Preventing Space War

, senior scientist | July 7, 2015, 11:06 am EST
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“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.

Star Wars Missile Defense

I really could not resist this Death Watermelon by Joi Ito from Cambridge, MA, USA [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

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.

Posted in: Nuclear Weapons, Space Security Tags: , , , , ,

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  • Allen Thomson

    The current situation with regard to satellite vulnerability/survivability/resiliency is not qualitatively much different from that of the 1980s. Many, many people since then, including Donald Rumsfeld’s panel in 2001, have pointed out that the US has built itself an enormous glass jaw in depending on fragile satellite architectures for vital services, both military and civilian.

    And yet here we are. Just a few days ago D/NRO Sapp said, “Five years ago, no NRO program manager would have put a dollar into resilience that could have been put into mission capability,” A little before that, Secretary of the Air Force James said, “When
    we entered into those AOAs, [space system] resiliency was not on the table. It was not part of the lexicon. It was not defined at a department level.”

    So why are things going to get different now?

    • J_kies

      Allen; what we are seeing the fear-mongering by corporate interests (via their hand-puppets) that we need to spend a lot of money to mitigate inherent hazards that have been accepted for decades. Its a symptom of the collapse of government thought leadership and loss of institutional expertise/experience that acted appropriately in the past.

      NRO wisely avoided being a target by staying out of the targeting business such that attacks against their assets would not reduce US operational capabilities. As to operational mission areas like missile-warning, communications and other functions; DoD should act to mitigate vulnerabilities with redundancies via air or ground layers. If no transient operational advantage occurs from attacking US space assets, then the attacks are inhibited by the outcomes of Kessler’s cascade hurting the attacker’s use of space.

      • Allen Thomson

        > NRO wisely avoided being a target by staying out of the targeting
        business such that attacks against their assets would not reduce US
        operational capabilities.

        Perhaps I misunderstand what you mean, but targeting is reported to be an important function of several of the ELINT satellites, as well as the imaging optical/IR and radar satellites. I suspect that the Pentagon would not be happy to lose their services.

        • J_kies

          ‘Rumored to be’ is the appropriate term. NRO was/is always about National intel not tactical intel. A lot of bureaucratic fights have occurred and targeting remains DOD’s job not an IC mission area.

          • Allen Thomson

            TENCAP (Tactical Exploitation of National Capabilities) has been around quite a while. See

            Also, NRO seems to agree that they do that kind of thing:



            The NRO’s key customers and mission partners include: policy makers, the Armed Services, the Intelligence Community, Departments of State, Justice and Treasury, and civil agencies. All of them depend on the unique capabilities NRO systems provide:

            + Monitoring the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction
            + Tracking international terrorists, drug traffickers, and criminal organizations
            + Developing highly accurate military targeting data and bomb damage assessments
            + Supporting international peacekeeping and humanitarian relief operations
            + Assessing the impact of natural disasters, such as earthquakes, tsunamis, floods, and fires.

            Together with other Defense Department satellites, the NRO systems play a crucial role in providing global communications, precision navigation, early warning of missile launches and potential military aggression, signals intelligence, and near real-time imagery to U.S. forces to support the war on terrorism and other continuing operations.

          • J_kies

            Ah marketing – the official redux. Its mapping – including detailed change vector detection on buildings/features that is so far from real-time as to be irrelevant to targeting which is a time sensitive activity with severe constraints.

            As to the last time I am aware that the IC was supposedly responsible for DOD strike targeting – anyone recall Belgrade?

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