Re-evaluating Space Security

Recent technological and geopolitical developments underscore again the need to balance a desire to preserve complete freedom of action and widely accepted governing rules as the basis for space operations. This project explores what has changed, and what has not, since George W. Bush’s quest for U.S. military space dominance first prompted CISSM to consider whether the United States could use its huge military advantages in space to achieve reliable security for itself and its allies, or if the stability, security, and safety of space operations required more equitable cooperation among all stakeholders.

Human activities in outer space have undergone radical changes in the last 40 years. Communication, location, and remote sensing satellites are now critical global infrastructure, necessary for economic growth, environmental protection, and human welfare. These same space-based capabilities are now routinely being used not only be the U.S. military, but also by many potential competitors. Moreover, space is no longer dominated by a few large government-run programs. Market forces are now ascendant, with private and semi-private companies of all sizes leading the way in innovation and satellite system operation. 

The space boom brings risks as well as benefits. As space becomes more congested and crowded with on-orbit debris, the chances of collisions that could inadvertently destroy billion-dollar satellites or kill astronauts will continue to rise unless space users share information and coordinate operations more effectively. And, increased military reliance on space has led some nations to pursue technologies that could be used to destroy, degrade, or disable satellite systems, without much debate about whether competitive development of offensive capabilities will help or hurt security.

At the dawn of the Space Age, the United States began promoting a vision of space as controlled by no country and meant to benefit all. At the height of the Cold War, the United States worked to gain international agreement on the 1967 Outer Space Treaty and other accords that helped stabilize deterrence, banned space-based weapons of mass destruction, and encouraged reciprocal restraint regarding anti-satellite (ASAT) weapons. But there were always voices in the United States and USSR arguing that space should be no different from other domains for military competition, and that space would ultimately become the “high ground” of warfare. 

Since the end of the Cold War, U.S. emphasis has wavered between protecting satellites through rules and mutual restraint, and seeking military means to control who can use space for what purposes. The administration of George W. Bush aggressively pursued “space dominance” and rejected cooperative options. The Obama administration in its early years shifted back towards strategic restraint, transparency, and confidence-building measures. But faced with rapidly rising geopolitical tensions, and technological progress by Russia and China, it moved partway back towards preparations for warfighting in space—a trend that has been accelerating under the Trump administration.

China has explicitly warned the United States against space weaponization, arguing that U.S. military activities in space are becoming intolerably threatening, including to its nuclear deterrent. Instead of pursuing an economically unviable space arms race, Chinese officials espouse an asymmetrical strategy of holding at risk key vulnerabilities within the U.S. military space architecture. Russia has also taken steps in recent years to remind the United States and its allies how easily it could disrupt fragile space services on which they depend far more extensively than Russia itself does.

When CISSM’s Reconsidering the Rules for Space Security project examined the impact of space policy on global security, it concluded that a combination of technological, economic, political, and strategic constraints would preclude the types of transformative breakthroughs required to achieve the Bush administration’s aspirations for comprehensive U.S. space dominance. 

Much has changed since 2008. Advances in sensors and information-processing technology and successes by new space entrepreneurs suggest that some capabilities that eluded the Bush administration, like large constellations of small satellites equipped with synthetic aperture radar for anytime, anywhere, any weather tracking of mobile targets, may now be within reach. Others, like space-based missile defense, still probably could not be made to work effectively at an affordable cost and with acceptable strategic consequences, but that presumption still needs objective re-evaluation. 

CISSM’s current project on Re-evaluating Space Security has three main components: 

  • technical analysis of claims about new space capabilities being developed by major space powers—particularly Russia, China, and the United States—and by commercial actors; 

  • assessment of budgetary trends and political factors affecting Trump administration national security space policies; and 

  • recommendations for cooperative steps to enhance security, safety, and sustainability in space in ways that balance the interests of all stakeholders.

A thorough technical analysis of various space systems, their capabilities and limitations is vital to sensibly evaluate the claims made by the proponents. CISSM experts perform carefully calibrated technical analysis and simulation to determine the bounds of what is militarily feasible with advancing technologies, while also identifying potential threats to balance of power. Current research in this area includes: (1) A study to model and examine the military utility of anti-satellite operations and possible debris cascading such an operation might trigger; and (2) the ability of advanced satellite sensors to drastically improve missile defenses and the impact of such improvements on Russian and Chinese strategic deterrent and their willingness to engage in future nuclear arms control.

Budget analysis is one way to separate rhetoric from reality. Despite ambitious aspirations, Bush administration spending for military space showed little increase from previous years. The Obama administration dialed down talk about U.S. space dominance, but it’s top-line spending on military space changed little. While determining national security space spending is a bit of an art, due to deliberate opacity in the budgetary process, total budgets for unclassified and classified military space spending have hovered between $20 billion and $25 billion for many years, with unclassified spending accounting for some $9 billion to $10 billion. But there have been important changes in how military space spending gets allocated. For example, the Obama administration in its later years announced significant reprogramming of funds within that budget toward resiliency, protection and “space control.” Current research shows  indications that under President Donald Trump, that reassignment of funds will continue – with the Republican-led Congress pushing for more spending on offensive space operations – although it is unlikely that the top-line figures will grow.

CISSM’s work on space cooperation has focused on several issues. It has been working with the UMD Engineering School’s Center for Orbital Debris Education and Research, research to explore how crowd-sourcing orbital debris tracking could improve open-source space situational awareness (SSA) and enhance global capability. CISSM researchers are also examining options for U.S. and international development of a space traffic management (STM) regime to ensure against accidents in space, and collectively manage the increase in both numbers of satellites and types of space activities that now fall largely outside of national and international regulatory processes. The overarching goal of this work is to elucidate mutually beneficial, equitable rules regarding acceptable (and non-acceptable) behavior in space and best practices for space operators regarding dual-use technologies – which ultimately serve to reduce risks of conflict and improve international peace and security.


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