blog.

Don’t these people read my work?”

One of the major arguments for arms control rests on inadequacies in the rational actor model of deterrence. Think of arms control as a set of organizational responses to the various modes of failure for deterrence. One of the biggest problems with deterrence is a little a theorem developed by Thomas Bayes to calculate conditional probabilities.

To be very simple-minded, Bayes argues that we start with a prior assumption (an attack, for example, is underway or not) and update it to reflect a new piece of information (such as a warning). That small adjustment to the rational actor model has big implications for deterrence.

For example, warning systems for nuclear weapons will not work very well—a point ably demonstrated in a slim volume by Bruce Blair and John Steinbruner enitled The Effects of Warning on Strategic Stability (Brookings Institution Press 1991).

Blair and Steinbruner argue that warnings of a nuclear attack (which would include a conventional attack on space systems) will not have enough time or salience to overcome the National Command Authorities prior belief that an attack is or is not underway. The result is that a “bolt from the blue” will be discounted in peacetime, while a false alarm in a (very) deep crisis would start a war.

The implication of Blair and Steinbruner’s argument, in the nuclear context, would be to ease off what then-Governor Bush called high-alert, hair-trigger status [of nuclear weapons]—another dangerous vestige of Cold War confrontation.

They would not propose, as AFSPC does, extending the nuclear hair trigger back into space.