Securing Our Military Satellites Against Shadowing Spacecraft

Earlier, last month, General John Raymond, Chief of Space Command operations, revealed that the Russians had launched a spacecraft that shadowed an important US military satellite. Could the Russians be angling to disable key US and allied space assets? General Raymond would not say but voiced concern. "It's clear," he noted, "Russia is developing on-orbit capabilities that seek to exploit our reliance on space-based systems that fuel our American way of life." 

NPEC recently held a workshop with the American Bar Association's Standing Committee on Law and National Security to dive a bit deeper. General Raymond spoke to the group and before his talk, two of the world's leading experts on co-orbital shadowing satellite threats offered their view. The first expert was Brian Chow, a space analyst; the second was Brian Weeden of the Secure World Foundation. Both focused on whether space keep out zones and shadow spacecraft-blocking body guard satellites might help. 

France has announced its desire to create such zones and build satellite bodyguard systems. The United States has yet to support such moves. Should it? In other publications, Brian Chow says yes but there are other views and they too are worth weighing. Toward this end, the transcript below of Dr. Weeden's and Dr. Chow's discussion and two of their previous published exchanges make for interesting reading. 

Mar 23, 2020
AUTHOR: Brian Chow and Brian Weeden

Transcript of a Discussion between Dr. Brian Chow and Dr. Brian Weeden on Space Zones and Bodyguards for Proximity Operations

Moderated by Henry Sokolski

Panel II of a Space Policy Workshop Co-sponsored by the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center and the American Bar Association Standing Committee on Law and National Security – March 2, 2020

Transcription by: Justin Green, Ruby Klein, Alex Marban – Wake Forest Debate

Dr. Brian Chow’s Opening Presentation:

I hope you have read the read-ahead article by Brian Weeden (for a copy of Brian Weeden’s article and Brian Chow’s rejoinder, see Appendix I below). His important article was titled: Real talk and real solutions to real space threats. He said that we need “an honest discussion about what steps will improve the situation and avoid making it worse.” I hope you have also read my article because it shows my support of his idea of having an honest, “real talk and real solutions to real space threats.” So far, we don't have enough chance to do that. Therefore, I'm very glad to have an opportunity this morning to discuss with Brian and you face to face whether the threat from rendezvous and proximity operations – proximity threat for short -- is a real threat. To me, a space zone can be used as a red line to define and indicate whether another country’s satellite is too close to our satellite. And a bodyguard spacecraft can be used to prevent an invading spacecraft from reaching and disabling our satellite. A key purpose of this panel is to spell out our agreements and disagreements about the effectiveness of using space zones and bodyguards in countering the proximity threat. I would describe my position first. Then after Brian talked, I would have five minutes to discuss my agreements and disagreements with him.

Now, I basically would like to make five points about my position.

My first point is that proximity threat will soon be a real threat. In the last 21 months there has been a surge of public statements that this proximity threat is rapidly approaching and real. Most importantly, 8 U.S. space officials and intelligence agencies at the highest level have shown serious concerns about this proximity threat. This impressive list of names includes Vice President Pence and General John Raymond who is going to talk to us during lunch.

In August, 2018, Vice President Pence did not mince his words and he said, and I quote, “both China and Russia have been conducting highly sophisticated on-orbit activities that could enable them to maneuver their satellites into close proximity of ours, posing unprecedented new dangers to outer space systems. In September 2019, his statement was quoted in full by Dr. Scott Pace, the Executive Secretary of the National Space Council. Last month, commenting on the incident of a Russian satellite operating within 100 miles of our 5-billion-dollar satellite, General Raymond said, and I quote, “recent orbital maneuvers by a Russian ‘inspector’ satellite are concerning and threaten stability in space.” The other five names are also prominent. They’re talking about the concerns about the proximity threat. They are Lieutenant General Robert Ashley, the Director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, Dr. Yleem Poblete, former Assistant Secretary of State for Arms Control Verification and Compliance, the Air Force’s National Air and Space Intelligence Center, Defense Intelligence Agency, and General, John Hyten, Commander of U.S. Strategic Command.

(Someone speaks to Chow)

Okay. Yes, I will do that. Okay. So, my second point is I have concern that the U.S. will be unable to prevent robotic spacecraft from reaching and disabling an intolerable number of our critical satellite at the opening of a war. China, Russia, United States, European Union, and others will be doing robotic civilian operations in a few short years. These robotic spacecraft can certainly be capable to grab and destroy our satellites.

My third point is that space zones are needed, at least for the next 10 years to protect critical and vulnerable legacy satellites such as Space Based Infrared System satellites for early warning and Advanced Extreme High Frequency satellites for communications in a nuclear-disrupted environment.

My fourth point is, in addition to space zones, we also need bodyguard spacecraft in the zone to protect nearby satellite. If an adversary’s spacecraft enters our zone, we need a traffic cop or bodyguard to prevent the invader from reaching and damaging our satellite. By the way, the bodyguard doesn’t have to grab the invading spacecraft and destroy it. Our first reaction is to announce to the world that an invader is in our zone and that it must leave immediately. If it doesn’t leave, we should use a bodyguard spacecraft already in the zone to block off the invader from reaching and harming our satellite. Alternatively, the bodyguard can catch the invader and push it out of the zone without hurting it.

For my last point, let me first abbreviate the space traffic management to be called STM. Then my fifth point is the United States should pursue an international STM and a Western STM at the same time. Both have space zones and bodyguards. If China and Russia do not agree to such an international STM, the West would just go ahead to establish a Western STM. And then, if any country wants to participate in the Western space business, naturally, they need to follow the Western STM. Last year I sent out a paper to many of you saying why the Western space market is so lucrative. The global space market will have $1 trillion revenues a year by 2040, and the West has the lion's share for it. Once we have both space zones and bodyguards, then China and Russia can no longer threaten our satellite with proximity operations. They might as well follow the Western STM in order to participate in the lucrative space market. That is to say, they would have high incentives to join the Western and/or the international STM that both have space zones and bodyguards.

I'm eager to hear your reactions, including those of Brian’s.

Henry Sokolski:

Brian, I just realized, I suppose my original plan is you're supposed to comment on his comments. I think it makes sense for you to make your presentation first. That's it. Yeah. Yeah. Think you're right. Go ahead.

Dr. Brian Weeden’s Opening Presentation:

All right. Thank you Henry. Thank you to Brian for helping frame this debate. I've got three main points that I'll put out up front, then I'll talk about the details. In my opinion, the RPO threat is misunderstood and overblown. It is so much more difficult technically to pull this off than most of the non-experts realize. I just don't see, there's very limited situations in which I could see a RPO weapon being used that would provide a better or more reliable military effect than the other options such as hard kills, jamming, or cyber. Second point is that I think guardian satellites are a lot less useful in practice than often talked about. And again, this has to go with orbital mechanics. They can be used to increase awareness in the local area. They can be used to complicate an adversary's RPO if they're trying to approach another satellite and could make that harder. And I think they could be a platform for certain types of countermeasures. But aside from those aspects, guardian satellites are pretty limited compared to how they're often described in the media. And finally I think space zones could be effective, but again they're pretty limited. I think the main effectiveness of space zones is in helping with indications and warnings of potential threats, but they're unlikely to have a strong legal footing. So, if you're relying on them to make some sort of a legal claim, I think that's risky. And I think it'd be hard to get political support for space zones because there has been a reluctance to declare red lines for satellites.

So this slide has some headlines from the last few years regarding RPO incidents. There are problems with every single one of these headlines. I'll just point out the one at the bottom there about the Chinese satellite grabbing the satellite orbit didn't actually happen. The satellite on that launch that had robotic arm separated, never maneuvered, never approached anything else. And if you read very carefully, the Chinese discussions of this they basically did a simulation of grabbing a piece of debris on the space object, but it was a software simulation, as in they simulated in software doing it. They didn't actually have the satellite go grab anything else. So that was reported but, I see no evidence that that ever happened. Again, the U.S. military tracking data says it never maneuvered. It never approached anything else in orbit. I think that is, that is a good example of just how different the reality of some of this stuff is compared to how it gets captured and reported.

This is an example of a great thing that happened in the last few days. The very small dot on the left is Intelsat 901, which is the commercial communication satellite, just outside of GEO. And this is the view of it from a servicing satellite, MEV-1, as it approaches Intelsat 901. This is the first time two commercial satellites have ever actively rendezvoused and docked in orbit. The reason I mentioned this is because we talked to the people at Intelsat and inside Northrop Grumman who worked on this and they said it was an extraordinarily complicated mission. They didn't know if they could pull it off, and this is a situation where they had basically as much knowledge as they wanted to have about the other satellite. It wasn't at the point where it had physical aids to assist in the rendezvous, but they had about as much info as otherwise you can get and still it was very difficult to pull off.

It's akin to, you know, surgery in level of difficulty. To give you a few more specifics for what we're talking about, this slide has an example of just a rough GEO orbit. So, you've got Earth in the middle. Sorry, Google squished that screen's little thing. So, this is a GEO satellite. If I want to do a rendezvous and proximity operation with this satellite, this is the orbit I put my other satellite in. Notice it's still in GEO. It's just slightly shaped differently. And as the two satellites go around, you can see on the right in the relative position of the two satellites one appears to be going around the other as the two orbit the Earth. This is what an RPO orbit actually looks like for the GEO belt. Couple things to point out here, one is the time. It takes 24 hours, i.e. one entire revolution of the Earth, for these two satellites to appear to go around each other. Not like a fighter pilot, where you can just zoom in and do a quick thing and zoom back out again, right? (You're limited by the orbital mechanics.

The next slide has a couple other details of the orbital mechanics. How you move in space is very different than how you move on Earth. These are two different examples of doing rendezvous. The top one is what would happen if you were synced up in a satellite, and you did a retrograde burn, as if you burned your engines in the direction of travel. You would end up doing this little loop sort of a thing and go around the other object over the course of one orbital period, which for lower orbit would be 90 to 100 minutes. The bottom example is what happens if you direct your thrust inward toward the Earth, and that's how you would get this little circumnavigation around as the other object. You'd go a little bit below, a little in front, and a little above, and a little behind. Again, you're both still going around the Earth, but you get this relative motion over one orbital period.

So, where do I think guardians could be useful? Well, I think there's one possibility, and that's some sort of a countermeasures platform as shown on the next slide. Currently in the public source there's nothing talking about what this might be, but you can imagine some sort of space equivalent to flares and chaff. These are the aircraft, on the bottom right is a laser and also shown is an ECM pod used to confuse heat-seekers. You could imagine some sort of equivalent for space, where you've got an adversary co-orbital satellite and there are techniques to be able to make it difficult to track or be able to detect your target and hone in and approach it. Mounting this sort of stuff on a little CubeSat, very, very challenging. But I think that could be a possibility.

The next slide shows how I think space is going to look like. This is the Straits of Hormuz; these are all the ships moving in the Straits. 98% of these are harmless commercial travel. Some of them are not. Finding those pirates and finding those adversaries is an extraordinarily difficult challenge for the U.S. Navy. And this is where things like norms of behavior and traffic management rules come into play because they can help discriminate between the normal stuff you don't have to waste time on and the bad guys out of all this traffic.

The next slide makes the point again that the space zones can help support development of Rules of Engagement (ROE). Again, it's not going to be legally binding. You're never going to get a treaty on a zone. But I think it can help for the U.S. or for its allies to set up internal ROE on what we do with someone that comes close or breaches a zone.

And finally, the last point I'll make is I think we need to keep the military security discussion separate from the commercial servicing and RPO discussion. One of my hats is as the Executive Director of CONFERS, which is the Consortium for the Execution of Rendezvous and Servicing Operations. We've got 35 companies as members who are working on best practices and standards for commercial servicing. Their biggest concern is they're going to get lumped in with all the military stuff and all of their investment and insurance is going to evaporate. I think if we do have space traffic management, it has to be explicitly for commercial, civil activities, like air traffic, and the military stuff operates due regard. Yeah, most of the time they're going to follow the civil rules, but I don't think we should try and make civil space traffic management that applies to military space traffic. That's it.


Both of you are incredibly well-behaved. Round of applause on that front.

In an effort to change that. The next five minutes I think should be dedicated to explaining where you think you agree with the other fellow and where you don't. Because guess what, there is overlap! Anybody notice?...Oh well, I tried. Brian, why don't you go first.

Chow response:

Okay, so it's amazing, you know, I always consider Brian's description of facts as accurate and reliable. The interesting thing is we agree on all the facts, yet our conclusions are often opposite. That's why it makes the discussion very interesting. Now he said Chinese robotic spacecraft had never actually grabbed a space object, yet China is announcing to use such spacecraft for peaceful purposes in the next few years. When such a spacecraft is used to grab and disable our satellite, he said that it takes too long, say, 24 hours to do it. He also said that China would have better military effect by using hard kills, jamming and cyber, and that anybody with a right mind would not use robotic spacecraft. His assessments are all true, by the way. Except under the one situation - the opening of the war. Okay.

To pre-position for a proximity attack at the opening of war, China can do the preparation in peacetime. Let’s assume you are a US satellite and I am a Chinese satellite (uses person in the room for demonstration) I can get close to you during peacetime and it’s legal, which is a problem.

It takes 24 hours or even days for me to get close to you, but that is fine with me. As long as I get next to you, that’s job #1. Even if I get close to you, you can still feel safe – so long we didn’t touch. You would get accustomed to this proximity situation, if China is doing it all the time during peacetime. And then during crisis, I think I know what Chinese people are thinking, because I am Chinese.

So, the point is that if I want to take Taiwan. I don’t have to hit that many satellites at the opening of a war. Even the GPS system, 31 satellites, I don’t have to hit all 31, if I hit 4 or 5 of yours, I would create a hole in coverage in your constellation. As to early warning satellites, there are 6 of them. If I destroy a few, you would have a problem in getting timely warning all the time. Of course, When I get close, you could try to move away from me. But I have more fuel and can get close to you no matter how you try to move away. What can you do? You might not end up intervening in the Taiwan contingency because, with degraded satellite support, you do not want to fight a bloodier and longer war. For the Chinese, this is a perfect scenario. I don’t raise any war with you, yet you are not intervening. That is the problem that the United States is facing. I agree with him when the space war already started, robotic spacecraft are useless.
But using robotic spacecraft during opening of war is very useful.

While Brian said that military security and commercial servicing should be separate, I argue that’s our problem. For the last 60 years, what happened? Even in the United Nations, if you want to develop rules of the road in space for peaceful use, you go to the committees dealing with peaceful side. If you want military security, you go to arms control committees. They are two separate paths.

What I am talking about is straddling both. During peace time I am doing all these dangerous moves to get arbitrarily close to my prey and ready for a proximity attack. If peace law does not prevent my dangerous moves, I can take advantage of the law to set up for a proximity attack. I have too many things to say in 5 minutes. So, I hope we can talk more.

One more thing that is important about incentives or legality. I thought about that. If you want Chinese to agree to space zones and bodyguards now, any smart Chinese will not agree to it.

One thing I know for sure, he’s so influential. And he’s going international, talking to the Chinese…They love him. (laughter) This is very important. He is famous for soft power. However, soft power alone does not work here. The United States tried to introduce proximity zones two years ago, but do you know who vetoed it? Russia. All the guidelines and all these soft stuffs are important, but far from enough.

Chinese can have their cake and eat it too. They can pursue an STM and also threaten us with proximity threat. What I am trying to say is that the West is going to have the lion share of the global space market, and Russian and Chinese can’t keep up. What is the point? The point is that we should say “if you want to do business with the West, you have to follow space zones and bodyguards, that’s all. If you don’t want to do business, you don’t have to.” …. Therefore, that would give them incentives to join. With zones and bodyguards, they cannot get close to our satellites anyway, what else can they get? They might let us have bodyguards and zones so that, in return, they can share the Western space profits. Time (Laughter)

Weeden: I'm not sure if China likes me or not, I write an awful lot about what they are doing.

Chow: I am sure they love you a lot. (Laughter)

Weeden response:

We definitely agree this is a topic that needs to be talked about more. The difference again is in our prescriptions of the solutions. To go back to the keep out zones as a concept, something else to keep in mind is that in orbital mechanics distance doesn’t always matter that much. For example, in the GEO belt if I am 50, 100 or 500 KM away those are all effectively the same thing. It takes a little burn to lower or raise your orbit, you drift up and then you are there. With certain orbits that are close...the key issue is delta energy it not necessarily delta distance. Part of the problem with a keep out zone is “how do you set that distance in a way that is meaningful and is actually going to be a barrier. In the GEO belt, the distance of 50, 100, or 500 KM doesn’t make that much of a difference if you are trying to forestall an attack. I don’t think it is going to be helpful at all.

In my mind, the more helpful solution is what the thing we said we have been doing the last decade is resilience that’s the disaggregation, the constellations, having backups, etc. So that we are not relying on six satellites that took 15 years to build and 2 billion a piece that we can’t replace, we shift away from that architecture so if an adversary takes out a couple it’s not that big of a deal. To me, that is a much more effective response and counter than trying to find a way to protect these assets that I don’t think can be protected in a meaningful way.

One more point that Brian Chow alluded to is this discussion in the UN between 2010 and 2018 on long term sustainability guidelines.

I was part one of the Expert Groups that were discussing the debris part of it. We actually did bring up rendezvous and proximity ops in the beginning, but the agreement from everybody at that time was we don’t have enough evidence to know what the best practice is. Fast forward 3 years later, the Russians were like “hey we need to talk about this RPO stuff”, that was much more of an attempt by them to gum the whole thing up than it was a serious effort.

More broadly, Secure World Foundation has been doing a lot of work in the international world within the UN and elsewhere, and it is hard enough to get 98 countries of UN COPUOUS to agree on space debris, let alone some security military issue. We should do the same thing we did in the air world with the Chicago Convention for air traffic management, which says these traffic “rules” only apply to non-state aircraft and everything else operates with due regard. That is the model to address this if we are going to hope for any international progress

Chow: I think we should accept the Democrats’ debate rule. Whenever you mentioned my idea or my name, I have 45 seconds to respond. There are many things I want to say.

Sokolski: Get it over with, quickly!

Chow: Quickly, 50 KM – the thing is people are thinking about silver bullet, they want one thing to take care of all the threats. Ain’t such a thing. We don’t have it. In the meantime, we have multiple specific threats. For the robotic threat, if I can deal with 50 KM I can deal with 51, 52 and beyond. That’s point 1. As to resilience, that is a great idea, except that for some systems you don’t have resilience until 2030. I assume you agree to this vulnerability. Therefore, for these vulnerable systems that we still rely on in the 2020s, we need zones and bodyguards to protect them in the 2020s. We cannot just focus on resilience and other defenses for the 2030s.

Sokolski: Despite all your civility - people have questions….end of recording.

(Following the above discussion, working group participants made comments and asked the two discussants questions. A summary of these exchanges will appear in the forthcoming workshop report tentatively titled: Working Smarter with America’s Spacefaring Allies. Contact for further information.)


Space News

Op-ed | Real talk and real solutions to real space threats

by Brian Weeden — November 26, 2018

Just because Russia and China are building ASAT weapons does not mean ASAT weapons should be the cornerstone of America's response.

This op-ed originally appeared in the Nov. 12, 2018 issue of SpaceNews magazine.

It is difficult to read a story about national security space these days without hearing dire warnings about the ominous threats facing the United States in space and bold proclamations about purported solutions to address them. Unfortunately, while there are indeed real threats the United States faces in space, the political and public discourse about both the threats and solutions leaves much to be desired. Whether it’s due to political maneuvering, ideology, classification or technical complexity, important details and nuances are often glossed over or left out. This a huge problem, as it is critically important that we have a real understanding of the scope, degree, and diversity of the threats facing future use of space so that we can get the solutions to those threats right.

The space domain today is indeed a more complex and challenging environment than it has been for the past 20 years. The United States has successfully integrated space capabilities into its military operations, resulting in an unprecedented level of military power and effectiveness. At the same time, several countries are developing their own space and counterspace capabilities to both boost their own military power and undermine the military power of other countries, including the United States. Open source analyses of these developments were detailed earlier this year in reports by both Secure World Foundation and the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Yet the public rhetoric and discussion on these threats often leaves out or obscures important details. The existence of counterspace capabilities is not new; both the United States and Soviet Union developed, tested and deployed multiple destructive anti-satellite (ASAT) systems throughout the Cold War. The situation in space today is a more a return to that historical contested space domain than a uniquely new situation, and the destructive counterspace threats of today are also neither newly hatched nor yet operational. Russian and Chinese ASAT programs have been underway since the early 2000s, and their testing prompted the Obama administration to re-examine U.S. space posture in 2014. In February 2018, Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats testified that Russian and Chinese destructive ASAT weapons probably will reach initial operational capability in the next few years. Counterspace threats are also being conflated with hypersonics, despite the latter being a threat to ground installations and not satellites. Moreover, while destructive ASATs get the most media and political hype, it is non-destructive attacks such as jamming that are actually being used operationally in conflicts today and pose the most likely military threat.

The focus on counterspace threats also obscures the real and growing environmental threats to satellites. Talk to any satellite engineer or operator and they will tell you that space has never been a benign environment, and that it has only gotten more challenging in recent years. Day in and day out, avoiding potential collisions with space debris and resolving incidental radio-frequency interference are the biggest threats military, commercial, and civil satellite operators need to contend with, and those threats will only grow along with the rapid increase in the number of satellites being launched. It is more likely the United States will lose a critical satellite to a space debris impact or a space weather event than to a hostile attack, yet there is far more political attention being paid to — and money being spent on — the latter than the former.

Just as public rhetoric on the threats is often misleading, so is the rhetoric on the proposed solutions. Some commentators have lauded the Trump administration for recognizing that space is a “warfighting domain,” as if that was a massive change in U.S. policy. In reality, the tangible change is more about what the U.S. says publicly than a change in how the U.S. military approaches space. U.S. policy and doctrine has recognized space as a warfighting domain for almost as long as the United States has operated in space. Since the 1960s, the United States has had capabilities and plans for offensive and defensive space control and since at least 1985 the United States has had a combatant command with responsibility for developing and executing space warfighting doctrine. The U.S. military has been running wargames and exercises to prepare for, and hopefully avoid, conflict in space for nearly 20 years. At the same time, the United States has traditionally refrained from talking about space as a warfighting domain in public statements, because the geopolitical repercussions outweighed the rhetorical gains. It’s hard to see how this dynamic has changed and how the more aggressive rhetoric will help the U.S. position in the realm of public and international perception.

The debate over the so-called “Space Force” is another example of misleading rhetoric. Over the last two decades, there has been a discussion of how to most effectively organize U.S. national security space activities to address the changing domain. This discussion has been elevated by President Trump’s directive to create a “separate and equal” branch of the military for space. While many of the underlying problems with the current organizational framework are real and change is necessary, there seems to be a belief that making a structural change to a Space Corps, Space Force, or one of the other options solves the problem. It does not: the structural change only creates the opportunity to put in place the actual solutions. Organizational change on this scale is extremely difficult to get right; just look at the growing pains with the Department of Homeland Security, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, or the Joint Space Operations Center as examples. Even if the organizational transition is successful, it will still take years, if not decades after the new organization is in place to grow a professional space cadre, develop more resilient and defendable national security space capabilities, and create doctrine, tactics, techniques and procedures.

In September 1985, a U.S. Air Force pilot successfully launched an anti-satellite, or ASAT, missile from a highly modified F-15A jet fighter over Edwards Air Force Base, California. The ASM-135 missile scored a direct hit on a satellite orbiting nearly 550 kilometers above Earth. Credit: U.S. Air Force

The insistence by some pundits and government officials on new U.S. offensive counterspace weapons as “the” solution is also misplaced. Just because Russia and China are building ASAT weapons does not mean ASAT weapons should be the cornerstone of America’s response. Yes, it is likely that the United States will need offensive capabilities to counter an adversary’s space capabilities in a conflict scenario, but U.S. ASAT weapons are unlikely to mitigate counterspace threats to U.S. satellites. It is hard to imagine which Russian or Chinese satellites the United States could hold at risk to credibly deter an attack on critical American satellites. This is not a new conclusion — it is the same decision reached by the Ford and Carter administrations when they developed the policy for the ASM-135 air-launched ASAT in the mid-1970s.

Implementing all four pillars of the Trump administration’s 2018 National Space Strategy, which echoes the major elements of the Obama administration’s policy on these issues, is a much sounder approach. The four pillars include not only strengthening U.S. offensive and defensive capabilities but also transforming to more resilient space architectures that can deter attacks, improving the ability to defend against attacks, and enhancing the ability to reconstitute impaired capabilities. This transformation can happen through developing new U.S. space capabilities and better leveraging of commercial and allied space capabilities. However, implementation remains a major challenge. Resilience was also the core element of the Obama administration’s 2011 National Security Space Strategy, yet seven years later, it is difficult to find a concrete example of a space architecture becoming more resilient.

The 2018 National Space Strategy also emphasizes improving space situational awareness (SSA) — again echoing a key element of the Obama administration’s 2010 National Space Policy — by improving the ability to detect, attribute, and respond to environmental and hostile threats. The Trump administration’s recent Space Policy Directive 3 (SPD-3) on Space Traffic Management establishes a sound policy framework for making improvements in SSA, but again successful implementation is still an open question. SPD-3 leaves the U.S. military in control of the core satellite catalog, yet the military leadership has gone noticeably quiet on how it plans overcome a long string of unsuccessful attempts to modernize the computer systems that provide those SSA capabilities. Congress has also yet to implement the new authorities and allocate the resources necessary to implement the civil SSA role SPD-3 assigned to the Department of Commerce.

It is also critically important to keep in mind that we cannot solve the space threats problem through military might alone. As the United States has learned over the last 17 years of warfighting in Afghanistan and Iraq, overwhelming military dominance and superiority does not guarantee victory. War is the continuation of politics by other means, and thus there must also be a viable diplomatic solution to resolve the underlying political conflict. The political solution will need to take into account the other aspects of the changing space domain. It cannot be the same Cold War approach of symmetric balancing against one adversary because today there are multiple space actors with varying capabilities, goals and intentions. It must also consider the expanding commercial and civil uses of space and the complex web of strategic alliances and partnerships, which provide more opportunities for soft power but also complications for use of hard military power.

To this end, the 2018 National Space Strategy pillar of fostering conducive domestic and international environments is extremely important for dealing with space threats. The Trump administration is making good progress on continuing the work begun in the Obama administration on streamlining regulatory frameworks, policies, and processes to better leverage and support U.S. industry. Much more effort — and resources — need to be committed to pursuing bilateral and multilateral engagements to marshal cooperative threat responses. The United States needs to play a leadership role in not only the development of military might but also comprehensive political and diplomatic solutions to space threats. That will entail U.S. leadership in the establishment and promotion of a range of norms of behavior, best practices, and standards for safe operations in space to minimize the creation of space debris, help clarify threatening behaviors in space and enable the use of self-defensive measures to protect satellites from attack, and promote data sharing and coordination across space activities.

The space domain is changing and becoming more complex, and environmental and hostile threats to space capabilities are growing. It is essential that the United States take steps to put in place the organizational structures, policies, and strategies to deal with those threats. But it is critically important that we have a real understanding of the scope, degree, and diversity of the threats facing future use of space that sets the stage for an honest discussion about what steps will improve the situation and avoid making it worse. The United States, and the world, has too much to lose in space to get this wrong.

Brian Weeden is the director of program planning for the Secure World Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to the long-term sustainable use of space for benefits on Earth. He is a former U.S. Air Force officer, serves on the board of advisers for Canada Space Technologies and is a partner in Lquinox Consulting, LLC.

Space News

Op-Ed | Applying Weeden’s ‘Real Talk and Real Solutions’ to real space robotic threats

by Brian G. Chow — January 2, 2019

In this European Space Agency illustration, a satellite breaks up, adding to the growing population of orbital debris. Debris-clearing spacecraft the U.S., China and others have in the works could double as anti-satellite weapons. Credit: ESA

Brian Weeden’s Nov. 26 SpaceNews op-ed, “Real talk and real solutions to real space threats,” could finally transform the current conversation from talking past each other to exchanging alternative ideas to arrive at the best solution.

I wholeheartedly agree with his conclusion that “it is critically important that we have a real understanding of the scope, degree, and diversity of the threats facing future use of space that sets the stage for an honest discussion about what step will improve the situation and avoid making it worse. The United States, and the world, has too much to lose in space to get this wrong.”

Surely, to understand the diversity of the threats, we must first understand each specific type of threat before we can draw on the strengths of solutions to individual types for a grander strategy for all threats. Space robotic threats would be the ideal type for the first application of Weeden’s approach because they are urgent, and yet the various solutions being developed for robotic threats lack the benefits of cross-examination and cross-pollination.

China, Russia, the United States, European Union, and other countries will deploy supposedly peaceful robotic spacecraft by the early 2020s and forever thereafter. However, an adversary can re-task these dual-use robotic spacecraft to sidle up arbitrarily close to our critical satellites and, should they attack from such a close proximity, the United States would not have adequate warning to protect the target satellites. The incapacitation of such critical satellites would result in far bloodier and longer warfighting. Fearing this, the United States could be deterred from coming to the rescue of its allies, thus rendering the alliance system, and the foreign policy based on it, toothless and ineffective. On the other hand, if the United States proceeds to intervene, its adversary could effectuate a space Pearl Harbor.

At the outset, we must correct a wrong notion that bringing up robotic threats would raise doubts about the enormous benefits in the development and deployment of commercial robotic servicing spacecraft. Dual-use systems always have the dangerous side, which can be fixed if we do not ignore it. Thus, the goal is to confront and resolve these threats so as to ensure that robotic spacecraft have an undisrupted and bright commercial future.

In addition to having a real understanding of threats, I agree with Weeden on two other important points:

  • “The United States needs to play a leadership role in not only the development of military might but also comprehensive political and diplomatic solutions to space threats.” As Nobel Laureate Thomas Schelling and Morton Halpern have noted in their seminal study, “Strategy and Arms Control,” an efficient solution would need both “unilateral military strategy” and “arms control.” The military strategy consists of all unilateral measures, which can be carried out without the necessity of the consent of other countries. Arms control includes both multilateral legally-binding measures and voluntary measures. Examples of the former are treaties; examples of the latter are transparency and confidence-building measures (TCBM) and guidelines for the long term sustainability of outer space activities sponsored by the United Nations.
  • “Whether it’s due to political maneuvering, ideology, classification or technical complexity, important details and nuances are often glossed over or left out. This is a huge problem.” Indeed, diversity of ideology could make us pursue different solutions at the start. However, if we have a real understanding and honest discussion of different ideas and solutions including their important details and nuances, we can arrive at the best solution through compromise for the common good.

However, there are five areas needing further clarification from Weeden and others so as to arrive at the best solution to space robotic threats.

First, Weeden said that “the existence of counterspace capabilities is not new,” and “the situation in space today is a more a return to that historical contested space domain than a uniquely new situation, and the destructive counterspace threats of today are also neither newly hatched nor yet operational.” Indeed, counterspace capabilities such as ground-based direct-ascent anti-satellite weapons (ASATs) already exist, and robotic ASATs are not new in this sense. Yet, the truth of the matter is that, regardless of this robotic capability being old or new, the advances in unmanned rendezvous-and-proximity operations mark a quantum leap in a potent counterspace capability that can disable near-simultaneously an intolerable number of our critical satellites without usable warning at the opening of a war. Thus, this is a worrisome counterspace capability not previously seen. Now, in the eleventh hour, we still do not know what an effective strategy for dealing with these robotic threats looks like. With only a few more years to develop, equip and implement the strategy, the U.S. is in bad shape. The nation cannot let our guard down just because the robotic threats of today are not yet operational; rather, the U.S. must be ready to counter these threats, when they arrive. We must heed Weeden’s message and move full throttle toward real talk and real solutions to the robotic threats.

Second, Weeden noted that “while destructive ASATs get the most media and political hype, it is non-destructive attacks such as jamming that are actually being used operationally in conflicts today and pose the most likely military threat.” Unfortunately, space warfare is offense-dominant, and the U.S. needs to defend against all credible threats. Addressing the most likely military threat or threats is inadequate if a less likely threat is permitted to sneak through. Less likely does not mean unlikely. Along the same line, Weeden’s statement that “it is more likely the United States will lose a critical satellite to a space debris impact or a space weather event than to a hostile attack” also needs his explanation of why robotic threats are unlikely or how they can be countered.

Third, Weeden’s current op-ed, as well as his many other writings, focuses on multilateral legally binding measures and voluntary measures to preclude events that may compromise safety and security of other countries’ satellites during close-proximity space operations. I agree the United States “should proactively pursue both types of measures, because they can be highly beneficial. On the other hand, I presume that Weeden would agree that there is not enough time to arrive at a legally binding space arms-control measure that can deal with the robotic threats, when they arrive by the early 2020s. Also, the U.S. cannot count on its adversaries to observe voluntary restraints against threatening or attacking our critical satellites during a crisis or war, especially when their national interests differ from ours.

Fourth, Weeden considered that “the Trump administration’s 2018 National Space Strategy” “echoes the major elements of the Obama administration’s policy on these issues.” His observation seems to have missed Trump’s game changer in self-defense doctrine. All previous administrations including Obama’s were ambiguous whether the United States has the right to counter with self-defense before a space attack occurs. Instead, Trump declared in the National Space Strategy that “if deterrence fails,” the U.S. will “counter threats used by adversaries for hostile purposes.” Countering threats means the right to exercise self-defense when the threat is imminent but before the attack has occurred. As the U.S. is asymmetrically dependent on its satellites to project power over the horizon, it must counter threats before the attacks have a chance to destroy our critical satellites. Therefore, it is important to note that Trump’s doctrinal change makes the defense against robotic attacks more feasible.

Fifth, both Weeden and I likely agree that passive defenses, such as target satellites performing evasive maneuvering, satellite hardening, and using resilient architecture for new satellite constellations, are far less escalatory than active defenses such as bodyguard spacecraft to prevent robotic ASATs from reaching our critical satellites. However, these passive defenses are inadequate to protect vulnerable, large, expensive and few-in-number legacy satellites, which the U.S. will continue to rely on at least during the 2020s. I wonder what Weeden would think of the use of self-defense zones and bodyguard satellites or if there is a more effective solution he would recommend.

In sum, there are different solutions to space robotic threats being proposed. Yet, as Weeden keenly observes, the U.S. lacks a real understanding of these threats and an honest discussion about strengths and weaknesses of alternative solutions. Let all those who are developing solutions heed Weeden’s call to actions now so that we can still find the best real solution and be ready to address robotic threats by the early 2020s and beyond.

Brian Chow is an independent policy analyst and author of over 150 publications. His recent space-related articles appear in Strategic Studies Quarterly, SpaceNews, the National Interest, Defense One, Defense News and The Space Review. He can be reached at