The Space Reviewin association with SpaceNews

The US government should consider once again the development of air-launched ASAT systems as a more effective means of deterring attacks on its own satellites than current policy. (credit: US Air Force)

Rethinking the national security space strategy: part 3

Creating a tiered, tailored, triad for defending US space infrastructure

<< page 1: readiness for Chinese rapid, destructive wars in space

Counter-strategy part 1: Integrate space into homeland defense strategy

As PLA space systems are tied to the homeland defense of the Chinese mainland, space systems are a part of American critical defense infrastructure of the US homeland as well as for the international economic system. Thus, any future US space deterrence concept must be tied into the homeland defense strategy of the United States. This fits with the present definition of homeland defense which is “the protection of United States sovereignty, territory, domestic population, and critical infrastructure against external threats and aggression.”25 [Emphasis added]

Any future US space deterrence concept must be tied into the homeland defense strategy of the United States.

The Department of Defense states in doctrine that the United States will execute homeland defense “by detecting, deterring, preventing and defeating threats from actors of concern as far forward from the homeland as possible.”26 Space has been acknowledged in US national strategies of the past to be one such vital “forward region” requiring coordination between services and agencies to ensure that the external threats do not impede societal operations and the continued advancement of the protection of life and property.

To accomplish this, the Strategy for Homeland Defense and Civil Support Joint Operating Concept provides five mission layers to accomplish within the forward regions and should be the high-level framework for protecting our homeland’s space critical infrastructure and “ensuring the freedom of action, full access and use of capabilities…in space”:27

  • Detection
  • Deterrence
  • Preventative Actions
  • Defeating Threats
  • “As Far Forward…as possible”28

First, the detection of threats in the forward region of space requires space situational awareness (SSA). As a mission area, the Defense Department has invested in ground-based SSA sensors such as the Space Surveillance Telescope (SST), C-band radar, and the Space Fence. In addition, the Space Surveillance Network (SSN), originally designed to track space and missile threats to the United States from the Eisenhower years forward, has provided a catalogue of space objects for US Strategic Command’s Joint Functional Component Command for Space (JFCC SPACE).29

In 2014, the US Air Force launched the newest space surveillance system called GSSAP (Geosynchronous Space Situational Awareness Program) to monitor the GEO orbital regime. While a good start, this is an area requiring much more fidelity and accuracy to ensure a robust understanding of space activities and potential threats to American space systems. How much fidelity and accuracy are required necessitates further analysis beyond the scope of this essay.

Second is deterrence, the main theme of this article and of the NSSS. While the NSSS is linked to the Strategy for Homeland Defense by the Defense Department, in practice there has not been much connectivity with this strategy, just as there has been no real deterrence capability or capacity in the NSSS itself. For true deterrence to work as part of an overarching strategy for defense of American freedom of action30 and the population’s access to our critical space infrastructure, it requires a layered capability for action, not rhetorical implements of perceived norm building. This concept of deterrence has been shown to be flawed given the present strategic reality and culture of China’s view of space warfare. This will be covered in more detail later.

Third is preventative action. This is essentially taking the Chinese concept of “attack to deter” and applying it to the US homeland defense of space capabilities. Given the aforementioned offensive-dominant nature of the space forward region, and the difficulty, if not near impossibility, of actively protecting space assets from attack, self-defense may require a preventative attack against Chinese “mobile warfare” space assets like their KE ASAT systems. Should indications and warnings from our overhead reconnaissance satellites, aircraft, or SSA sensors indicate that ground-based space attack assets are posturing to leave their bases, a preventative strike on those mobile KE ASATs may be the only sure means of defending the homeland’s critical space infrastructure.

As reversible means of counterspace activities, such as jamming, may have already targeted our space systems in various orbital regimes, this type of preventative and limited set of strikes should be viewed as a counterstrike and not a first-strike. The goal of this would be gaining escalation dominance over the situation to put the United States and its allied partners in a better position to dictate terms and to achieve the objectives of the next level of homeland defense strategy: defeating threats.

Should indications and warnings from our overhead reconnaissance satellites, aircraft, or SSA sensors indicate that ground-based space attack assets are posturing to leave their bases, a preventative strike on those mobile KE ASATs may be the only sure means of defending the homeland’s critical space infrastructure.

Defeating threats is the fourth level of the present homeland defense strategy and doctrines within the forward regions and the approaches. This requires capabilities and the political will to engage and defeat the threat as far away as possible from the United States, as stated in the Strategy for Homeland Defense of 2013. Space is much further from the homeland in many cases than engagements in the air or cyber domains. However, it must be recognized and remembered that for centuries, international law recognized that nations need not suffer an attack before they can lawfully take action to defend themselves against forces that present an imminent danger of attack.31 This was the reason behind the Eisenhower Administration’s directive to create our overhead reconnaissance satellites to provide the ability to prevent a surprise attack against the forces or people of the United States.32 The buildup of adversary space forces should be no different.

The United States must adapt the concept of imminent threat to the capabilities and objectives of today’s potential adversaries such as China, who do not seek in the near term to attack us using conventional means. Instead, Chinese strategic and military planners rely on asymmetric means to strike at the US homeland’s space-enabled diplomatic, economic, and information instruments of power, thus limiting the effectiveness of US force projection from bases into the Western Pacific. Their space weapons—terrestrially-based, kinetic and non-kinetic—can be used in various permutations without warning and without following a specific method of escalation such as from reversible means to kinetic: it could be all out kinetic strikes without any indications of reversible purposeful interference.

This long-held option of preventative attack is needed in order to defeat threats to American and allied space systems linked to the homeland and our civil and military operations worldwide. The magnitude of this growing threat and its link to the homeland make it more compelling than in the past, when commanders had other priorities in other operating domains and space systems had yet to prove their mission utilities to a broader audience than nuclear deterrence support.

Given the interdependent nature of our space infrastructure with other vital areas of American critical infrastructure such as energy, commerce, and financial markets, even if uncertainty remains as to the time and place of an adversary attack on space or related ground components, the US should keep options open to act preventatively to defeat the attack while in the forward regions and not afterwards.33 The present day language of “fighting through” and absorbing attacks will detract, not enhance, deterrence or American leadership in providing “a safe, operating environment…to enhance trade and exploration.”34 Threats of attack must be defeated prior to the mobile warfare pieces are moved out of a visible, targetable location, otherwise, the final aspect of homeland defense doctrine, “as far forward as possible,” will become a lost opportunity in the event of a crisis erupting.35

Counter-strategy part 2: Escalation dominance-based space deterrence

Given the analysis of the strategic culture of China, warfighting doctrines, and space force developments and deployments as part of their overarching counter-intervention strategy in the Pacific, American strategists should create a national security space strategy that supports and acknowledges the strategy of homeland defense and the core interests of the United States in the Pacific. To do this requires shaping the capabilities and support infrastructure into an operational framework capable of providing the President with the capabilities needed to address each of the potential types of deterrence scenarios required. Adapting Herman Kahn’s tiered approach to deterrence, this framework includes three tiers.

Even if uncertainty remains as to the time and place of an adversary attack on space or related ground components, the US should keep options open to act preventatively to defeat the attack while in the forward regions and not afterwards.

Tier 1 Deterrence addresses the Chinese view of a nuclear-spacepower nexus they term “strategic deterrence.” Their survival in the context of their space-enabled counter-intervention strategy creates an “escalation dominance” effect36 should the United States not create a capability to create friction in Chinese planning. This requires publically declaring that the United States will not tolerate interference or attacks upon systems supporting US nuclear command and control. This will require the posturing of American space forces forward from terrestrial launching sites at sea and in the air, as well as posturing of nuclear forces as a strategic communication to Beijing as a means to achieve policy change objectives.

Tier 2 Deterrence addresses the buildup of Chinese terrestrial and orbital counterspace forces to threaten the US space infrastructure ground and space segments. This deterrence requires a multi-layered counterspace portfolio capable of providing the President with multiple options that include preventative attacks on adversary ASAT garrisons, directed energy weapons, and Chinese space-based intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) and communications capabilities. The goal of these strikes would be to achieve a limited war aim of self-defense of US space systems and the protection of 21st century American society and instruments of national power. In addition, it could also support a larger aim such as the creation of friction, uncertainty, and disunity in Chinese command and control within the mainland and throughout the Pacific region.

This requires the development and deployment of a survivable triad of capabilities utilizing a joint or allied combined force concept on land, air, and sea.37 On land and sea, a modified version of the Aegis/Standard Missile-3 missile defense system could be deployed in a ring around the Western Pacific island chains from Alaska down through Australia and India. Coupled with sensors already in theater and those launched into GEO for SSA, these weapons have the capability of not only achieving a LEO or a Medium Earth Orbit (MEO) ASAT capability against potential adversary ISR assets, but could also provide a notional space reconstitution denial system at mid-course altitudes. Finally, these systems could provide a means to defend US assets against terrestrially-launched ASAT missiles fired from deployed “mobile warfare” locations.

Finally, the sea- and land-based legs of the counterspace triad includes air-launched ASAT capabilities that can be based overseas or at home as part of a new global space sovereignty alert force, capable of engaging targets in all orbital planes and at varying altitudes. The technology for this is also available through several research and development programs going back decades such as the successfully tested Celestial Eagle concept as well as DARPA’s recent Airborne Launch Assist Space Access (ALASA) program. ALASA, a program designed to provide a low-cost means to get satellites into orbit, could also serve as an ASAT platform. The ability to relocate and launch quickly from virtually any major runway around the world substantially reduces the time needed to launch a mission. Launching from an aircraft provides launch point offset, which permits essentially any orbit direction to be achieved without concerns for launch direction limits imposed by geography at fixed-base launch facilities.38

Tier 3 Deterrence would require only reversible counter-action, leveraging the purposeful interference norm of behavior as deterrence or retribution to terrestrial actions or actions against space segment assets. This would require a series of capabilities to negate signals or types of signals ranging from a single channel or transponder on a satellite to entire collections of satellites suspected of aiding the adversary in its counter-intervention strategy. This would provide a debris-free alternative, provided of course that the adversary does not see the benefits of escalation to kinetic exchanges for a combined countervalue/counterforce strike. This provides a potential for deterrence through the threat of “soft kill” against adversary capabilities.

Each of these tiers would require a tailored approach given the different potential adversaries. In the case of China, a more aggressive approach based on escalation dominance would take the Chinese decision cycle and invert it in the favor of the United States and its allies. To ensure that a decision loop is conducted in sufficiently rapid manner, with enough variety in capabilities and response types to maintain uncertainty and unpredictability in the minds of the adversary, a decision tool is required for strategists and commanders. This tools would enable them to decide what course of action the adversary patterns are highlighting, how to stay ahead of their decision calculus, and how to effectively confuse and paralyze it. One method is through a space warfare escalation ladder as depicted in list below:

Non-Interference/Peaceful Use of Space

  1. Freedom of Action in Space (civil, commercial, military use of space for benefit of nation and world)
  2. Intelligence/SSA Collections (Passive/Active)

Reversible, Yet Purposeful Interference Threshold (Deny/Degrade)

  1. Passive Jamming
  2. Active Jamming/Cyber Attacks
  3. Laser Tracking/Dazzling
  4. Unauthorized, Rendezvous and Proximity Operations Near U.S. or allied spacecraft
  5. Posturing/Mobilization of Destructive Space Attack Forces

Irreversible, Purposeful Interference Threshold (Damage)

  1. High Energy Chemical Laser
  2. High Power Microwave Weapons Use

Kinetic, Debris Generation Threshold (Destroy)

  1. KE ASAT missiles (Terrestrial Based-LEO)
  2. KE ASAT weapons (Co-Orbital)
  3. KE ASAT missiles (Terrestrial Based-GEO)

Nuclear Use Threshold (Destroy)

  1. Terrestrial Fractional Orbital Bombardment Systems (FOBS)
  2. Orbital Electro-Magnetic Pulse (EMP)
  3. Orbital Nuclear Strike against spacecraft (all orbital regimes affected)

As with Herman Kahn’s escalation ladder of nuclear warfare, this space escalation ladder is intended to serve as a tool for decision makers to assess the situation and stay ahead of the adversary decision calculus by observing the patterns of strategic and operational behavior, and re-orienting the US space and terrestrial forces to be rapidly capable of escalating into a position that prevents the destruction of critical space systems and the economic and information instruments of power.

This proposed tool is not all encompassing and provides only a few examples of adversary actions within each threshold to provide context. Also, it is important to note that just because this shows a step-by-step method of escalating space engagements from peacetime to total war, an adversary is not limited to starting with reversible means and staying there or gradually escalating. Indeed, depending on the decision calculus and the perceived level of opportunity or danger in a given situation, PLA space forces could very well conduct an offensive combining several thresholds or going direct to destructive, rapid attack postures to achieve their policy and military objectives.

The first threshold is that of the ideal peacetime condition the present Defense Department Space Policy promotes which is non-interference or peaceful use of space. This describes conditions intended by the international space legal regimes such as freedom of action in space for civil space exploration, commercial space development, and military uses of space for the national and multinational interest. In addition, it also includes military operations such as intelligence and space situational awareness operations to assure the status quo is maintained by all spacefaring nations.

The National Security Space Strategy’s space deterrence concept does not fulfill this vital task for the defense of the homeland and its freedom of action in space.

Once a state such as China crossed the threshold of reversible, yet purposeful interference, the escalatory requirements for observing the jamming, laser tracking, or dazzling type behavior would require sufficient, rapid response from US leadership and commanders to achieve a higher level of escalation through a combination of offensive and defensive capabilities as well as uncertainty generated in the minds of the adversary. Once an adversary continues up the patterns and trends of potential denial and degradation of US space systems, US leaders can choose to allow the adversary to continue to deny and degrade our systems or to escalate the ladder to a higher level to prevent further denial or a rapid escalation to the next threshold, which is the kinetic, debris generation threshold.

Once the kinetic threshold has been crossed, destruction of US space assets are the adversary’s clear objective within their destructive space warfare concept. This could be terrestrially-based ASAT attacks, space-based co-orbital ASATs, or directed energy weapons such as high power microwave and lasers. As the situation escalates, the maximum damage that could be done is a more extreme scenario where the adversary decides to destroy all threats to its national survival by detonating nuclear weapons in space to deny the benefits of space and create severe havoc to the strategic space COG of the United States and its allies and space partners.


The vulnerability of American and allied space systems by China’s rapidly developing counterspace forces presents a major threat to the homeland as well as to American forward presence and influence in the Pacific. As a result, it is important to understand that in addition to being force multipliers for American force projection worldwide, spacepower is also intertwined in every layer of US critical infrastructure including energy, transportation, finance, and information flow, placing the American way of life at risk. Thus, it is imperative that the United States remove the vulnerability and actively sustain our space infrastructure while providing the means to deter Chinese aggression in the Pacific. This requires the inversion of the Tao and moving friction and vulnerability from the American side to China by utilization of Eastern deterrence methods and an escalation dominance based deterrence construct. The National Security Space Strategy’s space deterrence concept does not fulfill this vital task for the defense of the homeland and its freedom of action in space.

The inadequacy of the present NSSS approach to space deterrence that my previous article reviewed (see “Security through vulnerability? The false deterrence of the National Security Space Strategy”, The Space Review, April 13, 2015) has become a concern within the halls of Congress as well as some parts of academia. In 2012, the late RAND strategist Therese Delpech, known best for her work on nuclear deterrence theory, wrote:

The United States is in a unique position because of its intensive and extensive use of space-based systems… It possesses known asymmetrical advantages in space and information technologies, but its superiority is associated with a major weakness: the vulnerability of its space… assets to attacks… How it can secure its space advantage for its own sake and that if its allies is one of the most important security questions [of] the beginning of the 21st Century. 39

The United States Congress, in the fiscal year 2015 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), Section 1606, recognized that given the evolving and increasing threats to US space systems and the critical infrastructure of the nation by China and other states, the Defense Department should re-think its NSSS space deterrence concept and force posture in order to achieve an “effective deterrence posture” through “space superiority.” This article, as well as my previous ones, have covered options related to many congressional-mandated requirements that include offensive space operations and the active protection of national security space assets.40

While some analysts believe that promoting such a strategy of a tiered, tailored triad of offensive, terrestrial-based capabilities to be destabilizing, the facts indicate that the lack of these actions to provide active protection capabilities to the United States is in truth the real destabilizing factor. First strike stability, escalation decision ladders, and deterrence all must be re-invented, given the offense dominant nature of space and the destabilizing nature of the Chinese advantage maintained in all three areas over the United States.41 This article, and my previous on the inadequacies of the Defense Department space deterrence concept, has attempted to begin this discussion toward a strategy that utilizes current industrial capacity, programs of record, and is consistent with the legal obligations of the Outer Space Treaty. Basing the protection of a vital COG of the American way of life, economic power, and military effectiveness on vulnerability and passivity will lead to “ruin.”42

The time for allowing states and non-state actors to purposefully interfere and threaten our critical space infrastructure with kinetic and non-kinetic first strike should end. A more aggressive and serious approach is called for given the security needs of our time. Surprise attacks could occur in a matter minutes, and countering this trend will not be easy, particularly since a reliable deterrence strategy has not been publically articulated due to the risk of a crisis in space escalating out of control. The risk of escalation, as in the Cold War nuclear standoff, has always been present in the past. However, space attacks, in an offensive dominant domain, offer a different kind of risk. As Therese Delpech stated with regard to this issue of space deterrence, “deterrence by threat of punishment remains the best available strategy for the most serious threats.”43


  1. DoDD 3020.40, “Defense Critical Infrastructure Protection Program,” (2013) declares spacepower to be defense critical infrastructure.
  2. Tellis, Ashley J. “China's Military Space Strategy”, Survival: Global Politics and Strategy, 49:3. 2012. P.49
  3. Sun Zhaoli. Science of Strategy. Academy of Military Science Military Strategy Studies Dept. Beijing: Military Science Press, December 2013.
  4. Joint Publication 3-27 Homeland Defense (2013) states that space operations are conducted to support homeland defense.
  5. DoDD 3100.10 DoD Space Policy. October 2012. p. 1
  6. Johnson-Freese, Joan. Space as a Strategic Asset. Columbia Univ Press. 2007. p. 222
  7. 2015 DoD Report on Chinese Military Power 2015. p. 13–14
  8. Morgan, Forrest. Deterrence and First Strike Stability in Space. RAND Corporation.2010.p. 2
  9. Ibid. p. 2
  10. Ibid. p. 2
  11. Ibid. p. 1-2
  12. Ibid. p. 2
  13. Finch, Jay. “Bringing Space Crisis Stability Down to Earth.” Joint Forces Quarterly 76, 1st Qtr, 2015. p. 18
  14. Warden’s Rings is a concept of strategic air campaign planning developed by Col John A. Warden III prior to the First Persian Gulf War in 1991. It was articulated in his book The Enemy as a System. See Figure 1, page 56, for the list of the rings for strategic attack on an adversary.
  15. Bruce W. MacDonald, Testimony before the Strategic Forces Subcommittee, House Armed Forces Committee, March 18, 2009
  16. Egan, Matthew Jude. “Anticipating Future Vulnerability: Defining Characteristics of Increasingly Critical Infrastructure-like Systems.” Journal of Contingencies and Crisis Management. Vol 15, No 1. March 2007
  17. Ibid. p. 8
  18. Ibid. p. 9
  19. U.S. Department of Transportation. Vulnerability of the Transportation System Reliance on the Global Positioning System. Report from the National Transportation Systems Center. August, 2001. p. ES-6
  20. U.S. Department of Transportation. Global Positioning System Timing Signal Criticality Update. Report from the National Transportation Systems Center. July 2008. p. xii
  21. Lee, James G., Counterspace Operations for Information Dominance. Air University Press. 1995, p. 126
  22. Ibid. p. 127–128
  23. Kissinger, Henry. On China. Penguin Press. 2011. p. 133
  24. Boyd, John. “Patterns of Conflict”. Presentation, 1989. p. 8
  25. Joint Publication 1-02 DoD Dictionary of Military Terms/ 2015
  26. Joint Publication 3-27 Homeland Defense
  27. Joint Publicans 3-27 Homeland Defense. Department of Defense. 2013. p. III–14
  28. Department of Defense Homeland Defense and Civil Support Joint Operating Concept. Version 2.0. 1 Oct 2007. p. 19.
  29. Spires, David N. Beyond Horizons: A Half Century of Air Force Space Leadership. Air Force Space Command. 2002. p. 187
  30. Freedom of action in space is a principle held by the United States since the early days of the Space Age. It refers to the ability to freely access and execute operations of varying types (military, civil, commercial), without harmful interference or prevention and/or negation of those actions in space.
  31. Paraphrased from the 2002 National Security Strategy and applied to the 21st Century space environment
  32. Terrill, Delbert A. The Air Force Role in Developing International Outer Space Law. Air University Press. May 1999. p. 4
  33. Paraphrased and updated from the 2002 National Security Strategy view on pre-emption as means to defeat attacks against the homeland. Edited for current space environment and ASAT threats.
  34. Dolman, Everett. Astropolitik: Classical Geopolitics in the Space Age. Frank Cass. 2002. p. 157
  35. Keep in mind that according to Chinese analysts, the Chinese have in the past been willing to create a crisis by using force to achieve their policy objectives. RAND’s study on Chinese Patterns of the Use of Force in 1999 highlighted examples of this and showcased how the Chinese term for crisis has a mixed meaning of opportunity and danger.
  36. Escalation dominance is defined by the RAND Corporation’s Dangerous Thresholds p. 15 as: “a condition in which a combatant has the ability to escalate a conflict in ways that will be disadvantageous or costly to the adversary while the adversary cannot do the same in return, either because it has no escalation options or because the available options would not improve the adversary’s situation.”
  37. This triad of capabilities for space warfighting and defense is not to be confused with the nuclear triad of bombers, submarines and ballistic missiles. This is strictly terrestrial based space forces.
  38. Clapp, Mitchell Burnside. Airborne Launch Assist Space Access Fact Sheet.
  39. Delpech, Therese. Nuclear Deterrence in the 21st Century. RAND. 2012. p. 144
  40. FY15 National Defense Authorization Act, Section 1606, Update of National Security Space Strategy to Include Space Control and Space Superiority Strategy
  41. Delpech p. 143
  42. Ibid. p. 147
  43. Ibid. p. 147