“Of all the places where conflict could erupt, space might seem the least likely, except in movies.”
So says a very good New York Times editorial “Preventing a Space War” this week. Sounds right, if X-Wing fighters come to mind when you think space conflict. But in reality conflict in space is both more likely than one would think and less likely to be so photogenic.
Space as a locus of conflict
The Pentagon has known that space could be a flash point at least since the late 1990s when it began including satellites and space weapons in earnest as part of its wargames.The early games revealed some surprises. For example, attacking an adversary’s ground-based anti-satellite weapons before they were used could be the “trip wire” that starts a war: in the one of the first war games, an attack on an enemy’s ground-based lasers was meant to defuse a potential conflict and protect space assets, but instead was interpreted as an act of war and initiated hostilities. The games also revealed that disrupting space-based communication and information flow or “blinding” could rapidly escalate a war, eventually leading to nuclear weapon exchange.
The war games have continued over the years with increased sophistication, but continue to find that conflicts can rapidly escalate and become global when space weapons are involved, and that even minor opponents can create big problems. The report back from the 2012 game, which included NATO partners, said these insights have become “virtually axiomatic.”
Participants in the most recent Schriever war games found that when space weapons were introduced in a regional crisis, it escalated quickly and was difficult to stop from spreading.
The compressed timelines, the global as well as dual-use nature of space assets, the difficulty of attribution and seeing what is happening, and the inherent vulnerability of satellites all contribute to this problem.
Satellite vulnerability & solutions
Satellites are valuable but, at least on an individual basis, physically vulnerable. Vulnerable in that they are relatively fragile, as launch mass is at a premium and so protective armor is too expensive, and a large number of low-earth-orbiting satellites are no farther from the earth’s surface than the distance from Boston to Washington, DC.
While some satellites might be protected from a dedicated adversary under some circumstances, the truth is that it is much easier to attack them than to defend them. For some insights on why that is, take a look at The Physics of Space Security, which we wrote about a decade ago.
However, all is not lost. Constellations of satellites, and systems that use satellites, can be made much more resilient than the individual satellites themselves.
And in Securing the Skies, we suggested ten actions that the United States should take to improve the security and sustainability in space, and continue to think these are a good set of first steps. (Many of the ideas in the New York Times editorial echo these suggestions.)
For example, the United States depends heavily on services provided by satellites, but also has the best ability to recover from the loss of an important satellite. We should keep working on improving the resiliency of our space systems, which can make satellites a less inviting target.
And while the United States is far ahead of China and Russia when it comes to anti-satellite technology, having working ASAT weapons does little to protect our satellites, and in fact unfettered space weapon development would not benefit the United States—or China or Russia, for that matter.