The conflict in Ukraine has highlighted political ambiguity regarding the options available to the United States to protect commercial satellites
The United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs has estimated that there are at least 8,261 satellites in orbit around the Earth. These assets, worth more than two trillion dollars, enable our national security, our economy and our civil society. As the National Space Council recognized, space is a “source of American innovation and opportunity”.
Yet orbiting satellites remain remarkably unprotected.
Recent Chinese and Russian counterspace tests made it clear that space is no longer a sanctuary. The conflict in Ukraine has highlighted political ambiguity regarding the options available to the US government to protect commercial satellite operators that provide data and services in support of current operational needs.
Recently, the Office of the Undersecretary of Defense for Research and Engineering established a Defense Science Board Commercial Space System Access and Integrity Working Group to help think through some of these questions. As this working group begins to explore these questions, here are some recommendations to consider.
See no harm
Protecting yourself means knowing you are threatened, knowing where that threat is coming from, how they are likely to attack you, and having a contextual understanding of the situation to enable an appropriate and hopefully highly deterrent response. The corollary for satellites is the need for spatial situational awareness. Previously, this was the sole responsibility of the Ministry of Defense, which used ground-based telescopes and radar.
The Ministry of Commerce has inherited responsibility for the basic SSA, the management and coordination of space traffic for civil and commercial entities. Moreover, driven by the enormity of the value of physical infrastructure launched into space, commercial entities are also investing in SSA. The best of these commercial companies provide integrated hardware and software solutions to enhance the existing dataset while introducing new data and analytics for users.
hear no evil
When people think of protecting space assets, they may think of distant science fiction akin to Star Wars or Star Trek. They can be drawn into a specious debate confusing the use of space for military purposes versus the weaponization of space. But it is important to find out what space protection might look like in the short, medium and long term.
And the good news is that despite what you might hear, the DoD is already taking steps in the right direction. The architectural move toward disaggregating mission sets is a form of protection that reinforces mission assurance. Popularized in the late 2010s, disaggregation began by breaking the strategic and tactical missile warning capabilities that resided primarily in a single unitary satellite. Spreading the mission over several satellites is also a form of protection, the rise of megaconstellations for communications reinforces this line of thought.
Finally kiss non-traditional space actors in new capability areas such as radio frequency mapping, domestic synthetic aperture radar and 3D imaging is also a way to integrate protection into broader mission architectures that integrate both the capabilities of the government and contractors.
Speak no evil
The space is notoriously outclassed at the expense of leveraging its true contributions to deterrence. Part of the space protection discourse should also include a genuine effort to responsibly declassify information and events, particularly if they are irresponsible and violate standards of behavior. As an international community, we cannot hold a competitor accountable for its dangerous anti-satellite testing if we do not acknowledge that it is happening. Recently, US Space Command has been exemplary in attempting to call these actions. This is marked progress, but there is still a long way to go. Ultimately, you can’t deter an opponent with an ability you don’t acknowledge exists.
Two last parting thoughts. First, as is often the case, space operators tend to believe that space challenges require space-specific solutions. It’s not true.
Space protection can and should be fully integrated into the larger framework of the Ministry of Defense Joint Domain Command and Control Strategy. As Space Command and Space Force continue to develop requirements and contributions to JADC2, they should also consider the scope of space protection options to establish the data and technical enterprise.
Finally, protection and access to space should not be limited to material solutions. Indemnity, compensation, and other contractual relief could all play a role in the broader discourse of space protection options.
Geosynchronous orbit is 22,236 miles from the Earth’s surface and currently contains more than $2 trillion in infrastructure investment. Robust, pragmatic, creative, discussions of protecting space in public discourse are welcome and very frankly overdue.
Sarah Mineiro is a former staff director for the House Armed Forces Strategic Forces Subcommittee, which focused on space, hypersonic missile defense and nuclear weapons.
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