The Blog

Securing Space

Opportunities exist to work with President Obama on space security.

11:00 PM, Jan 29, 2009 • By ERIC SAYERS and JEFFREY DRESSLER
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

As Washington remains engulfed in discussion over expected foreign policy shifts on hot-button issues like Iran and Afghanistan, one critical policy area that is primed for far-reaching modifications, yet receiving little attention, is the future of U.S. space security.

Critics of the Bush administration charge that his approach was as unproductive as it was controversial. The U.S. National Space Policy of 2006, including its dismissal of any legal regime to limit U.S. action in space; the January 2007 Chinese anti-satellite (ASAT) test targeting a weather satellite; and the February 2008 intercept of a damaged U.S. spy satellite have contributed to, or are the product of, an unnecessarily hostile approach to space security that has only served to make us less safe.

Thus, it†s likely that the Obama administration will make a significant departure from the policies the Bush administration pursued. While recognizing the strategic importance of space, President Obama has chosen to offer the solution of an international treaty banning space weapons, or at the very least a discussion of †rules of the road†for space, as the solution for securing the nation†s space assets. The feasibility of this policy and its desirability for U.S. interests has been widely questioned, perhaps most succinctly by the work of Ashley Tellis of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Although Tellis and others contend that this approach would be detrimental for U.S. security, elections have consequences and the direction President Obama chooses on space issues will be his to chart.

Those who may not agree with the approach the administration is likely to take would do well to identify and bolster support for programs that align with Obama†s principles and can still play a beneficial role in securing America†s access to space. Prominent amongst such initiatives are defensive-minded space systems, including the Operationally Responsive Space (ORS) program that aims to provide low-cost, miniaturized satellites that can be used to surge U.S. satellite capabilities or reconstitute those that have been damaged or destroyed.

President Obama recognizes that space is †critical to our national security and economy.†This is an accurate and widely held view. The strength of America†s military is reliant upon a constellation of satellites and corresponding ground installations that provide imagery, navigation, signal intelligence, communications, and early warning for missile launches. America†s economy is similarly interconnected with a constellation of civilian satellites. However, as the military has placed a greater emphasis on networking the warfighter with the battlefield environment over the past two decades, this reliance has developed into a vulnerability.

Both the 2008 Annual Report to Congress on the Military Power of the People†s Republic of China and the recently-released report of the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission cite how the People†s Liberation Army (PLA) view America†s dependence on space assets as its †soft ribs,†a strategic weakness to be exploited in an effort to undermine the foundations of American military strength. The U.S.-China Commission determined that the extent of China†s anti-satellite capabilities are †significant,†to include not just direct-ascent weapons like that used in China†s ASAT test of January 2007, but also the development of co-orbital direct attack weapons, directed energy lasers, and various technologies designed for electronic †denial-of-service†attacks.

Preserving America†s military advantages, therefore, requires ensuring unfettered access to space. If China continues to develop asymmetric capabilities to target U.S. space assets, without the United States taking the necessary steps to dissuade and deter these actions, it will only increase China†s likelihood of prevailing in a short-duration, high-intensity war. Such an outcome would be disadvantageous for the U.S.-Taiwan security relationship, specifically if the United States develops a sense of hesitancy that jeopardizes the credibility of cross-Straits deterrence. Additionally, a more capable PLA will enhance the confidence of Chinese leadership, increasing the chance of a political-military miscalculation by China in the Straits.