Author | Editor: Popp, G. (NSI, Inc,).
This report summarizes the input of 15 insightful responses contributed by space experts from National Security Space, industry, academia, government, think tanks, and space law and policy communities. This input includes expert contributions from US voices as well as non-US voices from Australia, India, Italy, and the UK. While this summary response presents an overview of key subject matter expert contributor insights, the summary alone cannot fully convey the fine detail of the contributor inputs provided, each of which is worth reading in its entirety.
The consensus view among the expert contributors is that the United States is the international actor with the greatest strategic risk in the space domain.5 Contributors also identify several other international actors as having noteworthy levels of strategic risk in the space domain, albeit less than that of the United States. These actors include Russia, China, US allies, and nuclear powers, more generally.
Two consistent indicators of strategic risk in the space domain emerge across the contributors’ assessments and calculations of actors’ strategic risk:
The contributors generally align with Dr. Nancy Gallagher’s (Center for International Security Studies at Maryland) succinct assessment: The United States is the most capable space actor but also the most vulnerable. As the contributors from Harris Corporation reflect, the US has an “asymmetric advantage” in the space domain relative to other international actors, but it likely also has a correspondingly asymmetric level of strategic risk. Ultimately, Dr. Edythe Weeks’ (Webster University) ominous observation appears to ring true: “it’s frightening how much the US would be impacted by a space disruption.”
Marc Berkowitz (Lockheed Martin) articulates a point that is echoed throughout the expert contributions: “the United States faces the greatest strategic risk because [its] society, economy, and way of life rely or depend upon access to and use of the space domain.” Several contributors6 point to the United States’ significant dependence on space for critical national security, military, economic, and societal services and infrastructure as a paramount reason for classifying it as the international actor with the greatest strategic risk in the space domain. For example, Indian Air Force Group Captain (ret.) Ajey Lele (Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses) conveys this rationale in his assessment. His calculation of strategic risk focuses on “the strategic challenges that a nation-state is facing in space and the dependence of that nation-state on space assets,” which leads him to conclude that “the US [has] more challenges than any other country.”
This dependence on space, alone, however, does not make the US entirely unique—many international actors, including all nuclear powers,7 depend on space for critical capabilities and services. What differentiates the US is that its dependence on space and space activity appears to be a magnitude above every other actor,8 and this does not appear likely to change any time soon.9 Moreover, contributors remind us that “space and cyberspace are interconnected domains tied into the [United States’] critical infrastructures” (Berkowitz), and “70% of the technology used in the US [today]…derives directly or indirectly from space technology and services” (Rossettini). These two points illustrate the magnitude of the United States’ strategic dependence on the space domain, and support Berkowitz’s conclusion that “unimpeded access to and use of space…is a vital national interest and a center of gravity” for the United States. Clearly, as Berkowitz suggests, “the stakes in space for the US are enormous.”
Contributors also point to space domain vulnerability, particularly the susceptibility and exposure of US space assets to threats, as a paramount reason for classifying the US as the international actor with the greatest strategic risk in the space domain. Historically, the United States’ investment in the space domain has been unmatched; since the 1950s, the US has invested more money into space activities than other international actors, and has developed more space assets and infrastructure. This investment and the legacy systems that it created certainly helped to establish the US as the leading international space power. However, because many of these systems were built at a time in which self- defense was not a design priority for US space platforms, it also means, as Lele observes, that the US is dependent on “more vulnerable targets” than are many other actors. The result is asymmetric risk in many scenarios in which another actor may challenge or act aggressively toward US space assets. Focusing in on this element of vulnerability, Dr. Luca Rossettini (D-Orbit) proposes assessing strategic risk from the “perspective of potential impacts as a consequence of losing space assets.” From this perspective, he concludes that “the US is definitely the nation with the highest risk.” Undoubtedly, a serious threat and/or challenge to US space assets could have significant, far-reaching impacts on US capacity and capability across every operational domain.
Contributors also point to US allies, in general, as having noteworthy levels of strategic risk in the space domain. Ultimately, the United States’ space domain vulnerabilities extend to its allies who rely and depend on US space capabilities, systems, and information for critical national security, military, economic, and societal services and infrastructure in their own countries. Therefore, if the US has the greatest strategic risk in the space domain, then US allies likewise have significant strategic risk as well, Harris Corporation contributors argue. Weeks echoes this rationale. She points to Mexico in particular as having noteworthy strategic risk, maintaining that Mexico is “inextricably intertwined with the US (i.e., whatever affects the US, affects Mexico)” in all domains, including space.
Contributors also identify Russia10 and China11 as having significant strategic risk in the space domain, though less than that of the United States. This assessment holds whether considered from a dependence standpoint or a vulnerability standpoint. The contributors from Harris Corporation focus on the dependence on space assets and systems as a main indicator of strategic risk, assessing that, other than the US, “Russia has the most to lose today, but China is quickly approaching that level.” Evidence for this assessment comes from “look[ing] at the numbers of launches [and] the number of assets the Russians have in space versus what the Chinese have…and the amount of launches they’re doing per year,” which the Harris Corporation contributors suggest reveals that “China will quickly surpass Russia in capabilities at risk.” Rossettini considers Russian and Chinese space domain vulnerability, particularly exploring strategic risk from a “liability point of view.”12 From this liability-focused perspective, he assesses that Russia has significant strategic risk—likely even more so than the US, he suggests—and that Chinese strategic risk is growing as it increases its footprint in space.
China relies on space for critical national security, military, economic, and societal services and infrastructure. In fact, Dr. Krishna Sampigethaya (United Technologies Research Center) contends that China’s strategic risk in the space domain has already surpassed that of Russia. He explains that “among the rest of the world, China seems to exhibit [the] greatest strategic interest in space. It is viewed as a means to gaining prestige of space exploration and enhancing national security. China is also relying on their aerospace sector as a catalyst for a flattening economy.” All of this, plus what Sampigethaya describes as recent Chinese interest and investment in cyber advances in the space domain, epitomize “an ambitious space strategy” that will seemingly only continue to increase China’s strategic dependence on space in the years to come.
Several contributors reflect concern with the basic premise underlying the second part of this report’s question of focus: What affordable non-space alternatives are there to mitigate or avoid that strategic risk? Broadly, their concerns can be grouped into three schools of thought:
Despite these general concerns, the contributors do highlight non-space alternatives for mitigating or avoiding strategic risk in the space domain, with two general classifications of activities emerging: diplomatic activities and terrestrial alternatives.
Major General (USAF ret.) James Armor (Orbital ATK) presents the thinking that, “to a large extent, there are no non-space alternatives any more than there are non-cyber, non-air, non-sea, or non-terrestrial risks. Western civilization depends on all these modes.” He suggests, therefore, that “most answers [to this question] will probably be to ‘robust up’ space systems themselves, not look for non-space alternatives.”
Conversely, Berkowitz highlights the viewpoint that “terrestrial alternatives exist for nearly all space force enhancement missions”—though he does stress that “the US conducts missions in space because it is more efficient and effective, particularly on a global basis, to do so compared to non-space alternatives.” He raises concern with the general applicability and affordability of non-space, terrestrial alternatives, however, arguing that: “the affordability of such terrestrial backups is another question. Such cross-domain alternatives only provide local solutions [and] they are very expensive to scale to provide comparable regional or global capabilities.” Berkowitz also cautions that “shifting [US] reliance to terrestrial alternatives simply trades the threats and hazards from the space domain for those in the terrestrial domains.” This leads him to conclude that, “while it is prudent to provide for multi-domain cross-strapping of essential mission capabilities,” military challenges such as anti-access and area-denial “will not make terrestrial alternatives more prudent solutions than mitigating the vulnerabilities of space assets.”
Dr. John Karpiscak III (United States Army Geospatial Center) believes that “there are all kinds of affordable non-space alternatives.” However, he offers the perspective that space actors that are already heavily invested in space and space systems, such as the US, are often too entrenched in, or committed to, their existing mechanisms to change or “adapt as readily as new technology makes their established mechanisms useless or more cumbersome to deal with.” This, he argues, increases vulnerability, and could lead to a situation in which actors that are less heavily invested in space or space systems are able to exploit weaknesses or gaps in those older systems. These actors have nothing to lose by exploiting new, rapidly evolving, and potentially competitively advantageous technologies, he contends.
Diplomacy is the most frequently cited affordable non-space alternative for mitigating strategic risk in the space domain. Simply put, “the United States stands to gain far more by working cooperatively with other countries to work out rules that are seen as equitable and mutually beneficial than it does from trying to gain short-term competitive advantages in space,” Gallagher argues. Weeks similarly imagines “a new vision of the US inviting everyone to the outer space development table [as] an alternative to mitigate or avoid that strategic risk.” Underscoring the affordability and ease of such a diplomatic initiative, she points out that “there are numerous mechanisms already in place that can be capitalized on.” Rossettini echoes this sentiment, firmly asserting his belief that “the best and cheapest way to prevent national security threats from or in space is” by working to develop “a clear set of rules for the use of space.” From a US point of view, he believes this diplomatic initiative would be most effective if implemented while involving “Europe as [an] ally and partner to motivate UN members to adopt” the resulting framework. Likewise, Theresa Hitchens (Center for International and Security Studies at Maryland) reminds us that “diplomacy is a tool that should not be forgotten,” and Armor maintains that “treaties, conventions, UN discussions, norms of behavior, ‘trust-but-verify’ monitoring, etc. all can reduce risk” in the space domain. Ultimately, the contributors generally align with the ViaSat, Inc. contributors’ simple and clear assertion: “The US and international actors have more to gain from space than from the loss of space.” As Brett Biddington (Biddington Research Pty Ltd) emphatically warns, “ultimately, all of us stand to lose if we muck up the space environment more than we already have.”
Contributors also identify several other non-space, terrestrial alternatives for mitigating or avoiding strategic risk in the space domain. However, the affordability of such alternatives, in some cases, raises questions. Hitchens contends that determining affordable non-space alternatives for mitigating or avoiding strategic risk in the space domain depends on the country in question, and its assets and terrain. She posits, however, that some space domain missions could be offloaded to air assets or fiber assets, though she warns that this would likely be a difficult initiative. Berkowitz maintains that “terrestrial alternatives exist for nearly all space force enhancement missions: launch detection and missile warning; battlespace awareness; intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR); command, control, and communications; positioning, navigation, and timing (PNT); and weather and environmental monitoring to mitigate the risk of denial or loss of space mission capability.”
More specifically, he suggests that pseudo-satellites could be an appropriate non-space, terrestrial alternative for PNT satellites, while airborne platforms could represent the same for launch detection, battlespace awareness, ISR, and weather and environmental monitoring satellites. However, he raises caution about the affordability of such terrestrial backups. Rossettini, like Berkowitz, identifies non- space, terrestrial alternatives for mitigating strategic risk, with the caveat that they are not necessarily financially affordable. In particular, he suggests ground infrastructure, for mitigating a lack of space asset services delivered, and defense infrastructure (i.e. antisatellite systems), for mitigating threats rapidly passing from space into the US fly zone.
Sampigethaya articulates a belief that the “US needs to explore non-space alternatives (i.e., air, land, and sea-based) to eliminate strategic risks for surveillance, reconnaissance, communications, navigation, timing synchronization, indications, and warning (SRCNTIW) capabilities.” More specifically, he suggests that alternate positioning, navigation, and timing (APNT) capabilities could help to mitigate risk relating to GPS-denied air traffic control environments. He also offers what he envisions as an interesting strategic direction: “air-based infrastructure composed of mobile platforms at different elevations—such as high- altitude balloons and autonomous unmanned aerial system vehicles—that enable a multi- layered cyber-physical system with SRCNTIW capabilities and defends against threats to and from space.”
Sampigethaya further suggests looking toward the cyber domain for non-space, terrestrial alternatives to mitigate strategic risk, contending that “recent cyberspace advances, such as data analytics, machine learning, and artificial intelligence, can efficiently enable effective situational awareness and decision making for [the] space domain.” Karpiscak III echoes similar thinking, suggesting that there are “things that the [US] government definitely could do better, particularly with regards to software development and the adoption of commercial standards to a greater extent.”
Overall, the consensus view among the expert contributors is that the United States is the international actor with the greatest strategic risk in the space domain. The United States’ dependence on space and space domain vulnerability are the primary factors cited to explain its unmatched strategic risk. Other international actors such as Russia, China, US allies, and nuclear powers in general are also highlighted by the contributors as having noteworthy levels of strategic risk in the space domain, albeit less than that of the United States.
Diplomatic activities are the most frequently cited affordable non-space alternative for mitigating strategic risk in the space domain by the contributors. Several other non-space, terrestrial alternatives for mitigating strategic risk in the space domain are also identified, but the affordability and applicability of such alternatives is not always as clear.
Major General (USAF ret.) James Armor2 (Orbital ATK); Marc Berkowitz (Lockheed Martin); Brett Biddington (Biddington Research Pty Ltd, Australia); Faulconer Consulting Group; Dr. Nancy Gallagher (Center for International and Security Studies at Maryland, University of Maryland); Gilmour Space Technologies, Australia; Harris Corporation; Theresa Hitchens (Center for International and Security Studies at Maryland, University of Maryland); Dr. John Karpiscak III (United States Army Geospatial Center); Group Captain (Indian Air Force ret.) Ajey Lele3 (Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, India); Dr. Luca Rossettini (D-Orbit, Italy); Dr. Krishna Sampigethaya4 (United Technologies Research Center); ViaSat, Inc.; Dr. Edythe Weeks (Webster University); Joanne Wheeler (Bird and Bird, UK)