Industry Vital for Deterring Aggression in Space

By John J. Klein

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The White House issued its interim national security guidance in March, which addressed strategic competition with China, deterring and defending against aggression, and ensuring the safety, stability and security of the space domain.

From this initial guidance, U.S. policymakers and military leaders will soon begin formulating a new National Security Strategy and National Defense Strategy. To ensure U.S. competitive advantage and protect national security interests in space, it is paramount that the writers of these documents fully integrate the benefits coming from trusted industry partners into national security and defense strategies.

While the national security community generally appreciates the value of the services and capabilities derived from the commercial space sector — including space launch, Earth observation and satellite communications — it often overlooks one area of strategic importance and benefit: deterrence.

Many within the national security community often consider deterrence as the threat of credible and potentially overwhelming force or other retaliatory action against any would-be adversary sufficient to deter most potential aggressors from conducting hostile actions. This idea is also referred to as deterrence by punishment, which is a central element in nuclear deterrence strategy.

A lesser known — but equally important — aspect is deterrence by denial of benefit. This refers to the capability to deny the other party any gains from the action which is to be deterred. Denying benefit to potential adversaries can help convey the futility of conducting a hostile act.

To be effective, this form of deterrence should be pursued in peacetime well before a threat manifests itself. It is in this area that commercial space capabilities and services can greatly contribute to deterring aggression.

In the space domain, industry partners contribute to deterrence by denial through the increased mission assurance and resiliency provided by space-enabled capabilities and services. This is due, in part, to the distributed and diversified nature of commercial space launch and satellite services. Distribution refers to using a number of nodes, working together, to perform the same mission or functions as a single node; diversification describes contributing to the same mission in multiple ways, using different platforms, orbits, or systems and capabilities.

Industry also contributes to deterrence by denial through multi-domain solutions and services. These solutions and services can deter potential adversaries from pursuing offensive actions against purely space systems. Moreover, both commercial launch providers and satellite operators enhance deterrence by providing options for getting payloads into orbit. These launch options include diverse space launch capabilities such as small and responsive launch vehicles, along with larger, reusable launch vehicles; launch rideshares for secondary payloads; and government payloads on commercial satellites.

Lastly, having a variety of commercial on-orbit systems also promotes deterrence. If satellite communications are jammed or degraded, commercial service providers can reroute satellite communications through their own networks, or potentially through the networks of another company using a different portion of the frequency spectrum.

All these commercial capabilities and services can help convey the futility of hostile action by any would-be adversary.

To address an uncertain future and deter aggression, the following recommendations are provided.

First, both the forthcoming National Security Strategy and National Defense Strategy should emphasize the benefits of commercial space capabilities and services in strengthening deterrence by denial.

Second, military planners should determine in peacetime which commercial space systems are critical due to their associated products or services, along with whether and in what manner the United States should extend national security protections to defend them during times of conflict.

Third, the defense community must ensure sufficient commercial licensing or service level agreements are in place well before the onset of potential hostilities, because companies will seek to honor pre-existing contracts and agreements during a conflict.

Fourth, military space professionals need to understand the importance that commercially enabled space mission assurance and resiliency initiatives have in mitigating the consequences of hostile actions in space — both for the United States and for its competitors.

U.S. security and defense strategies need to address strategic competition with China, while promoting peace and stability. The commercial space industry can help in this regard by conveying the futility of conducting hostile acts in space and causing a potential adversary’s leadership to avoid military confrontation in the first place.

Finally, as the capability of the commercial space sector continues to grow — whether in reusable launch vehicles or proliferated low-Earth orbit constellations of imaging and communications satellites — it will become more difficult for potential adversaries to deny space services on which U.S. national security relies. Consequently, deterrence by denial may play a greater role than deterrence by punishment in future competitive strategies. There is an unintended benefit in this approach. A strategy fully incorporating industry into deterrence strategies can provide additional space capabilities and services, encourage greater cooperation with allies and partners, and allow more of the global community to enjoy the benefits that space affords. 

Dr. John J. Klein is a senior fellow and strategist at Falcon Research Inc., and adjunct professor at George Washington University’s Space Policy Institute and Georgetown University’s Strategic Studies Program. The views expressed in this article are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Falcon Research, George Washington University, Georgetown University, or the U.S. government.

Topics: Space, Defense Department

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