“There are no rules or very few rules,” General John Raymond, the first commander of the US Space Force, recently said of the domain his fledgling branch is charged with defending. “It’s the wild Wild West.”
To highlight just how chaotic the heavens have become, consider some recent developments and events.
Last month, Russia threatened to attack Western satellites used to help Ukraine defend itself. It was not an empty threat; Moscow has proven its ability to hit orbiting satellites. In late 2021, for example, Russia tested a ground-launched anti-satellite (ASAT) weapon that “generated more than 1,500 pieces of traceable orbital debris and will likely generate hundreds of thousands of smaller pieces of orbital debris,” reports the US Space Command. This debris field threatened the International Space Station.
In July 2020, Russia has tested a satellite destruction vehicle. This followed a similar test in 2017, when Russia deployed a satellite that “launched a high-speed projectile into space”, as Raymond revealed. In addition, the Russian military has deployed satellites capable of “rendezvous and proximity operations” – military parlance for maneuvering around other satellites to monitor, disrupt and/or disable them. In 2020, Pentagon officials reported that two Russian satellites tracked a US Keyhole satellite in “unusual and disturbing” behavior.
Meanwhile, China launched what space experts describe like “lots” of military intelligence satellites. China also has tested this year, what appears to be a fractional orbital bombardment system, designed to send weapons such as hypersonic glider vehicles into low Earth orbit until they are needed to hit ground targets. The Pentagon reported in 2021 that Beijing has a robust arsenal of directed energy weapons, jammers and ASATs designed to target satellites in low Earth orbit. Indeed, China has led at least three provocative and reckless ASATs trials. Beijing’s 2007 ASAT test created at least 3,000 pieces of deadly space junk.
Even friendly countries like India have conducted destabilizing and dangerous ASAT tests in recent years.
Kinetic weapons and space debris are not the only threats to the freedom of navigation in space. General David Thompson, Space Force’s second-in-command, recently revealed that US space assets are under constant attack from electronic warfare jamming, computer cyberattacks and laser flashes that blind satellite optical systems. “Threats are really increasing and expanding every day,” he said. “We’re really at a point now where there’s a whole host of ways our space systems can be threatened.”
Thompson also noted that Russian space anti-satellite systems maneuvered close enough to US satellites to raise concerns that Russian weapons were bracing for kinetic strikes.
Bad news, good news
All of this is bad news for responsible space nations like the United States. As Lt. Gen. David Buck observes, “space is essential to the American way of life.” About half of the more than 2,200 operational satellites in orbit are owned and operated by US companies, government agencies or military units. An attack on these satellites would cripple America’s satellite-dependent economy and leave American citizens blind, deaf, silenced, hungry, and cut off from the world. The Space Force was created to prevent this terrifying possibility.
“Access to space and freedom to maneuver in space can no longer be treated as a given,” says Raymond.
Freedom to maneuver in space doesn’t happen by magic or accident. As with the freedom of the seas, it depends on responsible powers that deter bad actors and enforce standards of behavior. And it depends on a certain type of military force. “If you look back in history, every area of warfare has a service attached to it,” Raymond observed.
The good news is that Space Force is developing units, systems, tools, procedures, weapons, and practices to transfer and enforce the standards of behavior that govern military and commercial activity on the seas into the skies. The even better news is that America is not alone in this crucial mission.
Several new initiatives, agreements and operations – as well as proven alliances – are giving rise to a growing and overlapping set of partnerships committed to developing and enforcing the rules of the road in space.
Operation Olympic Defender, for example, includes longtime allies Britain, Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the United States. Its mission, according to Pentagon, is “to optimize space operations…enhance resilience…synchronize U.S. efforts with some of its closest allies…enhance allies’ capabilities to deter hostile acts in space, enhance deterrence against hostile actors and reduce the spread of debris in orbit around the earth”. Spain, France and Italy are expected join this free global partnership of space nations.
Encompassing the United States, Great Britain, Australia, Canada, France, Germany and New Zealand, the Combined Space Operations (CSpO) promotes “multilateral space collaboration” and “directly supports the deterrence mission of US Space Command”.
Global Sentinel is designed to “enhance operational collaboration and promote responsible behavior in the space domain”, according to the US Space Command. Participating nations include USA, Australia, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, Germany, Israel, Spain, Finland, France, UK, Greece, Italy, Japan, Republic of Korea, Netherlands, Norway, New Zealand, Peru, Poland and Portugal. , Romania, Sweden, Thailand and Ukraine. (On a related note, Air and Space Forces Magazine reports that Space Force and U.S. Space Command are forging ties with the militaries of Brazil, Chile, Colombia and Peru.)
Warning that China “is working to overthrow the rules-based international order, including in…space” and that “strategic competitors and potential adversaries” such as China and Russia “are investing in technologies that could restrict our access and freedom to operate in space”, degrade our space capabilities, target our civilian and military infrastructure, compromise our defense and harm our security”, the whole NATO alliance pledged to “maintain secure use and unimpeded access to space” and “strengthen the resilience of
the space and cyber capabilities we depend on for our collective defense and security.
Committed to the peaceful exploration of space, coordination of space activities and cooperation in the use of outer space, 20 nations have signed the Accords of Artemis – United States, Australia, France, Mexico, Singapore, Bahrain, Israel, New Zealand, Ukraine, United Arab Emirates, Poland, Italy, Brazil, Canada, Colombia, Japan, South Korea, Great Britain, Romania and Luxembourg .
These groupings of partner and allied countries cooperate in the field of space surveillance, intelligence and reconnaissance; data sharing; detection of hostile space activities; strengthening and protection of space assets; resilience of space systems; space launches; and most likely on defensive operations in and through space.
Whatever name we give to this puzzle-set of partnerships – a space coalition of the willing, guardrails for the final frontier, a long-awaited extension of the rules-based international order in space – it is a vital tool in deterring our enemies on and above the earth.