As the Biden administration prepares to consider the advisability of and future mission for the U.S. Space Force, a recent paper for the Arms Control Association recommends that the United States embark upon a space arms control effort that would complement nuclear arms control.
“The U.S. approach toward meeting disruptions to the security and stability of space has focused almost exclusively on an offensive counterspace capability build-up and, to a lesser extent, mixed messaging about intent and deterrence,” according to Enhancing Space Security: Time for Legally Binding Measures, an Arms Control Association paper last month by two space experts, Victoria Samson and Brian Weeden of the Secure World Foundation.
“It is time that all possible options to bolster U.S. national security in space and international strategic stability were fully explored,” the paper said. “For this to happen, the United States has to acknowledge the strategic benefits of a fully holistic approach, begin sketching out what it hopes to achieve with space arms control, and start laying the groundwork for doing a cost-benefit analysis of the options it would be willing to forgo in order to persuade competitors to abandon even bigger threats to the United States.”
A former senior analyst at the Center for Defense Information, Samson is the Washington office director for the Secure World Foundation, while Weeden, a former space and ICBM operations officer for the U.S. Air Force, is the foundation’s director for program planning.
Backed by the former Trump administration, Congress approved the Space Force in the fiscal 2020 National Defense Authorization Act. The sixth military service was established in December 2019 to centralize military space activities, including satellite launches, communications systems, protection of U.S. satellites and the pursuit of systems to deny enemies the use of space.
U.S. Space Force Vice Chief of Space Operations Gen. David “DT” Thompson said this month that the Space Force is looking for personnel skilled in several areas, including satellite command and control, launch, and “orbital warfare.” (Defense Daily, Jan. 13).
While Space Force has not disclosed the development of any kinetic, anti-satellite (ASAT) programs, the service has revealed several non-kinetic counterspace efforts, including COLSA Corp.’s Bounty Hunter system, a ground-based system providing satellite communications interference detection, which achieved initial operational capability on Aug. 7 last year, and a new $247.5 million Counter Communications System (CCS) Block 10.3 Meadowlands system by L3Harris [LHX].
Last March, the Space Force’s Space and Missile Systems Center (SMC) at Los Angeles AFB, Calif., declared initial operational capability for the L3Harris CCS Block 10.2, what SMC termed “the first offensive weapon system in the United States Space Force.”
The system is now in operation with the 4th Space Control Squadron at Peterson AFB, Colo., and provides “quick reaction capability with direct operational support to the warfighter,” per SMC.
First introduced in 2004, CCS is a transportable space electronic warfare system that reversibly denies adversary satellite communications, SMC said.
“During the Cold War, the United State poured considerable resources and political will into creating the intellectual foundations for nuclear arms control, establishing verification capabilities, and crafting negotiating positions that linked everything together,” according to last month’s paper by Samson and Weeden. “No such effort has been done for space in the last 20 years and would likely be necessary for any legally binding agreements on space security to be taken seriously.”
“The prospects of legally binding agreements on space security remain distant, but the United States can take concrete actions to improve space security and stability,” per the paper. “As a starting point, the United States, Russia, and China should discuss definitions of agreed behavior for military activities in space, in particular the interactions between their military satellites in space, akin to the discussions that led to the Incidents at Sea Agreement during the Cold War. As in the case of maritime operations, clarifying norms of behavior for noncooperative rendezvous and proximity operations and, where possible, providing notifications of upcoming activities can help reduce the chances of misperceptions that could increase tensions or spark conflict. As part of these discussions, the main space powers need to share their perspectives on how the existing laws of armed conflict apply to military space activities.”
Last year, the United Kingdom and the U.S. said that Russia had launched the “nesting doll” Cosmos 2542 and 2543 satellites, which could pose a significant danger to LEO satellites. In January last year, Michael Thompson, a respected space tracker, noted that the space surveillance/inspection bird, Cosmos 2542, launched on Nov. 25, 2019 had synchronized its orbit with USA 245–launched in 2013 and one of four multi-billion dollar, classified Lockheed Martin [LMT] KH-11 electro-optical spy satellites under the National Reconnaissance Office’s (NRO) Keyhole/CRYSTAL program.
In July, U.S. Space Command said that Cosmos 2543 had “injected a new object into orbit” as part of an ASAT capability “inconsistent with the system’s stated mission as an inspector satellite.”
Last month, U.S. Space Command said that Russia had conducted another direct ascent ASAT (DA-ASAT) test, likely a Nudol ballistic missile designed to intercept satellites in low-earth orbit (LEO) (Defense Daily, Dec. 16, 2020).
Russia is also developing a ground-based laser for use by the country’s space forces and “a co-orbital ASAT, a space-based weapon system, which demonstrated an on-orbit kinetic weapon in 2017 and again in 2020,” U.S. Space Command said.
“Most discussions of what capabilities might threaten U.S. national security more than benefit it zero in on destructive testing of ASAT weapons,” according to last month’s Arms Control Association paper by Samson and Weeden. “Destructive ASAT weapons tests have created nearly 5,000 pieces of orbital debris since the 1960s, more than 3,000 of which still pose navigation hazards to satellites. Long-lived orbital debris poses a threat to critical U.S. national security assets, human spaceflight operations, and the future commercial development of space, all of which are priorities for the United States and its allies. A legally binding agreement that prevents destructive testing of ASAT weapons or at least that which generates long-lived orbital debris should be at the top of the list for consideration.”
Space Force officials have pointed to the Chinese ASAT test in May 2007 as the spark that led to the creation of the Space Force 13 years later.
“Although many countries will need to play a role in resolving these challenges, the United States must take a leadership role,” according to the Samson/Weeden paper. “The United States is still the most powerful country in space and has the most to lose, should space devolve into an arena of unrestrained weaponization and potential armed conflict. Preventing this exact outcome was part of the impetus that drove the United States to play a major role in creating the current international legal regime in space, such as the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, that has served the United States and the world so well.”