Through much of Barack Obama’s presidency, strategic restraint was his administration’s approach to maintaining security in space. The U.S. would restrain itself from introducing offensive capabilities in hopes of moderating the behavior of others, whether friends or potential foes. The Obama administration adopted this strategy early on despite, or perhaps because of, China’s 2007 destruction of one of its own weather satellites by a ballistic missile. That was followed by the Bush administration’s shootdown in 2008 of a malfunctioning American spy satellite. Within a year, China and the U.S. each had demonstrated an antisatellite weapon, though the U.S. maintains that Operation Burnt Frost was meant to protect people on the ground from debris. Regardless, the Obama administration decided that a better approach would be to establish norms of behavior in space that discourage such tests. That, unfortunately, isn’t what unfolded.
Since 2013, each of the leading space powers has conducted missions that the others consider provocative. Diplomatic efforts to rein in destabilizing conduct have foundered, and at last year’s Space Symposium in Colorado Springs, the U.S. began pivoting away from strategic restraint. Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James declared: “We must prepare for the potentiality of conflict that might extend from Earth one day into space.”
This year, shortly after the Obama administration released its 2017 budget request, U.S. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter told an audience that “there are some in this world” who want to thwart U.S. technical “dominance” in space. “We’re investing now so we stay ahead of them,” he explained. We are witnessing a drift toward the weaponization of space. If warfare were to break out in space, that would be uniquely dangerous because the environment of space is itself unique. Unlike ships on the high seas, another global commons, satellites when destroyed do not sink out of the way — instead they become uncontrolled and potentially lethal debris. Even tiny pieces of debris that cannot be detected with current space surveillance capabilities can kill an operational satellite because of the impact velocities.
Further, because of the dual-use nature of space technologies, weapons placed in space would be difficult or impossible to differentiate from benign satellites, meaning everything would become a potential target. Civilians and the U.S. military each rely on commercially-operated communications satellites and the GPS constellation. Attacks on those spacecraft could cripple the global economy. Rather than being goaded toward weaponization of space, the U.S. national security space community needs to take a strategic pause to consider whether there are alternatives. That does not mean that the U.S.’s concerns over China and Russia are unwarranted. Far from it.