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Heather Wilson, sworn in as the new Secretary of the Air Force earlier this month, has said space is a priority. (credit: Wayne A. Clark/USAF)

A counterspace awakening? (part 2)

Assessing the recent shift in US national security space strategy

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Changes in technological capabilities

In order to meet the challenges of a contested, degraded and operationally-limited space environment, the US is also investing heavily in new technologies to protect its crucial space infrastructure. For this purpose, the Defense Department has shifted $5–8 billion in its 2016–2020 budget from other programs toward what it calls “space protection” efforts.1 The most important capacity developments following the conclusion of the SPR will be discussed below.

Space Situational Awareness

One of the most crucial abilities of the US military is to detect, track, characterize and catalogue objects in space, known as Space Situational Awareness (SSA). Such capabilities not only serve the important function of tracking space debris and issuing collision avoidance warnings when detecting a close conjunction between two objects, but they were also essential in detecting the Chinese and Russian rendezvous and proximity operations (RPOs) in 2010, 2013, and 2014. According to current US joint space doctrine, last updated by the Joint Chiefs of Staff in May 2013, SSA “is fundamental to conducting space operations”2 because it is the “requisite current and predictive knowledge of the space environment and the [operational environment] upon which space operations depend.”3

The important aspect about the GSSAP in the context of the new US strategy is that it was previously a highly classified program that had been made public in order to deter US adversaries from conducting hostile activities in GEO.

While the US Space Surveillance Network (SSN), operated through the Joint Space Operations Center (JSpOC) at Vandenberg Air Force Base, is the most advanced SSA system in the world, it nonetheless has several limitations, including the geographical distribution of its sensors and their age.4 In order to address these challenges, the Air Force is taking several steps, such as moving its new Space Surveillance Telescope (SST) to Western Australia for better sensor coverage in the Southern Hemisphere5 and building the new S-Band Space Fence, a radar system located in the South Pacific that could track almost ten times as many objects as the SSN, at half the size. The Space Fence is expected to become operational in 2018 and, as of September 2016, has been both on schedule and budget.6

One of the more interesting US SSA systems has been the Geosynchronous Space Situational Awareness Program (GSSAP), a constellation of four maneuverable satellites tasked to observe objects in GEO, which has been labelled a “space neighborhood watch” by the former Commander of Air Force Space Command (AFSPC), Gen. William Shelton.7 The important aspect about the GSSAP in the context of the new US strategy is that it was previously a highly classified program that had been made public in order to deter US adversaries from conducting hostile activities in GEO.8 As Gen. Hyten put it during a recent speech at Stanford University:

[T]he reason we announced that capability is we want everybody in the world to know that that real estate [GEO], which is the most valuable real estate in the world, we’re watching it every day close, and there’s nothing you can do in that orbit that will catch us by surprise.9


Another important aspect of new US strategy is the idea of making its space systems more resilient so that they can continue to operate in a contested environment. The importance of resiliency had already been recognized long before conducting the Space Strategic Portfolio Review (SPR), and much emphasis was initially placed on the concept of disaggregation, which AFSPC defines as the “dispersion of space-based missions, functions and sensors across multiple systems spanning one or more orbital plane, platform, host or domain.”10 In a 2013 white paper, AFSPC acknowledged that past and current space systems were designed without considering potential threats, and thus a design philosophy of large, complex and expensive systems which are carrying payloads for a multitude of missions evolved.11 However, in an increasingly contested space environment, such systems would constitute vulnerable targets to adversaries, which is why this philosophy is no longer tenable. As a result, AFSPC argued to increase the role of disaggregation in its space system designs.

Following the SPR, however, the role of disaggregation was de-emphasized, and instead, the US decided to focus on a broader set of resiliency measures.12 Gen. Hyten, in recent testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee, explained this in the following way:

What we are really looking for are more resilient warfighting constellations and capabilities that can operate through any future postulated threat. This includes building new architectures (some disaggregated) and integrating them with other options (e.g., defensive capabilities). Disaggregation for its own sake, however, is not a goal.13

In order to clarify the concept of resiliency, the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Homeland Defense and Global Security released another white paper in September 2015 in which it identified six measures that enhance space systems resiliency: disaggregation, distribution, diversification, deception, protection, and proliferation. These, together with additional measures and abilities, could “be used individually and collectively to achieve warfighting mission assurance.”14

The question, then, would be how the US intends to implement these measures. In April of last year, AFSPC announced the Space Enterprise Vision (SEV), a classified plan to adapt its space systems to the new threat environment. In a press release announcing the SEV, AFSPC stressed the need for the entire national security space sector to define a common response to growing threats in the space domain. The SEV also introduced a concept called “resilience capacity” that “will measure how well space enterprise forces can respond to the full range of known threats, and how quickly they can adapt to counter future threats, while continuing to deliver space effects to joint and coalition warfighters.”15 It would be applied to plan and manage future space systems and would replace the previously used concept of “functional availability,” which did not sufficiently account for threats to space systems.

Concrete measures, according to Maj. Gen. Nina M. Armango of AFSPC, include disaggregating the tactical and strategic elements of future early missile warning and communications satellites while enhancing the maneuverability and propulsion capabilities of existing systems, reducing costs and development time of medium-class missions and improving SSA and battle management capabilities.16 An additional measure is increased cooperation with commercial and allied partners, which would add to the distribution, diversification, and proliferation elements of resilience. In September 2014, DoD and STRATCOM announced the Combined Space Operations (CSpO) initiative, a memorandum of understanding between the US, Australia, Canada, and the UK to “strengthen deterrence, enhance resilience and optimize resources.”17 New Zealand joined and hosted the first formal meeting of the CSpO initiative in October 2015.18

Offensive capabilities

The big question mark of current US national security space strategy is whether it involves the development of any offensive capabilities to fight a war in space. Given the inherent dual-use capacity of many space systems, as well as the ongoing disagreement both within the US and at the international level regarding definitions of terms such as “space weapon,” “weapon in space,” or “weaponization of space,”19 this question is difficult to answer. US officials have been rather vague, either using ambiguous terms such as “offensive space control” or “active defense” when commenting on these capacities,20 or not being willing to discuss such capacities at all. More recently, Gen. Hyten told the Senate Armed Services Committee that the US would need to acquire offensive systems in response to its adversaries’ growing counterspace capabilities.21

Still, while the US appears to have no interest in actively fighting a war in space, it nonetheless possesses certain capabilities to do so.

However, US officials also continue to stress that the US has no interest in taking a fight into space, as it would have the most to lose in such an event. While the US considers an attack on its space systems an intolerable act resulting in severe consequences, it nonetheless suggests that retaliatory measures might occur in different domains and by non-military means.22 In addition, Gen. Hyten stated in an interview in 2015 that if the US were to develop offensive capabilities, it would pursue only those that would not create any debris.23

Still, while the US appears to have no interest in actively fighting a war in space, it nonetheless possesses certain capabilities to do so, including the publicly acknowledged Counter Satellite Communications System to jam satellites24 and the Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense (BMD) System, which has been used to destroy a satellite in 2008.25 While the mission created no long-lasting debris due to the low altitude at which the satellite was shot down, the new SM-3 Block IIA interceptors of the Aegis BMD system, first tested in February 2017,26 would have a much longer range and could potentially reach every satellite in LEO. This would call into question Gen. Hyten’s statement from 2015.27

Organizational and management changes

The findings of the SPR have not only led to a changed mindset and new technological capabilities, but have also resulted in the establishment of new organizational and management structures to support the implementation of the current US approach to national security space. The most visible of these structures has been the National Space Defense Center (NSDC), previously known as the Joint Interagency Combined Space Operations Center (JICSpOC). It was announced in September 2015 as an experimental center to “develop, test, validate and integrate new space system tactics, techniques and procedures in support of both DoD and Intelligence Community space operations,”28 or, as Deputy Secretary of Defense Bob Work put it more simply:

It is designed to perform battle management and command and control of the space constellation under threat of attack. It has to fight through those attacks and provide the space support that the joint force relies upon.29

According to Gen. Hyten, the NSDC became operational in November 2016.30

The important aspect about the NSDC is that it involves both the military and the intelligence community (IC). Traditionally, these two sectors have operated separately from one another, as both had different objectives, missions, and clients. Whereas the military operates mostly so-called “white” programs, i.e. classified but publicly acknowledged programs, the IC runs mostly “black” programs, i.e. covert programs whose existence is not even acknowledged. According to Dwayne Day, the IC space program operates with less oversight and regulations than the military program, and the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO), which is the primary agency within the IC to conduct space operations, is the “largest and most secretive intelligence organization to ever exist within the US government.”31 Given these factors, it is understandable that the IC was not excited about discussing joint command and control of its space systems with the military, and the NRO reportedly resisted establishing the NSDC for more than a year, but finally succumbed to the pressure.32 Given the NRO’s long tradition of secrecy and independence, this is a strong sign for how serious the US considers the threat to its space assets to be.

Rep. Mike Rogers, Chairman of the Strategic Forces Subcommittee of the House Armed Services Committee, announced that he would introduce a major effort to reorganize the entire national security space enterprise in 2017, calling it a “disruptive” and “substantial effort.”

Another organizational novelty is the Joint Space Doctrine and Tactics Forum (JSDTF), which also involves both the military and the IC. Jointly chaired by the STRATCOM commander and NRO director, the JSDTF will hold quarterly meetings, the first of which occurred in early 2015.33 According to STRATCOM, the JSDTF “serves as [a] nexus to increase space collaboration and coordination between defense and intelligence communities, with the goal to advance the development of tactics, techniques and procedures and better facilitate information sharing, as well as enhance information sharing through exercises, doctrine and lessons learned.”34

On the management side, the DoD created the new position of Principal DoD Space Advisor (PDSA), held by the Secretary of the Air Force. Announcing the creation of the PDSA position in a memo in October 2015, Deputy Secretary of Defense Bob Work stated it would replace the position of DoD Executive Agent (EA) for Space, also held by the Secretary of the Air Force. The EA was responsible to coordinate with all DoD space stakeholders and provide consensus recommendations to DoD leadership, but Work acknowledged that a consensus-based system was no longer the best organizational solution.35 The PDSA will be given a wide range of responsibilities, including acting as principal space advisor to DoD senior leadership and several departmental units, overseeing all departmental space matters, advancing national security space strategy, chairing the Defense Space Council, and conducting an annual Space Strategic Posture Review.36

According to the memo, the purpose of creating the PDSA position is to “strengthen [the] leadership [of the DoD Space Enterprise] by sharpening portfolio authorities and responsibilities and unifying diffused and competing voices within the Department,”37 or, put differently, to centralize decision-making in the national security space enterprise, where responsibility is distributed among many actors. This responds to a growing awareness that the governance structure of the national security space enterprise is still geared toward a benign space environment, in which a range of actors can operate separately from each other. In a contested, degraded, and operationally-limited environment, however, a governance structure with clearly defined decision-making authority is required.

Whether the PDSA is ultimately the best solution is still under discussion. In July 2016, the US Government Accountability Office (GAO) released a report that looked into the management of defense space acquisitions, in which it found that “DOD space leadership responsibilities are fragmented among several organizations,”38 with more than 60 governmental organizations having some kind of responsibility. The GAO report presented four different governance models, ranging from no further changes in order to allow some time to assess the effectiveness of the PDSA, to creating a new military service, the Space Force, that would take over the entire responsibilities of the national security space enterprise,39 but the GAO stopped short of recommending one option over the others.

In response to the GAO report, Rep. Mike Rogers, Chairman of the Strategic Forces Subcommittee of the House Armed Services Committee, announced that he would introduce a major effort to reorganize the entire national security space enterprise in 2017, calling it a “disruptive” and “substantial effort.”40 In April 2017, he reaffirmed his commitment to lead this effort, calling the current system “broken.”41

Concluding discussion

After decades of debate about how the military should engage in, and use the space environment, the US is now preparing for war that extends into space, a war it never wants to fight, but for which it nonetheless will be prepared. This statement would have been unthinkable just a few years ago, but due to, apparently, rapidly growing capabilities of American adversaries, speaking about war in space has almost become normal today.

The inevitability of future wars extending into space appears to be a broadly shared conclusion among all directly involved actors.

The reorientation of US national security space strategy has obviously prompted strong reactions. On one end of the spectrum, Johnson-Freese and Hitchens have accused the US of fearmongering over a coming war in space, and have referred to current US rhetoric as “rising hysteria.”42 On the other end, Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Sen. John McCain has praised the DoD’s recent efforts to deal with threats in space that have, in his eyes, “developed with alarming speed.”43 In between, there is credible evidence that there are indeed ASAT capabilities under active development by Russia and China, and perhaps others, but the full scope and intentions are still unknown. While this author prefers to refrain from making a general assessment on the new US strategy, he nonetheless wishes to offer some concluding thoughts and observations.

A first observation is that the inevitability of future wars extending into space appears to be a broadly shared conclusion among all directly involved actors (i.e. the White House, Congress, DoD, the State Department, the armed forces, the IC. and industry) and that the new US approach to national security space enjoys strong bipartisan support, suggesting that it is here to stay. The Trump campaign’s space policy advisors, Robert Walker and Peter Navarro, argued that a Trump administration would likely pursue a “peace through strength” policy that was focused on reducing vulnerabilities and dealing with emerging threats,44 which sounds very similar to the conclusions arrived at by the SPR in 2014. In addition, both officials responsible for national security space policy that the Trump administration has nominated so far—Secretary of Defense James Mattis and Secretary of the Air Force Heather Wilson—expressed support for the current trajectory of US national security space during their respective confirmation hearings.45,46 Domestic opposition, for the moment, seems to be limited to academic circles and civil society.

However, the idea of preparing for a war in space certainly raises concerns at the international level, where the US is rather isolated in its thinking. For decades, the General Assembly of the United Nations (UN) has passed an annual resolution on the prevention of an arms race in outer space (PAROS), which recognizes that this would “avert a grave danger for international peace and security”47 and calls upon states, especially those with major space capabilities, to

contribute actively to the objective of the peaceful use of outer space and of the prevention of an arms race in outer space and to refrain from actions contrary to that objective and to the relevant existing treaties in the interest of maintaining international peace and security and promoting international cooperation.48

The most recent version of the resolution passed with 182 countries voting in favor and four countries, including the US, abstaining. While more concrete measures, such as the Sino-Russian draft treaty on the prevention of the placement of weapons in outer space (PPWT) or Russia’s no first placement of weapons in outer space (NFP) resolution have been met with mixed reactions, the PAROS resolution clearly shows that the international community does not believe that future wars should extend into outer space.

The strategic shift of the US, therefore, will certainly reinforce and confirm long-held fears by China, Russia, and other countries that the US tries to control, dominate, and/or weaponize space, and might give new credibility to their calls for the non-weaponization of space. This might cause them to reinforce their efforts at the Conference on Disarmament (CD) and the UN Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS), carrying the risk that this will further politicize these bodies in a time where constructive debates on a whole range of pressing issues are necessary. In particular, with the CD being deadlocked for about 20 years by now, some member states of COPUOS have recently tried to use the body as a forum to discuss security issues, which others have strongly objected to. With the growing challenge of space debris, the advent of a range of new commercial activities, as well as the upcoming UNISPACE+50 process, COPUOS has a vast number of important issues to discuss, and forcing discussions about security issues on its agenda will most likely be to the detriment of the constructive nature of its debates.

This author hopes that a mix of credible and capable deterrence, active diplomacy, and self-restraint on behalf of all actors will help to preserve a safe, secure, and sustainable space environment, to be used and explored by all humankind, now, and in the future.

One possible action the US could take in response to these concerns would be to release more classified information about Chinese and Russian counterspace activities, as scholars such as Brian Weeden or M.V. “Coyote” Smith have argued for.49,50 This could make US accusations more credible and help rally support for its activities at the international stage. Such an action has to be weighed against the risk of disclosing the sources and methods of gathering the intelligence, and of exposing the exact knowledge the US possesses about Chinese and Russian counterspace programs. At the moment, it seems that the US does not expect the gains to exceed the risks, and therefore it prefers not to back up its accusations with more evidence. Nonetheless, the recent announcement by the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission to produce an unclassified report on China’s advanced weapons,51 which would include its counterspace capabilities, can be seen as a useful step in the right direction.

Space is at a turning point. President Kennedy once wondered whether it would become a sea of peace or a new terrifying theater of war, and advocated that the US would have to “occup[y] a position of pre-eminence”52 to decide over the outcome. Apparently, the US has concluded the latter to be the case, and is now actively preparing for it. As demonstrated earlier, this is not necessarily driven by ideology, but rather based on concrete evidence and real military concerns. It nonetheless carries the risk of becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy. This author, therefore, hopes that a mix of credible and capable deterrence, active diplomacy, and self-restraint on behalf of all actors will help to preserve a safe, secure, and sustainable space environment, to be used and explored by all humankind, now, and in the future.


  1. Hitchens (2016), p. 43.
  2. Joint Chiefs of Staff (2013): Joint Publication 3-14: Space Operations. 29 May, p. II-1. (last accessed: 16 April 2017)
  3. Ibid., p. II-1.
  4. Weeden (2015): SSA Concepts Worldwide, in: Schrogl et al. (eds.): Handbook of Space Security. New York: Springer, pp. 990ff.
  5. Pellerin (2016): Advanced Space Surveillance Telescope Has Critical Military Applications. Department of Defense News, 22 October. (last accessed: 08 April 2017)
  6. Gruss (2016b): Good (space) fences make for good (orbital) neighbors. SpaceNews, 19 September. (last accessed: 08 April 2017)
  7. Clark (2014): Air Force general reveals new space surveillance program. Spaceflight Now, 25 February. (last accessed: 08 April 2017)
  8. Butler (2014): USAF Space Chief Outs Classified Spy Sat Program. Aviation Week and Space Technology, 21 February. (last accessed: 08 April 2017)
  9. Hyten (2017b): Speech at the Center for International Security and Cooperation (CISAC). 24 January. (last accessed: 08 April 2017)
  10. AFSPC (2013): Resiliency and Disaggregated Space Architectures. White Paper. P. 4. (last accessed: 16 April 2017)
  11. Ibid., p. 2.
  12. Cf. Gruss (2015a).
  13. Hyten (2016b): Advance Questions for General John E. Hyten, USAF Nominee for Commander, United States Strategic Command. Senate Armed Services Committee. 20 September, p. 18. (last accessed: 16 April 2017)
  14. Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Homeland Defense & Global Security (2015): Space Domain Mission Assurance: A Resilience Taxonomy. September, p. 8.
  15. Air Force Space Command Public Affairs (2016): Hyten announces Space Enterprise Vision. 13 April. (last accessed: 01 April 2017)
  16. Gruss (2016c): Hyten’s Space Enterprise Vision coming into focus. SpaceNews Magazine, 12 September.(last accessed: 01 April 2017)
  17. Pellerin (2014): Stratcom, DoD Sign Space Operations Agreement With Allies. U.S. Department of Defense, 23 September. (last accessed: 01 April 2017)
  18. Cronk (2015): New Zealand Hosts Combined Space Operations Meeting. U.S. Department of Defense, 12 October. (last accessed: 16 April 2017)
  19. For a good discussion on this topic, see Johnson-Freese (2016): Space Warfare in the 21st Century: Arming the Heavens. Abingdon: Routledge, pp. 65-68.
  20. Clark (2015): US Presses Russia, China on ASAT Tests; Space Control Spending Triples. Breaking Defense, 16 April. (last accessed: 16 April 2017)
  21. Clark (2017): STRATCOM Raises Spectre Of Offensive War In Space. Breaking Defense, 05 April. (last accessed: 01 May 2017)
  22. For this argument, see the comments made by Navy Rear Adm. Brian Brown in: Shinkman (2017): The Coming War in Space. 08 February. (last accessed: 01 April 2017); as well as Robinson, Betmann (2017): Advancing the Trilateral Europe-U.S.-Japan Space Security Partnership, Conference Report. Prague Security Studies Institute, March 2017, p. 10.
  23. Billings (2015): War in Space May Be Closer Than Ever. Scientific American, 10 August. (last accessed: 16 April 2017)
  24. Lewis (2004): Counter Satellite Communications System Deployed. 02 October. (last accessed: 01 April 2017)
  25. Missile Defense Agency (n.d.): One-Time Mission: Operation Burnt Frost. (last accessed: 01 April 2017)
  26. Missile Defense Agency (2017): U.S., Japan Successfully Conduct First SM-3 Block IIA Intercept Test. 03 February. (last accessed: 16 April 2017)
  27. Grego (2012): Aegis as ASAT. Union of Concerned Scientists, 26 April. (last accessed: 16 April 2017)
  28. U.S. Department of Defense (2015): New Joint Interagency Combined Space Operations Center to be established. 11 September. (last accessed: 09 April 2017)
  29. Pomerleau (2016a): DepSecDef: JICSpOC is first organizational construct of the third offset. C4ISRNET, 21 September. (last accessed: 09 April 2017)
  30. Cf. Hyten (2017a), p. 10.
  31. Day (2002): Intelligence Space Program, in: Sadeh (ed.): Space Politics and Policy: An Evolutionary Perspective. Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers, pp. 371.
  32. Clark (2016): Intel Community Key to JICSPOC; 3rd Test Next Week: Gen. Hyten. Breaking Defense, 26 February. (last accessed: 09 April 2017)
  33. Pomerleau (2016b): DoD and intel officials gather to discuss space situational awareness. C4ISRNET, 31 August. (last accessed: 09 April 2017)
  34. U.S. Strategic Command Public Affairs (2016): USSTRATCOM Welcomes Defense and Intelligence Communities to Strengthen Space Resilience. 29 August. (last accessed: 09 April 2017)
  35. Deputy Secretary of Defense (2015): Designation of the Principal DoD Space Advisor. 05 October. (last accessed: 17 April 2017)
  36. Ibid., p. 1f.
  37. Ibid., p. 1.
  38. U.S. Government Accountability Office (2016): Defense Space Acquisitions: Too Early to Determine If Recent Changes Will Resolve Persistent Fragmentation in Management and Oversight. 27 July, p. 2. (last accessed: 17 April 2017)
  39. Ibid., p. 4.
  40. Gould and Insinna (2016): Big Space Reorganization Coming, House Strategic Forces Chairman Mike Rogers Says. Defense News, 14 December. (last accessed: 17 April 2017)
  41. Swarts (2017): Air Force reorg too timid for House milspace leaders. SpaceNews, 5 April. (last accessed: 17 April 2017)
  42. Hitchens, Johnson-Freese (2016b): Stop the Fearmongering Over War in Space: The Sky’s Not Falling, Part 1. Breaking Defense, 27 December. (last accessed: 09 April 2017)
  43. McCain (2017): Restoring American Power. 16 January, p. 17. (last accessed: 09 April 2017)
  44. Walker and Navarro (2016): Donald Trump’s “peace through strength” space vision. SpaceNews, 24 October. (last accessed: 09 April 2017)
  45. Mattis (2017): Advance Policy Questions for James M. Mattis, Nominee to be Secretary of Defense. 12 January, p. 44. (last accessed: 09 April 2017)
  46. Wilson (2017): Advance Policy Questions for Heather Wilson, Nominee to be Secretary of the Air Force. 30 March, p. 18. (last accessed: 09 April 2017)
  47. United Nations (2016): Prevention of an arms race into outer space. UN resolution A/RES/71/31, p. 1.
  48. Ibid., p. 3.
  49. Cf. Weeden (2014), p. 3.
  50. Smith (2017): America Needs a Space Corps. War is Boring, 28 February. (last accessed: 09 April 2017)
  51. U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission (2017): Request for Proposals on China’s Advanced Weapons. 21 April 2017. (last accessed: 05 May 2017)
  52. Kennedy (1962): Speech at Rice University. 12 September. (last accessed: 04 May 2017)