A Falcon 9 SpaceX rocket lifts off from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station Complex 40 launch pad as seen through a time exposure in Cape Canaveral, Fla., Tuesday, Aug. 7, 2018.

A Falcon 9 SpaceX rocket lifts off from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station Complex 40 launch pad as seen through a time exposure in Cape Canaveral, Fla., Tuesday, Aug. 7, 2018. AP Photo/John Raoux

Do We Need a Space Force? That Depends on Our Answers to These Legal and Strategic Questions

The first question that we need to clarify is whether the U.S. and its future peer adversaries are willing to fight a war in space.

CNAS’s Paul Scharre and Adam Routh kicked off an interesting bout on Defense One, with each publishing an article on August 1 highlighting different views on whether the new Space Force is a good idea or a bad one. To quickly recap the discussion so far:

The current plan for reorganizing the Pentagon’s space acquisition efforts and operations  U.S. consists of four components: (1) forming a new combatant command, (2) pulling together a new warfighting community for space operations from all the other service branches, (3) creating a new joint agency to procure satellites for the military, and if everything goes well, ask Congress to (4) stand up “an entirely new branch of the military with services and support functions such as financial management and facilities construction.” While Paul and Adam primarily argued around the third point, their conclusions have repercussion far beyond this single item.

Paul exclusively focused on the non-defensibility of U.S. space-based assets by positing that their orbits are predictable, their mobility is limited, and hardening will be both difficult and costly, which makes them extremely vulnerable to kinetic and non-kinetic strikes. Paul therefore concluded that the Pentagon should focus on global C4ISR and precision-navigation-and-timing—primarily relying on terrestrial assets – to increase overall resilience by preparing for a fight without relying on the space domain.

Adam, meanwhile, reasoned that the future of space procurement will gradually solve the vulnerability problem through the increased commercialization of space. Essentially, U.S. private industries are bound to churn out more and better space-based assets which the Space Force could then simply hop onto. Adam therefore predicts that this innovation and growth development will skew the cost equation in favor of cheaper satellite acquisition and improved resilience over anti-satellite weaponry.

Related: The US Military Should Not Be Doubling Down on Space

Related: The US Military Should Be Doubling Down on Space

While I do not fundamentally disagree with either Paul or Adam, I would assert that they are both putting the cart before the horse. And here is why:

Between 1996 and 1998, RAND’s Arroyo Center in cooperation with the Training and Doctrine Command ran a series of high-level wargames in the context of the Army After Next project, which was initiated by the Chief of Staff of the Army. The point of the project was to help senior Army leaders anticipate how changes in international relations, technology, and organization might affect combat during the first quarter of the new century. The Winter Wargame, or WWG, particularly focused on “identifying and exploring “major issues associated with warfare in the 2020 time frame” by simulating a blue-red standoff over Ukraine that included combat operations in space and even elements of cyberwarfare.

In their summary report, RAND’s Walter L. Perry and Marc Dean Millot made several crucial observations for both space operations and conflict dynamics in space that seem to have been lost to the sands of time. Overall, the WWG raised the “important issue of U.S. dependence on space-based assets, but it did not necessarily prove that the United States will be overreliant on them – even in a war with a near competitor.” Walter and Marc therefore concluded that because of the nature of vulnerabilities in space, the U.S. will need to “determine the mix of arms control measures, passive defensives, and offensive systems that best serves U.S. interest in space in 2020.”

A deeper dive on the issue of combat operations in space, however, reveals that it is not necessarily about whether the U.S. needs to do something different in space (Adam’s argument) or move assets out of space (Paul’s argument), but that the fundamental struggles will primarily revolve around legal and strategic issues.

On the legal end, the WWG threw up two question that remain unanswered 21 years later. First, do attacks against U.S. space assets equate to an attack on U.S. territory? In the wargame, Blue’s declaratory policy clearly indicated that an attack on a U.S. satellite would lead to the triggering of NATO’s Article 5. In practice however, Blue refrained from striking targets in Red’s homeland, because it did not consider an attack on its satellites similar to an attack on Vandenberg Air Force Base or a U.S. city. The second legal problem occurred when Blue decided to use U.S. commercial satellites for military operations. This led to the question: what should the U.S. policy be toward the use of private, foreign, and international space assets in times of war? The report explained that Blue’s decision to essentially nationalize private Blue space assets, including satellites and their ground control, would have had to have been in place prior to 2020 and “would require difficult political and economic decisions.” Blue could also not decide the status of communication satellites owned by foreign entities and international bodies, and how they could be denied to Red. This unresolved issue eventually prompted Blue to attack and destroy a satellite maintained by the non-belligerent Green nation, which had maneuvered its intelligence satellites for the specific purpose of assisting Red targeting of Blue forces.

Unless and until these questions are answered, the U.S. risks going down the wrong course with its proposed space reorganizations.

On the strategic end, the WWG also revealed stark discrepancies about actually starting combat operations against space-based assets. Red clearly identified Blue’s reliance on space assets as an Achilles heel – due to Red’s lesser dependence on space assets and its vast array of space weaponry – but was still unwilling to start combat operations in space because the team concluded that the wargame scenario did not warrant such extreme hostilities. Only after the game director ordered Red to go to war did combat operations in space commence. Blue subsequently suffered a “Pearl Harbor in space that set the United States back to 1960,” and Red essentially won the war — at least according to the wargame’s rules. But in the real world, the kind of attack Red executed would set in motion a chain of events leading to intercontinental nuclear war and the destruction of Red’s society. Walter and Marc therefore asked: “What, short of an American threat to absolutely vital interests, could warrant such a risk?”

For the discussion between Paul and Adam, this essentially comes down to strategic clarity on this point: what is the Space Force supposed to be preparing for? A limited conflict in which space-based assets are targeted to temporarily deny or degrade U.S. communications systems. Or are we talking about a high-end conflict with a peer competitor that will be fought across all domains until one side is forced to surrender? If it is the former, then the threat to U.S. satellite infrastructure is minimal. If it is the latter, then any C4ISR and PNT assets will be targeted with counter-measures and even U.S. and allied commercial satellites will not escape destruction.

The bottom line is this: Rather than arguing about what the Space Force ought to be doing in relation to satellite acquisition, the first question that we need to clarify is whether the U.S. and its future peer adversaries are willing to fight a war in space. If the answer is yes, then we have to outline what winning actually looks like, how many international laws Washington is willing to bend to get where it wants, and what terrestrial and space-based assets the Defense Department would need to deploy to secure and maintain dominance in space. If the answer is no, then international law pertaining to space ought to be strengthened and refined, arms-control measures improved, and the space domain recognized as what it is: “an important supporting role, but ultimately only a supporting one” in terrestrial warfare.