Author | Editor: Popp, G. (NSI, Inc.)
Over the past year, the Strategic Multilayer Assessment (SMA)2 team employed NSI’s Virtual Think Tank (ViTTa®) methodology to reach out to a global network of space subject matter experts (SMEs) from across academia, industry, government, and national security space to elicit expert insight on 23 key questions relating to contested space operations.3 Responses were received from over 111 experts from institutions in the US, Australia, Belgium, Canada, France, India, Israel, Italy, Japan, Netherlands, Norway, Singapore, Switzerland, and the UK. These written and telephone interview responses were compiled into a robust corpus of expert insights that provided the foundation for Space ViTTa summary reports, which were produced for each of the 23 questions. The Space ViTTa summary reports each contain two sections: 1) a summary response to the question asked and 2) the full corpus of expert contributor responses received for the question. This report highlights some of the themes and findings that emerge from the Space ViTTa initiative. An abstract of each of the Space ViTTa reports follows the summary overview below. Of course, neither the summary overview nor the report abstracts can fully convey the finer detail of the full Space ViTTa reports and contributor responses, each of which is worth reading in its entirety.
23 Space ViTTa questions can be broadly categorized into four areas of focus: ally, adversary, and partner use of space; commercial use of space; national security and space; and space law and norms. Throughout nearly all of the contributor responses across each of these categories of questions, a central theme emerges clearly: Space is a domain that is evolving rapidly, and US initiatives, planning, and operations for space require particularly close consideration and attention as a result. Contributors emphasize the vital importance of the US government (USG) deciding how it wants to approach and manage US interests in this rapidly changing domain. Failing to establish a clear and coordinated set of national security and commercial space objectives now will put the United States’ decades-old strategic advantage in space at risk in the future. In short, the need for a serious effort to develop a clear and adaptive strategy for achieving US national objectives given a rapidly changing operational environment in space cannot be overstated. The implications of this theme for US space interests and activities across all four of our categories of questions are discussed below.
A key aspect of the rapid evolution of the space domain is the increase in the number and types of actors operating in space. New actors, both state and non-state actors, are entering the space domain in a variety of capacities, from fully-capable space-farers to launch service providers and owners of small satellites. For many of these actors, space domain activities are viewed as sources of national pride and international prestige, as well as economic opportunity. It is not surprising, therefore, that the contributors expect these space actors (whether state or non-state actors, whether well-established or new players in space, etc.) to continue to actively pursue and expand space interests and opportunities into the foreseeable future.
In one sense, more actors operating in the space domain presents new and potentially fruitful opportunities for collaboration and cooperation. Several contributors detail space as a domain in which there is considerable cooperation, both between states and between public and private sectors. This cooperation offers states with fewer resources the potential to quickly and cheaply gain access to space technologies and space-based information and services. Contributors suggest that there is great opportunity for the US to take advantage of its strength in the space domain to expand existing relationships with ally and partner nations. Time is of the essence, however, because other states, notably China and Russia, are already moving ahead with partnerships and developing regulatory environments to attract commercial space actors. China, in particular, appears to be committed to building new partnerships in the space domain. Chinese activity here appears to be particularly robust— China is currently working with developing nations to provide space services to those with little independent space capability, as well as with the European Space Agency and individual European states.
In another sense, more actors operating in the space domain brings with it increased risk and potential threats to US security and economic interests, as well as to US infrastructure in space. Moreover, an increasing number of threats in space increases the opportunity for contestation or conflict, whether the result of unintended activities (i.e., an accident) or intentional attack. Contributors agree that the impact of a warfighting event in space would be historic, and would have no comparable precedent. Planning and preparing for increasing risk and potential threats, therefore, is essential, as the immense consequence of a space conflict cannot be overstated.
US, Russian, and Chinese space domain operations over the past decade demonstrate that space is integral to the national security and defense interests of each country.5 The contributors suggest, however, that other countries, including some that have traditionally conceived of space as a non- military domain, are increasingly starting to demonstrate similar thinking to that of the US, Russia, and China. Contributors cite growing interest in dual-use space technologies and capabilities among space actors across Europe, Asia, and the Middle East as evidence of this shift in thinking. This increasing interest in the national security applications of dual-use aspects of space technologies amongst these states, according to contributors, can be attributed in part to perceptions of instability in their surrounding regions. This is an insight that should not be overlooked. A scenario in which terrestrial instability spreads to a space environment in which a large number of actors consider space as integral to their national security and defense could be prone to rapid and unintended escalation, posing serious threats to US space interests.
The contributors clearly detail a rapidly expanding and evolving role of commercial actors in the space domain. They caution, though, that it is important to recognize that commercial actors do not have the same interests or objectives in space as those of government and military actors, nor do government and commercial actors always think about security in the same ways. Companies are ultimately focused on the health and success of their business ventures (their key interest), while the US national security community is focused on security and defense and preparing for a conflict or a kinetic attack in space. Contributors from the commercial realm stress that it is imperative that the USG recognizes this difference in thinking, particularly as it continues to expand its reliance on commercial space capabilities for national security purposes. Ensuring that commercial and government actors have a shared understanding of fundamental concepts, such as security, will be critical to avoiding costly misunderstandings and miscommunication. Ultimately, the consensus view among the contributors is that a successful and sustained government-commercial relationship in the space domain is as essential for US national security goals as it is for commercial profits. This, however, will require overcoming the present barriers to cooperation between the commercial space community and US civil and national security space community, namely the barriers posed by undue government red tape, cultural differences between the two communities, and impediments wrought by the bureaucratic organization and structure of the USG.
The contributors highlight several national security implications stemming from the rapid evolution of the space domain. First, most contributors agree that increasing levels of overall investment in space by both government and commercial actors may enhance space security by providing a disincentive for kinetic military action.6 This is especially true, contributors suggest, if those investments come in the form of public-private partnerships. Almost every contributor who believes that increased spending disincentivizes kinetic military action argues that regardless of whether the source of the spending is commercial or government, the disincentive to kinetic action would be the same. The few contributors who deviate from this view, however, present concerns about the potential for wasteful spending, adversaries that are less invested in the space domain, increasing the number of targets for the US to defend, and political conflict over the rules of the road governing space cooperation.
Contributors also point out that rapid developments in the space domain present new and significant opportunities for USG collaboration7 to enhance resilience, most notably in the form of leveraging information (collection and analysis) and launch (infrastructure, vehicles, and services) capabilities.8 However, as mentioned earlier, more actors operating in space with broadening technological capabilities means more potential threats to USG space interests and infrastructure. The salience of this point is evident when we consider the implications of rapid innovation in space launch. Contributors agree that wide-ranging national security challenges will arise from decreased launch costs that enable a broader array of actors to deliver a wider variety of payloads into space—some of which will inevitably add to the amount of junk in space. They also indicate that changing commercial launch technology alters the monetary costs of the types and timing of deliverables national space programs can produce. These potential transformations of national space programs have significant effects on military procurement patterns, environmental destruction, informational supply chains, and military space operations.
There is noticeable variation in how the contributors envision non-government space actors operating relative to US security interests in the future (i.e., as disruptors or solid partners for national security). Those who currently work in commercial space tend to foresee commercial entities serving as solid partners of the government, whereas those from think tanks and the US national security space community largely view commercial actors as potential disruptors to US security interests. The majority response in fact is that commercial entities might serve as both disruptors and partners. It appears that “disruption” is considered a necessary part of the development of space capabilities and activities. Commercial actors have organizational advantages with respect to innovation that are likely to better enable them to be the dominant innovators in the space domain in the medium- to long-term. The effect this will have on US national security operations involving space will be determined largely by how the USG deals with these changes. Most contributors acknowledge that there are significant potential security benefits to be gained by partnering with commercial actors. At the same time, however, encouraging the growth of the commercial space sector and relying on its capabilities and services reduces the USG’s level of direct control. Regardless, the USG may not have much option—commercial space actors are here, and their relative capabilities are growing. Moreover, if the USG attempts to limit or control commercial activities to the point that space companies cannot meet their objectives, there is nothing preventing these companies from relocating to another, more favorable business environment. This would diminish USG influence within the commercial space sector, and could position commercial space actors to disrupt US security interests.
The contributors generally do not view the existing legal regime in space (i.e., current international agreements, treaties, and conventions governing the use of space) to be either overly burdensome or restrictive on US space operations. However, despite overwhelming support for foundational agreements such as the Outer Space Treaty (OST),9 most contributors see existing space law and norms as insufficient to manage the rapidly evolving nature of space activities and the range of potential threats these activities may present. As space becomes more crowded, the risk of accidental or intentional harm to an actor’s assets increases. As space capabilities become more critical to actors’ national security, economic, and social well-being, the cost of losing those assets also increases. As a number of contributors note, these conditions create a collective action problem that further refinement of international norms and regulation could help mitigate. With that said, however, most contributors do not think that amending or replacing the OST is either necessary or advisable. Contributors are clear in their warning that opening up the possibility of amending the OST would likely trigger a long and uncontrollable process of negotiation that in itself would create uncertainty and undermine the legitimacy of the OST. Furthermore, there is no guarantee that the final treaty would work as well as, let alone any better than, the current one.
The contributors generally agree on the need to develop norms by way of both informal and formal channels in order to maintain a peaceful space domain. At the same time, however, contributors point out that an increase of diverse actors (global powers, countries recently entering the space domain, commercial actors) with diverse interests (domination, deterrence, profit) increases the difficulty of developing shared norms, since norms by definition imply shared values. Given the historic difficulty in achieving effective formal agreements, several contributors share a hope that less formal norms might be an option for regulating a responsible use of space. Overall, however, contributors often fall back upon discussion of the value of formal agreements, exhibiting a bias toward formal rules given their explicitness. In doing so, these contributors largely also stress the need for measurable verification of how space is being used by actors, both to mark norm violations and to support guidelines set forth in formal agreements.