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) views 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.
Whether or not President Obama will follow through on his broad promise to seek "a worldwide ban on weapons that interfere with military and commercial satellites" is an open question. At the very least, he has been forthright in announcing his opposition to the weaponization of space. Complicating this commitment, however, is the broad range of military and civilian space assets that can be qualified as a "space weapon." The most effective direct-ascent ASAT weapon the U.S. has in its arsenal is the Standard-Missile 3 -- demonstrated by the successful February 2008 shoot-down of an American spy satellite. The dual-use of this weapon will also pose a serious dilemma for getting a space treaty off the ground without also requiring America to forgo its missile defense capabilities. Therefore, whatever the outcome of an international space regime, the utility of the SM-3 and other ASAT weapons as a traditional deterrence mechanism vis-à-vis Chinese ASAT weapons is likely to be downplayed by the Obama administration.
While these unfortunate policy prescriptions are a cause for concern, hope may lie in the possible defensive space measures that President Obama seems poised to embrace. His campaign website and new White House website encouragingly discuss "accelerating programs to harden U.S. satellites against attack" and "establishing contingency plans to ensure that U.S. forces can maintain or duplicate access to information from space assets." One of the most promising initiatives for achieving these duel objectives is Operationally Responsive Space (ORS). ORS seeks to rapidly deliver short-term capabilities to the warfighter that serve to augment space-based national security assets through the use of low-cost Tactical Satellites. The ORS Office, stood up in 2007 at the Kirtland Air Force Base in New Mexico, now stands at the forefront of an effort to revolutionize the way the U.S. builds and deploys satellites.
The standard process by which the military continues to construct satellites emphasizes large, time-consuming programs that maintain a slow generational turnover of 15 to 20 years, preventing an important military asset like space to be exploited at the operational level. Alternatively, miniaturized satellites enjoy both nimble and adaptive qualities. Compared to traditional stand-alone satellite, micro satellites can continuously be outfitted with the latest technological upgrades and be sent to replace their outdated counterparts. More importantly, they can be used to help increase capabilities to meet the demands of combatant commanders. Indeed, the ORS Office is working right now on an ambitious 24 month timetable to supply U.S. Central Command with a satellite to meet an identified gap in intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) assets. Should this effort succeed, it will be a telling example of what the future holds for operationalizing the power of space.
Perhaps the greatest advantage of ORS is the capacity it offers to reconstitute satellites quickly and cheaply. If the administration remains reluctant to pursue active mechanisms for ensuring deterrence in space, ORS could be employed as part of an array of defensive systems to help guarantee U.S. access to space by dissuading and deterring the development and use of Chinese ASAT technologies. If the United States retains the ability to replenish satellite constellations on an as-needed basis, the benefits provided by costly ASAT weapons would be greatly diminished for the PLA.
Of course, this may have the unintended consequence of compelling PLA planners to devote resources to denial-of-service weapons or acquire even more direct-attack weapons in an effort to overwhelm America's reconstitution capabilities. Thus, it will be necessary to develop a multifaceted defensive regime to build reserve micro satellites and stockpile cheap launch vehicles like the Minotaur, harden existing and future satellites against electromagnetic pulse and jamming, and further integrate satellite capabilities with allies.
Considering the benefits of ORS, reports that the budget for the ORS Office may be slashed between fiscal year 2011 and 2014, are highly discouraging. More recent reports now have funding being restored in 2012, but with a likely tightening of defense budgets in the years ahead, the outlook for a program already being targeted to pay Department of Defense's bills is bleak.
Although the level of confidence President Obama is prepared to place in diplomatic solutions to preserve space access is a serious concern, there remains ample opportunity to secure his support in other vital areas. As the administration begins to formulate its policies on space security, the utility and broad support for the ORS concept should make it a core element of its strategy. Remedying the ORS budgeting shortfall before the fiscal year 2010 budget is submitted would be a strong statement to China that the administration is invested in securing America's space assets. While only part of the solution, establishing such a precedent will be a step towards ensuring that the advantages the military procures from space can be further refined and enhanced in the coming decades.
Eric Sayers is a national security research assistant at The Heritage Foundation in Washington D.C. Jeffrey Dressler is an intern at The Heritage Foundation.