Is the U.S. Space Force Preparing for War?

 In China, Russia, FVEY, Information, P5

If I were a Russian or Chinese space war­fare the­o­rist, think­ing about a future war with the United States, it might be rea­son­able to bet that the newly-minted U.S. Space Force was plan­ning for a kinet­ic space con­flict, start­ing on Day 1.

Understandably, the Space Force keeps a tight lid on broad­er dis­cus­sions of its capa­bil­i­ties. There isn’t a lot of direct infor­ma­tion one way or anoth­er. Without a clear under­stand­ing of what the U.S. can do, an ana­lyst might start trying to figure out U.S. inten­tions.

The cul­ture of the Space Force might still be unformed and chang­ing; it does bear at least a family resem­blance to its sister ser­vices in at least one sig­nif­i­cant respect. In the ser­vices, the pur­vey­ors of kinet­ic mayhem — the shoot­ers and the killers — tend to be cul­tur­al­ly dom­i­nant within their respec­tive ser­vices. The Space Force has been no excep­tion to this.

Whether or not the Space Force shoot­ers want to or not, they present a louder, more mus­cu­lar, aggres­sive face of the Space Force. Conversely, non-kinet­ic approach­es to space dom­i­nance get little dis­cus­sion indeed.

Between the rel­a­tive bold­ness of the kinet­ic space war­fare com­mu­ni­ty and the com­par­a­tive silence of the non-kinet­ic war­fare prac­ti­tion­ers, the over­all mes­sage sug­gests a Space Force with a strong bias towards kinet­ic war­fare.

Compounding this prob­lem, the USSF does not speak a lot about the activ­i­ties of its poten­tial foes. In public dis­cus­sion, there’s little to sug­gest that U.S. oppo­nents are hos­tile and aggres­sive and that need a mus­cu­lar response. Keeping mali­cious actions secret makes the cul­tur­al bias towards kinet­ic action appear spon­ta­neous — that it is not a response to unfor­tu­nate real-life con­di­tions, but more of an itchy trig­ger finger.

As space con­flict plan­ners know, kinet­ic action in space comes with an immense risk asso­ci­at­ed with orbital debris. An anti-satel­lite weapon, like the Chinese weapon demon­strat­ed in 2007, can gen­er­ate huge amounts of debris. The Chinese test itself cre­at­ed more than 3,000 bits of space shrap­nel. Keep in mind that orbital speeds are immense, so an impact by even a small bit of debris can have a dev­as­tat­ing effect pro­duc­ing vast clouds of junk. Those bits of debris them­selves become unguid­ed, uncon­trolled, kinet­ic anti-satel­lite weapons of their own. Should the debris get thick enough, col­li­sions can create a sort of feed­back effect, called the Kessler Syndrome, where each bit of space shrap­nel hits and anni­hi­lates addi­tion­al satel­lites, cre­at­ing more debris and so on.

Thus, at the very far end of kinet­ic space con­flicts, we may see some echoes of strate­gic deter­rent think­ing about nuclear war­fare in decades past. An orbital debris chain-reac­tion starts to take on at least a pass­ing resem­blance to the more famil­iar idea of Mutually Assured Destruction. Without get­ting into the entire his­to­ry of the nuclear deter­rent, the fun­da­men­tal prob­lems should be famil­iar to people think­ing about space con­flict every­where: Difficulties with esca­la­tion con­trol, issues with mas­sive retal­i­a­tion as a doc­trine, deter­rent cred­i­bil­i­ty, and so on.

At a strate­gic level, the USSF would prob­a­bly ben­e­fit from steer­ing con­ver­sa­tion in a slight­ly dif­fer­ent direc­tion. First, by clar­i­fy­ing the kind of envi­ron­ment we are oper­at­ing in, one in which a kinet­ic response is a legit­i­mate response, not just an itchy trig­ger finger. Second, the U.S. has a vari­ety of tools at its dis­pos­al, enabling the U.S. to con­trol and manage esca­la­tion of a space con­flict. Explain that the U.S. can do all kinds of things to zap a satel­lite with­out going the full Skywalker and blow­ing it to smithereens.

These sug­ges­tions are really just a small part of learn­ing to think about space oper­a­tions in the exten­sive polit­i­cal-social-media con­text that is and will con­tin­ue to be the back­drop to combat oper­a­tions for the fore­see­able future. Maintaining a very tight lid on what the real­i­ty of space con­flict today may be a matter of win­ning the secu­ri­ty battle versus losing the mes­sag­ing war tomor­row.

Ryan Faith is a space policy con­sul­tant who pre­vi­ous­ly served as a pro­fes­sion­al staff member sup­port­ing the House Subcommittee on Space and Aeronautics. Prior to that, Faith was VICE Media’s Defense and Security editor and a research ana­lyst for the Space Foundation.

This arti­cle first appeared at Real Clear Defense.

Image: Reuters.

National Interest source|articles

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