U.S. Military Lacks Clear Rules of Engagement in Space
Artwork: Air Force
The United States military lacks clear rules of engagement as it seeks to defend the nation’s space assets, the deputy commander of Strategic Command said March 22.
Potential adversaries such as China and Russia are developing an “arsenal” of lasers, railguns and microwave weapons to neutralize U.S. satellites, said Navy Vice Adm. Charles Richard. These offensive capabilities could take out critical systems that the Pentagon relies on for command-and-control, communications, navigation, intelligence gathering and other purposes.
“We’ve created a domain that must be secured,” he said at a space security conference in Washington, D.C., hosted by the Center for Strategic and International Studies and the Prague Security Studies Institute.
“The best way to prevent war is to be prepared for war. And we’re going to make sure that everyone knows we’re going to be prepared to fight and win wars in all domains to include space,” he added.
Nevertheless, multiple exercises have revealed that the U.S. military isn’t as prepared as it needs to be, he warned.
“One of the things these exercises have highlighted is we have difficulty determining the appropriate response at times due to a lack of rules of engagement in space,” Richard said. Policymakers are “still sorting out answers to the questions like, what constitutes an attack in space? What is the undisputable evidence required within the international community to assert violation of sovereign territory in space? What constitutes provocation in space?”
“If we’re going to act decisively in real time we have to address these issues both legally and operationally,” he added.
There’s also room for improvement when it comes to situational awareness, Richard said. Although the U.S. military is equipped with radars and other sensors, it still can’t see everything that is going on outside the atmosphere.
“Trying to figure out what’s happening on orbit is sort of like watching a tennis match in a darkened room with a strobe light flashing and you’re trying to figure out what’s going on,” he said.
The situation could be rapidly improved through greater information sharing with partners and allies that have space assets, he said.
As potential adversaries enhance their capabilities to attack other countries’ systems, the U.S. national security community should move toward more distributed and resilient space architectures, Richard argued. Allies and partners could help in this regard by sharing on-orbit and ground-based components of their systems in the event of conflict, he said.
If the space domain is uncontested “I can have a very small number of Death Stars up on orbit … that have all these capabilities,” he said using an analogy from Star Wars. But “I don’t think that’s the right way to go in a contested environment.”
That view is not universally shared among policymakers, he noted.
The military’s space components are looking to partner with the commercial sector as they pursue new capabilities. But red tape sometimes gets in the way, Richard said.
“There is a bit of bureaucracy that you have to dynamite through in order to go do this,” he said. “Sometimes that’s a bit of an uphill push.”
Investments in defense-related space capabilities could see a boost under President Donald Trump as other countries improve their anti-satellite technology.
Richard said it would be “premature” to assess whether more funding would be coming STRATCOM’s way in this regard, but he noted that the Trump administration is pursuing a broad military buildup.
“We know that in early meetings with senior military leadership our new president has shown a keen interest in space issues as we work towards a strategy of preparation without provocation in space,” he said.
Rep. Jim Bridenstine, R-Okla., a member of the House Armed Services Committee and a leading voice on space issues on Capitol Hill, said there is “without question” widespread support in Congress and at the White House for spending more in this area.
“If you look at the defense budget even during the Obama administration, they were very aggressive in plussing up the national security space budget,” he said. “Congress of course concurred. And now we’re going to, I think, see that continue.”