(Outer) Space: An Exploration of Definitional Issues

December 2017 No Comments

[Q1] Are there any contentious space terms or definitions, or are there any noticeable disagreements amongst space communities about appropriate terminologies and/or appropriate definitions for terms? What are the common understandings and uses of space-related terms, definitions, classes and typologies of infrastructure and access? For example, how do we define different classes of space users (e.g., true space-faring states, users of space technology)? A Virtual Think Tank (ViTTa)® Report.

Author | Editor: S. Pagano (NSI, Inc,).

Summary Response

Operationalizing or defining terms is an important first step to understanding concepts, including their boundaries and how they are distinguished from other, potentially related ideas. Similarly, clarity in communication is an essential condition for ensuring that the message or information that is transmitted is as close as possible to what is received. Within the DoD, definitions matter because they are a necessary component for the establishment and application of doctrine. Given the breadth of the space field as a whole, establishing precise definitions may become an even more pressing task, as coordination is sought over a broad base of space sub-communities (e.g., national security space, civil space, and commercial). Each field as a whole and each sub-domain within it naturally has its own terminology, which tends to evolve over time. To best advance coordination within and across the various US and allied space communities, we must be capable of fruitfully combining the work that is being done in various commands, DoD offices, and other agencies and organizations. This can be best achieved when we identify those terms for which precise definitions are required in order to move forward. Doing so also enables the US to avoid any unintended responses from our adversaries. This coordination begins by getting a broad view of the terminological landscape and any terms for which there is current contention.

Drawing on a wide variety of space expert opinions, we identified three different ways in which terms could be contentious. These include: 1) explicitly acknowledged contention, disagreement, or variation in terminology (inherent contention), 2) contention that was not explicitly acknowledged by respondents but discovered through comparison across contributors’ definitions and commentary (emergent contention), and 3) ambiguous terms, which make contention more likely (potential contention). We refer to these different forms of contention collectively as “contentious space terminology.” This assessment is accompanied by an examination of how membership in a given community of space professionals— government, commercial, and analysts4—relates to the kinds of space terms thought to be in contention.

These terminological issues are not necessarily only epistemological in nature, but instead can have important implications for the space field. While not every term in contention will have an obvious or detrimental effect on the ability of the US to operate in or maintain security in space, other terms in contention—such as “space weapons”—may prove problematic for long-term US security interests. As Michael Sherry of the National Air and Space Intelligence Center notes, “Due to the confusion in terminology and misalignment with DoD regular terminology, we have found it difficult in the space community to build systems clearly aligned to a mission.” As such, this report provides a deeper exploration of a set of space terms whose contention may present major security concerns for the US.

Do experts perceive that there is contention in space terminology?

The original question posed began with the assumption that there are common space terms used by different communities of space professionals. To address this, we began by first examining whether there is commonality or variation overall in the terminology that is used, and whether variation occurs as a function of our experts’ professional affiliations.

The majority of subject matter experts (67% overall) indicated directly or indirectly that there is space terminology that is either inherently or potentially contentious. Those working in an analytic capacity (69%)6 or in the commercial domain (69%) more frequently indicated that there is contentious terminology than did subject matter experts working in government. As Colonel David Miller of the US Air Force indicated, “We have tried to come around to using DoD Joint Doctrine as the basis for our terminology, and I think within the Defense Department, we’re pretty good there.” Despite this organizing doctrine, 56% of government respondents (who tended to focus on security) nonetheless indicated that there is contentious space terminology.

Among the current contributors, the most frequent issue contributing to terminology being contentious is its inconsistent use—both across the national security and commercial sectors and within each of these sectors. The variation in use of space terms within the USG is not really surprising given that, as Major General (USAF ret.) James Armor7 of Orbital ATK indicates, the US emphasizes the separation of space into civil (e.g., NASA, NOAA, and USGS) and national security space (e.g., NRO, DARPA, Services) sectors—sub- communities that we might expect would utilize terminology in different ways. On the other hand, Dr. John Karpiscak III of the Army Geospatial Center suggests that differences in the application of a given term could be due to the differences between military branches that primarily ‘own’ versus those who most actively use assets in space (such as the Air Force and the Army). Those working outside of government also observed some variation in the use of terms within the DoD. Referencing Joint Publications and the US Space Policy, Marc Berkowitz of Lockheed Martin noted that,

  • the most authoritative DoD documents defining the US national security space lexicon (DoDD 3100.10, Space Policy, JP 1-02, Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms, and JP 3-14, Space Operations) frequently have been inconsistent over the past few decades. Even the definitions of the basic defense space missions have changed frequently.

Ultimately, we cannot assume that everyone—even within a given sub-community working on space—is using the same set of definitions or has the same perspective on space issues given the segmentation inherent to the organization of the US space enterprise, as well as the variation in expertise, topical focus, and concerns of the diverse US space communities.8 This is problematic because it can impede the application of military doctrine, as implied by Sherry’s comments. Moreover, it can potentially hinder collaboration between the US and its prospective allied or commercial partners, leading to inefficiencies.

Contributors in fact offered several specific examples of terms that are contentious. These inputs address both inherent and potential forms of definitional contention, as described above. Additionally, several terms demonstrated emergent contention when variation was observed across the breadth of space expert contributors. To provide an overview of findings, all contentious terms are captured in the table at the end of this summary response. As can be seen from the table, contentious space terms related to security are most numerous, though contention also arises in other instances, such as legal/regulatory. Not all of these terms are necessarily problematic, however. This report thus will focus on examining two terms whose contention has particularly significant implications for national security.

When do contentious terms become problematic?

In many cases, contentious terminology may not matter—or ambiguity may even be desirable

A small minority of experts indicated that variations in terminology simply may not matter. In general, these contributors argued that any discrepancies that might occur could be easily overcome with communication. In addition, some operations may not require precise definitions of terms and/or individuals can resolve or work around them if necessary. Terminological ambiguity might even be desirable as it preserves options, and has, as several current contributors note, been useful to the US in the past when it comes to space issues. Moreover, David Koplow of Georgetown University suggests that attempting to achieve terminological consistency across national lines, public and private lines, and among different space sectors may be misguided; instead, he argues, the focus should be on clearly indicating how terms are being used when they come up, with the understanding that others may use or interpret these terms differently. Though this is likely to be true in many cases—and in particular when working within the US space community or operating alongside allies with whom we would expect this type of coordination—in other cases, it may not be sufficient to wait until an event (e.g., an ASAT test) invokes a potentially related concept (e.g., space weapons) over which different parties may have varying viewpoints.

In other cases, the stakes are high: space weapons and armed attacks

Broadly speaking, contentious terms become problematic when they have the potential to negatively affect the US and its security and other interests. At the more benign end of this spectrum, contentious terminology can lead to inefficiencies and impede collaboration, as noted above. However, at the other end of the spectrum, the stakes are higher, as contentious terminology can lead to misperception of US capabilities or actions among our adversaries, with unintended downstream consequences including escalation and retaliation. There is also the possibility that the US itself will miss or misinterpret its adversaries’ intentions.

To illustrate how this might be so, this report focuses on two examples9 of terminology identified as being contentious—one of which can be broadly categorized as a capability or object (space weapons) and the other which can be categorized as an action (armed attack).

In her discussion of space weapons, Victoria Samson of the Secure World Foundation provides an example of when definitional contention can become important: “…when you talk about security issues, of course the concept of what is a space weapon comes up all the time. The way it could be defined, it could be defined so generally that everything is a space weapon or so strictly that nothing is a space weapon.” This matters because, in the absence of a clearly specified and commonly agreed upon definition, different states may perceive the same capability or object in very different ways based on the way that they are defining a space weapon.

This subjective interpretation contributes to a cognitive bias known as naïve realism—the belief that our perception of the world is the true or correct perception of the world,11 and that others must necessarily see things in the same way (Jones & Nisbett, 1987; Robinson, Keltner, Ward, & Ross, 1995; Ross & Ward, 1996).12 Where one state sees a benign use of a capability, another can see a looming threat—and infer that the other side must therefore intend that threat. The wide application of dual-use space technology13 makes inferring intent from capabilities alone particularly difficult. Unlike the US space sector, in most other states, the private and public space sectors have more permeable—or no—boundaries at all, and neither are there separate civil and military government space sectors.14 Both the organization of space operations and the nature of the technology itself thus increase the possibility that a given state’s intentions can easily be misconstrued. This in turn increases the potential for escalatory or retaliatory behavior when no threat was intended.

This potential for unintended escalation may not yet be fully anticipated in the case of space weapons or weaponization of space, as most experts did not recognize that space weapon (or relatedly, weaponization) was a contentious term. Rather, it was identified as contentious primarily due to the variation in definitions offered by the subject matter experts. Jonty Kasku-Jackson of the National Security Space Institute draws on work by Vasani (2017), noting that the weaponization of space “includes placing weapons in outer space or on heavenly bodies as well as creating weapons that travel from Earth to attack targets in space… [in other words], outer space itself emerges as the battleground.” Brian Weeden of the Secure World Foundation emphasizes the key aspect of space weapons as being intentionally designed to damage, degrade, or destroy another object in space or something on the ground. The type of variation that can be observed here was also indicated directly or indirectly by several contributors (Pollpeter, Samson, Spies, B. Weeden). For example, Michael Spies of the UN Office for Disarmament Affairs indicates that the term space weapon is contested internationally. He discusses the definition of space weapon offered in Article 1 (b) of the draft treaty on the prevention of placement of weapons in outer space,15 noting that the definition does not address terrestrially-based anti-satellite systems (which would, incidentally, be covered under the prior two definitions above). Though there is some cross-over in the definitions offered by the respondents, there is also enough variation among these definitions to suggest that there is not overall coordination among the US space community on this important topic. This is not to say that any one definition is right or wrong—simply that the definitions vary and that this variation has implications. For example, an overall lack of coordination within the US space community on what constitutes a space weapon decreases both the likelihood of coordination with allies and of averting unintended consequences with adversaries.

Similarly, the definition of a space weapon is also likely yoked to the definition of what constitutes an “armed attack,” or relatedly, “[harmful] interference” or the “use of force” in space. As Jack Beard of the University of Nebraska College of Law queries, “Is making a satellite wobble out of its projected orbit an illegal ‘use of force?’ Is it ‘interference’?”16 Having different concepts of where the boundaries of each of these terms lies once again opens up the potential for conflict, and as Beard notes, “what constitutes an armed attack justifying an armed response is a really controversial topic.” At the same time, as Moriba Jah of the University of Texas at Austin indicates, actors such as Russia are strongly in favor of defining terms such as harmful interference, given its interest in invoking “self-defense” in space. As such, the US must balance the need for precision in terminology with the previously indicated utility of ambiguity in serving US interests.

How space weapons and armed attacks are defined also dovetails with another contentious term—outer space. Maintaining ambiguity in the definition and delimination of outer space has generally been strategically useful to the US (B. Weeden). However, defining outer space may matter for security in terms of designating lines of authority, planning, and response. As Patrick Stadter of the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory notes,

  • if you start to have adversary deploying access that transcend different domains, is it a missile? Does it go into space? At that point, those things become very very important relative to integrated strategic plans and OPLANs and command authority and how that’s reflected in policy. That will matter. It already matters a lot, and it’s a challenge.

Variations in the use of terminology and potential misperception are likely to increase with the widening gap in assumptions, norms, or ideologies that might be observed when different countries come to the table. For example, Dean Cheng of the Heritage Foundation and Asian Studies Center at the Davis Institute for National Security and Foreign Policy, provides some initial insight into how other states may view the issue of space weapons, indicating that the Chinese ultimately think about space and military impact on

space as anything that affects the entire holistic space structure.17 The breadth of this classification of course leaves the door wide open for the perception that the use of a given capability may constitute use of a space weapon, and thus require a response. Thus could begin an escalatory cycle that could be avoided if a common agreement instead is reached regarding what does and does not constitute use of a space weapon or weaponization of space. As it is, Kasku-Jackson notes, there are already some concerns that the US will fold under its definition of “peaceful purposes” (National Space Policy, 2010) both the militarization and the weaponization of space for national and homeland security activities. This fear may make others more likely still to misperceive the use of certain kinds of US capabilities in space as being intended as a space weapon—and thus execute their perceived proportional response.


The true power of definitions lies in their ability to facilitate communication within and across groups and states operating in space and, ultimately, in their ability to facilitate the achievement of US goals, including the maintenace of stability in space. As Brigadier General Thomas Gould (USAF ret.) of the Harris Corporation indicates, the US should aim to provide leadership in the definition of norms (and presumably, associated space terms). This view was echoed by Samson, who notes that norms and international cooperation may be the best route by which to achieve stability and predictability in space, with reliable access to space assets. In the case of space weapons, a failure to establish common definitions and associated norms can result in misperceptions that can leave the US and other space actors in a precarious position. Samson cautions, however, that by talking about space weaponization, the conversation is led down a road that may not be necessary or helpful. Instead, she argues, it may be more helpful to talk about stability, which is “a broader concept that contextualizes the domain and allows you to talk about anything that destabilizes the space domain.” Thus, by having a broader understanding of the array of things for which space is actually used, she argues, we might more readily disambiguate some of these points of confusion or contention.


Roberto Aceti (OHB Italia, S.p.A. a Subsidiary of OHB, Italy); Adranos Energetics; Brett Alexander (Blue Origin); Anonymous Commercial Executives; Anonymous US Launch Executive; Major General (USAF ret.) James Armor2 (Orbital ATK); Marc Berkowitz (Lockheed Martin); Brett Biddington (Biddington Research Pty Ltd, Australia); Bryce Space and Technology; Caelus Partners, LLC; Elliott Carol3 (Ripple Aerospace, Norway); Dean Cheng (Heritage Foundation); Matthew Chwastek (Orbital Insight); Dr. Damon Coletta and Lieutenant Colonel (ret.) Deron Jackson (USAFA); Faulconer Consulting Group; Jonathan Fox (Defense Threat Reduction Agency); Joanne Gabrynowicz (University of Mississippi School of Law); Dr. Nancy Gallagher (Center for International and Security Studies at Maryland); Gilmour Space Technologies, Australia; Harris Corporation; Dr. Jason Held (Saber Astronautics, Australia); Dr. Henry Hertzfeld (George Washington University); Theresa Hitchens (Center for International and Security Studies at Maryland); Jonathan Hung (Singapore Space and Technology Association, Singapore); Dr. Moriba Jah (University of Texas at Austin); Dr. John Karpiscak III (US Army Geospatial Center); Jonty Kasku-Jackson (National Security Space Institute); Dr. T.S. Kelso (Analytical Graphics Inc.); David Koplow (Georgetown Law); Group Captain (Indian Air Force, ret.) Ajey Lele (Institute for Defense Studies and Analyses, Centre on Strategic Technologies, India); Dr. Martin Lindsey (US Pacific Command); Agnieszka Lukaszczyk (Planet, Netherlands); Elsbeth Magilton (University of Nebraska College of Law); Colonel David Miller (United States Air Force); Dr. George C. Nield (Federal Aviation Administration); Kevin Pollpeter (CNA); Victoria Samson (Secure World Foundation); Matthew Schaefer and Jack Beard (University of Nebraska College of Law); Michael Sherry (National Air and Space Intelligence Center); Brent Sherwood (NASA/Jet Propulsion Laboratory); Michael Spies (UN Office for Disarmament Affairs); Dr. Patrick A. Stadter (Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory); Stratolaunch Systems Corporation; Dr. Mark Sundahl (Cleveland-Marshall College of Law); John Thornton (Astrobotic Technology); ViaSat, Inc.; Dr. Frans von der Dunk (University of Nebraska); Deborah Westphal (Toffler Associates); Dr. Brian Weeden (Secure World Foundation); Charity Weeden (Satellite Industry Association, Canada); Joanne Wheeler (Bird and Bird, UK)


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