Reconsidering the Rules for Space Security

Development Aspirations

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Nancy Gallagher and John David Steinbruner
Reconsidering the Rules of Space

Informed international reactions are likely to be driven by judgments about how far and how fast the United States is moving toward acquiring absolute space dominance or intolerably intrusive space superiority. The Air Force Space Command (AFSPC) Strategic Master Plan FY 06 and Beyond, which builds on previous SPACECOM planning documents, provides a basic guide for making those judgments. The plan identifies major missions; assesses current capabilities; and sets near-, medium-, and far-term steps to becoming a “full spectrum space combat command” by 2030.91 The analysis includes some AFSPC responsibilities that are not space-specific, such as land-based nuclear missiles, and excludes national security space projects outside of AFSPC’s responsibility. Tracking the progress of efforts to achieve specific types of space capabilities is also complicated by frequent reconfiguration of development efforts, including name changes, shifts in mission emphasis, and cancellation of one program followed by the birth of a new program designed to accomplish similar objectives. In general, though, as adapted in table 1, the Strategic Master Plan specifies the capabilities that SPACECOM considers necessary to achieve effective dominance and provides a baseline for assessing actual accomplishments to date.

Table 1: SPACECOM mission areas

Mission Areas Function Examples
Force Enhancement support warfighter in air, land, sea, and space operations photoreconnaissance, electronic eavesdropping, communications, GPS, weather
Force Application weapons operating from space against terrestrial targets space-based global strike weapons (“Rods from God,” space-based laser, space plane with CAV)
Space Control or Counterspace protect U.S. space assets, neutralize adversary capabilities, provide space situational awareness space surveillance network, passive defenses (hardening, etc.), active defenses (e.g., guardian satellites), anti-satellite weapons (destructive and nondestructive), space-based missile defense interceptors
Space Support and Mission Support satellite launch and control, underlying infra- structure launch vehicles, launch facilities, satellite control networks, training facilities, security forces, installations

Force enhancement: From SPACECOM’s perspective, satellites are invaluable because of “their ultimate ‘high ground’ access, their ability to rapidly forward deploy with minimal logistics tail, and their relative immunity from threats.”92SPACECOM wants to modernize current capabilities to provide more precise and comprehensive information, faster and more securely, in a manner that is integrated into a single network-centric system-of-systems rather than the current mission-unique, stove-piped approach. In the area of satellite communications, DOD plans include launching a number of Advanced Extremely High Frequency satellites to replenish its current Military Strategic and Tactical Relay (MILSTAR) secure communications satellites with a constellation that can provide more capacity and speed, then replacing that system with the Transformational Satellite Communications System (TSAT), an ultra-large bandwidth secure communications system that would use lasers to rapidly move information to and from friendly forces operating in even the most remote locations.93 To address emerging challenges such as rogue states, terrorists armed with WMD, or other small-scale threats that are difficult to identify and destroy, the Air Force transformation plans include a space radar that can see moving targets even at night or in cloudy weather and a hyperspectral imaging system that can detect chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear, and high explosive materials.94 The National Reconnaissance Office (NRO), which builds and manages spy satellites, also has several ambitious and expensive programs, including efforts to deploy a larger constellation of smaller, lighter satellites with radar and electro-optical imagery capabilities to provide more valuable data, on a more frequent schedule, in forms that can easily be integrated with other intelligence information.95 The most ambitious SPACECOM supporters depict these future satellites as the key to having an “unblinking eye” that can be used to find and target any potential threat to U.S. security, allowing them “to know something about everything at all times” and to be able to “switch on the spotlight” to get detailed information if the “illuminator” revealed a potential problem.96

Force Application: SPACECOM argues that addressing emerging threats requires a prompt, nonnuclear global strike capability offering “precise and selective lethality” to be used “when time is absolutely critical, risks associated with other options are too high, or when no other courses of action are avail- able.”97 SPACECOM’s Long Range Plan proposed that by 2020 the U.S. military should be able to hold at risk 100 percent of fixed, relocatable, and moving high-value targets and to deliver precision-guided weapons anywhere in the world within ninety minutes of launch.98 Global strike capabilities could be provided by mass-to-target weapons, most notoriously the “rods from God” idea of mimicking asteroids by stationing Earth-penetrating rods on satellites in LEO, then deorbiting them so that they would fall rapidly to Earth and destroy the designated target. The global strike capabilities could also come from directed-energy weapons, such as space-based lasers or radio- frequency energy weapons.99A third approach, officially called FALCON (for Force Application and Launch from Continental United States) but often referred to as a “space bomber,” involves developing a reusable space plane that could be launched on demand and travel above national airspace until it reached the target country (thus obviating the need for overflight permission and avoiding air defenses). The craft would release a (proposed) “common aero vehicle” (CAV) that could selectively strike a wide range of difficult targets, including mobile vehicles, deeply buried bunkers, and aircraft in flight.100 If a CAV-armed military space plane was deployed in orbit, proponents claim that it could strike targets within moments of combat identification and “ensure our ability to kill future terrorists if we know where they are.”101

Space control: Proposals for space control capabilities are motivated by the desire to perpetuate the tremendous asymmetrical advantages that the U.S. military currently gains from space systems by defending friendly space assets “anywhere and anytime on or above the globe” and preventing an adversary’s hostile use of its own space assets or commercial services by the same expansive criteria.102 Space situational awareness is the prerequisite for all other space control activities. This includes continuous and systematic surveillance to identify and track all friendly, hostile, and neutral satellites, as well as any space debris that might interfere with U.S. space operations. Space situational awareness also includes environmental monitoring to forecast natural hazards such as solar flares; on-board systems or inspector satellites to evaluate satellite anomalies and determine whether they were caused by a natural hazard, an internal malfunction, a piece of debris, or a deliberate attack; and damage assessment capabilities to determine if action against a target satellite has had the desired effect.

SPACECOM wants full-spectrum defensive and offensive counterspace capabilities. This involves some innocuous measures, such as camouflage, hardening satellites and communications links, and increasing satellite maneuverability. Guardian satellites have been proposed for active defense of U.S. satellites.103 Desired offensive anti-satellite capabilities include some nondestructive techniques, such as deception, jamming communications or navigation signals, and blinding satellite sensors. But they also comprise some destructive capabilities to be used if temporary or reversible options are deemed inadequate, such as attacks on ground stations and kinetic or direct- ed energy ASATs. While SPACECOM documents indicate a preference for non-lethal over lethal effects, they want both types of capabilities.104 SPACECOM also foresees a possible need to negate satellites that belong to neutral or friendly parties to prevent their use by hostile forces.105 Finally, the SPACECOM vision includes missile defense systems that could target satellites in orbit more easily than ballistic missiles in flight and it emphasizes space-based missile defense interceptors that could, in theory, stop missiles (or satellites) launched from locations that sea- or air-based boost-phase interceptors could not reach.106 In the most ambitious version of the SPACECOM vision, this capability would enable the United States to veto any use of space that did not meet its approval.107

Space Support: Responsive spacelift is the most important transformation objective in this mission area. Fulfilling SPACECOM’s ambitions would require dramatic reductions in launch costs without any decrease in reliability in order to have any chance of being economically feasible. Deploying enough satellites to provide all of SPACECOM’s desired capabilities on schedule would also require a significant reduction in the amount of time it takes to build satellites, to mate them with launchers, and to have a turn on the launch pad. Transformational objectives also include “responsive” capabilities to launch new satellites on short notice or reconfigure satellites already in orbit to replace ones that had been attacked or to provide new capabilities tailored to a particular crisis or conflict situation.108


91. See Air Force Space Command, Strategic Master Plan FY 06 and Beyond, 2003, 2,

92. AFSPC, Strategic Master Plan, 36.

93. The TSAT under development by DOD involves five satellites that communicate using lasers and jam-proof radios; it promises to provide extremely fast and secure voice, video, and data transmissions worldwide, such that images that today might take nearly an hour to send could be transmitted in less than a second. See Michael Fabey, "Firms Offer Interim Satcom Gear as U.S. TSAT Moves Ahead," Defense News, January 9, 2006, 14.

94. The promised result from these transformation systems is continuous predictive battlespace awareness (as compared with the present-day capacity for near-real-time battlespace information), defined as "multidimensional understanding . . . in time, space, and effect, regardless of the adversary, weather, location, or time of day." Air Force, "Counterspace Operations," Air Force Doctrine Document 2-2.1, August 2, 2004, 24, doctrine/jel/service_pubs/afdd2_2_1.pdf.

95. This was originally called the Future Imagery Architecture (FIA) program and is described in John Pike, "Future Imagery Architecture," intell/systems/fia.htm.

96. Noah Shachtman, "Feds Want All-Seeing Eye in Sky," Wired, October 17, 2003, Shachtman quotes Stephen Cambone, then undersecretary of defense for intelligence, speaking at the 2003 Geo-Intel Conference. Although Cambone acknowledged the utility of various sources of intelligence information, he emphasized the value of radar satellites for imagery collection around the clock and in any weather.

97. AFSPC, Strategic Master Plan, 27.

98. United States Space Command, Long Range Plan, Chapter 6, p. 18.

99. "Hypervelocity Rod Bundles," the Evolutionary Air and Space Global Laser Engagement concept, and space-based radio frequency weapons for use against electronics and national command and control systems are described on D-7, D-5, and D-10, respectively, in Appendix D, U.S. Air Force, 2003 Transformation Flight Plan (November 2003), The 2004 version of the flight plan, which came out only months after the 2003 version, removed all references to these specific weapon concepts.

100. FALCON is a Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency/Air Force program that has undergone various name and rationale changes since Congress barred work on a weaponized CAV in 2004 but that still exists as part of DOD's effort to develop long-range strike options. It is related to, but not the same as, the Falcon family of launch vehicles being developed by the SpaceX Corporation.

101. ONE TEAM, "The Military Space Plane: Providing Transformational and Responsive Precise Global Striking Power," January 2002, 13, military_spaceplace_utility.pdf.

102. AFSPC, Strategic Master Plan, 21.

103. The Air Force has announced plans to fly an experimental guardian satellite in 2009. Under the Autonomous Nanosatellite Guardian for Evaluating Local Space (ANGELS) program, a small satellite launched into GEO near a host satellite would be able to monitor space weather conditions, detect nearby ASATs, diagnose technical problems with the host satellite, and perform other functions. See Jeremy Singer, "Space Monitor: Experimental U.S. Sat Would Patrol Region near Spacecraft," Defense News, November 28, 2005, 14.

104. In addition to political considerations, SPACECOM has a practical reason for preferring nondestructive space control options: debris created by a kinetic-energy ASAT could damage satellites belonging to the United States and its allies. DOD has not requested money for a KE ASAT since the early 1990s, but Congress sometimes adds funds for the Army's KE ASAT program, most recently in the FY2005 missile defense budget. The head of SPACECOM called destructive ASAT attacks a "last ditch option," both because of the debris problem and the danger of legitimating attacks on U.S. satellites. See Charles Aldinger, "General Warns: High-Tech Warfare Could Litter Space with Debris," Reuters, March 28, 2001,

105. Air Force, Counterspace Operations, 40–42.

106. Some SPACECOM planning documents classify space-based missile defense interceptors under force application, but our typology leaves them under space control because of their utility as anti-satellite weapons and our definition of force application as being used against terrestrial targets.

107. Everett C. Dolman, a professor at the School of Advanced Airpower Studies at Maxwell Air Force Base in Alabama, has proposed that the U.S. military should seize control of LEO, use space-based weapons to prevent any other country from deploying military assets there, and should require advanced notice of a spacecraft's civilian or commercial mission and flight plan before granting permission to launch. "The military control of low- Earth orbit would be for all practical purposes a police blockade of all current spaceports, monitoring and controlling all traffic both in and out." Everett C. Dolman, Astropolitik (London: Frank Cass, 2002), 157. No official SPACECOM documents have proposed such comprehensive space control, but all advocate the ability to deny space services to hostile users. When asked how to stop China from blinding most U.S. satellites in LEO during a crisis, the head of STRATCOM, General James Cartwright, told the Strategic Forces Subcommittee of the Senate Armed Services Committee that he needed "prompt global strike" to target launch facilities, missiles in flight, command and control, and other nodes in China's system. A transcript of General Cartwright's response to questions before the Strategic Forces Subcommittee on March 28, 2007 is included in U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, "Statement of Dr. Michael Pillsbury," in Hearing on China's Military Modernization and Its Impact on the U.S. and the Asia-Pacific, March 30, 2007.

108. AFSPC, Strategic Master Plan, 29–31. On responsive lift for reconstitution of damaged satellites and the short-notice deployment of new space capabilities, see also Simon P. Worden and Randall R. Correll, "Responsive Space and Strategic Information," Defense Horizons 40 (April 2004): 1–8,