Jeffrey LewisChallenges to U.S. Space Superiority

A new report by the National Air and Space Intelligence Center, Challenges to U.S. Space Superiority, warns more spacefaring states mean more challenges to US space superiority.

Pretty soon, everybody will be operating in space.

The Armed Forces Communications and Electronics Association (AFCEA) summarizes the report:

U.S. Space Superiority Threatened

The club of spacefaring nations is growing, the cost of entry is dropping and participation in space-based activities is becoming easier. These factors threaten U.S. space supremacy and the vital on-orbit U.S. assets that are counted on to support military operations worldwide, according to a U.S. Air Force National Air and Space Intelligence Center (NASIC) report.

Titled “Challenges to U.S. Space Superiority,” the NASIC report notes that both the ability to exploit space against U.S. interests and to deny U.S. use of space-based assets soon will be within reach of even nonstate adversaries. Imagery satellites are likely to increase in number and in quality, which will make allied forces susceptible to surveillance by many potential foes. Several countries are improving signals intelligence capabilities that could detect allied force operations. The advent of small satellite capabilities has opened up space to inexpensive imaging, communications, navigation and even antisatellite weapon systems for countries previously excluded from the space club.

Terrorists soon may be able to jam space-based communications and navigational systems as well as to attack vital groundstations. And, with the proliferation of previously limited technologies in orbit, many potential enemies—including nonstate adversaries—will be able to develop indigenously or to acquire from third parties the capabilities to deceive, disrupt, deny, degrade or destroy U.S. space systems or services.

Robert Ackerman, a writer for AFCEA’s Signal magazine, details the NASIC report in a longer article entitled “Space Vulnerabilities Threaten U.S. Edge in Battle.”

One thing that I found interesting: NASIC starts from the same premise as my short article in Ad Astra. Ackerman writes:

Foremost among these trends is the proliferation of space technologies that previously have been limited to technologically advanced countries with large bankrolls. The availability of smaller satellites that are less expensive to build and cost less to launch is allowing more nations to place assets in orbit.

NAIC, however, emphasizes that increased access to space creates the capability for states to develop antisatellite weapons:

Countermeasures against U.S. space assets also are becoming easier to acquire. More countries than ever now have launch-to-orbit capabilities, which increases the possibility of rogue nations placing antisatellite payloads in space to attack U.S. orbiters. And, some emerging technologies offer the potential of empowering terrorists with inexpensive antisatellite measures that could remove vital U.S. orbital assets from the battlespace.

Ah, lazy technological determinism. Why are conservatives always the biggest Marxists?

Like good Marxists, NASIC avoids any thorny empirical questions —like why have spacefaring states largely refrained from developing ASATs? The last non-US ASAT test was more than twenty years ago by an adversary—the Soviet Union—that no longer exists.

NASIC, according to Ackerman, does give one example … of a non-spacefaring state (Iran) engaging in some pretty amateur jamming (that we stopped). Otherwise—and I haven’t seen the report itself, yet—“the law of development of human history,” to quote Engels, does the heavy lifting.

So, why no foreign ASATS? Instead of assuming that states will build ASATs for the same reason dogs lick themselves, perhaps the benefits derived from the peaceful use of space are an incentive for cooperation—an incentive we might wish to reinforce:

Yet, should we be surprised by the absence of foreign counterspace programs? The most capable of potential adversaries in space—Russia and China—have called for a moratorium on the deployment of space weapons and want to negotiate a treaty to prevent an arms race in outer space, in part because they are concerned about U.S. space systems, such as space-based ballistic missile defenses. Russia recently declared that it “shall not be the first to place any weapons in outer space.”

Other countries, especially in Europe, emphasize the benefits of commercial and civil collaboration in space. These states have emphasized that current missions in space, including military missions, are consistent with the principle that space ought to be used for peaceful uses and that the priority task is consolidating the legal environment for space operations. Choices made by U.S. policymakers, not technological determinism, will be the decisive factor in determining the future of outer space.

Just a thought.


  1. J. (History)

    Damn, are they paranoid enough? Not only do we have to worry about nations but now terrorists are going to jam our sats? Crazy talk. The only thing I can think about that makes sense is that they think that DOD’s fixation on “irregular” warfare requires any successful project to be linked with the topic of terrorism. But this is a real stretch.

  2. Harold Richards (History)

    Good article. I just wanted to point out that you shouldn’t believe all the rhetoric from Russia and China on “peaceful” uses of space. After all, it was the Former Soviet Union which first tested orbiting weapons in space with their “shotgun” type ASAT. So how can they not be the first, when they already were the first. Is that kind of like getting your virginity back? They also continue to market various ASATs, with their latest being air launched.

    On additional thought, if you did have a treaty to ban ASATs, to include ground launched ASATs and ground-based high power lasers, how would you ever verify such a treaty? Any of these weapon systems could be built under the guise of a non ASAT program.

    Just a thought!

  3. David (History)

    Preventing an arms race in outer space would by definition exclude ground or air-based systems, since the treaty refers only to weapons based in space. Otherwise the treaty would be named, “Prevention of Attacks on Satellites” or somesuch.

    The point is valid that terrestrial ASAT needs some sort of control. But because PAROS doesn’t, doesn’t mean the Russians are being disingenuous.

  4. Max Postman (History)

    In response to Mr. Richards, I think it’s very important to distinguish between the USSR and modern Russia. USSR testing of ASATs took place in the context of the Cold War. The modern world is a very different place.

    It’s true that the USSR’s historic actions may provide some clue to understanding modern Russian intentions and capabilities. However, it is ridiculous to assert that USSR policy is determinative of modern Russian policy. The USSR wanted to develop ASATs, but modern Russia would clearly rather impose a moritorium on them (See Krepon article quoted here). Evidently, the USSR and modern Russia are two different states, in two different contexts, with two different sets of intentions. Just because the USSR pursued space weapons in the past, it doesn’t mean that space weapons control today is a lost cause.

    As a caveat, I am not familiar with Mr. Richards’ claim that Russia “markets” various ASATs. That seems to contradict the Krepon article quoted here, which, as I understood, stated that the Russians are opposed to the development of space weapons of any kind.

  5. Jeffrey Lewis (History)

    Thanks for reading.

    Like in the United States, large bureaucracies in Russia and China attempt to reconcile a large, diverse set of interests. I don’t believe “all the rhetoric” of any of the three governments.

    The purpose of arms control is essentially bureaucratic—which perhaps explains why many people don’t get it. The goal is to force your adversary to involve a larger, more diverse array of interests in negotiations, create bureaucratic machinery that wiill default toward compliance and impose monitoring requirements that provide timely warning of nefarious activities.

    I don’t agree with the factual descriptions of Russia’s antisatellite (ASAT) program in Harold Richard’s comment.

    Russian co-orbital system hasn’t been tested since 1982, its test record to that point was unimpressive and the slow manner of attack makes the system wildly impractical. To be vulgar, counting the co-orbital ASAT as losing one’s virginity is a little like counting a hand-job for the same purpose.

    Russia has no other ASATs to market (nor have I seen any evidence of this). I think this may be an urban legend.

    An excellent summary of these programs can be found in Laura Grego, A History of US and Soviet ASAT Programs, April 9, 2003.

    The Soviet ASAT suggests a point about residual capabilities and verification—a treaty or agreement that limits Moscow to a rudimentary co-orbital system would be superior to a world where Moscow built something better. Similarly, Moscow’s ability to cheat (perhaps by retasking ABM interceptors) would also provide less capability than the unrestrained development of antisatellite weapons.

    Effective antisatellite systems—even based on missile defense intereceptors—would require testing visible to space surveillance sensors. In general, I favor agreements that regulate behavior (which can be verified with surveillance) and create mechanisms for consultation and cooperation (which can be a source of HUMINT).

    Verification elements of any treaty would probably include declarations regarding national space programs and launches, consultative committees to discuss a variety of on-orbit behavior, and cooperation in sharing data related to space surveillance. See Disarmament: Problems Related to Outer Space, UNIDIR, 1987.

    How much verification we want will depend on how much we want to pay.

  6. Seth Meyerson (History)

    Geez. Anti satilite weopons and defenses. What a waste. Much eaiser ways to attack the US. Nuke in a container etc. Give me a break. One more way to squander national resources.