Space is a current and future battleground without terrain, where invisible enemies conceivably could mount undetectable attacks to devastating effect if the right deterrent and defensive plans aren’t pursued now, the assistant defense secretary for global strategic affairs told a think tank audience here Sept. 17.
Madelyn R. Creedon spoke to a Stimson Center gathering whose audience included analysts focused on the question of deterrence in space. The center released a publication this week titled “Anti-satellite Weapons, Deterrence and Sino-American Space Relations,” presenting a number of essays examining various perspectives on space deterrence.
Creedon noted that in Defense Department parlance, deterrence is “the prevention of action by the existence of a credible threat of unacceptable counteraction and/or the belief that the cost of action outweighs the perceived benefits.” In other words, she said, if deterrence is effective, an adversary has or believes he has more to lose than to gain by attacking.
Deterrence remains a core defense strategy for the United States, she added, and the nation’s nuclear deterrent is “still alive and well.”
Creedon acknowledged that one classic approach to considering space deterrence — that is, preventing potential enemies from attacking U.S. or partner satellites and other military or economic assets in space — is to try to apply lessons learned during the Cold War. Then, the United States and the Soviet Union kept an uneasy diplomatic truce and piled up enough nuclear weapons to guarantee mutually assured destruction.
But one flaw to comparing the two deterrent challenges, she said, is that an attack that disables a satellite, unlike one from a nuclear warhead that flattens a major city, doesn’t threaten a nation’s existence. Another is that the two superpowers spent decades constructing an elaborate, mirrored, deterrent Cold War architecture and protocols, while space is still, comparatively, “the Wild West.” A third is that an attack in space or cyberspace may rely on digital rather than conventional weapons, and so could occur without warning or even detection.
“If there is an attack against a space asset, it isn’t visible,” she said. “You can’t watch it on CNN, and unless you’re directly affected by the capability that the space assets provide, you’re probably completely oblivious that the attack happened.”
She said DOD is developing and implementing what safeguards it can implement in space using four mutually supportive elements to deter others from taking action against U.S. assets:
- Working to internationalize norms and establish a code of conduct to enhance stability;
- Building coalitions to enhance security;
- Adding resilience to U.S. space architectures; and
- Preparing for an attack on U.S. and allied space assets using defenses “not necessarily in space.”
“We believe this four-element approach … will bolster deterrence,” Creedon said.
The department is working with the State Department and international partners to define elements of good behavior in space, she said. “States must remain committed to enhance the welfare of humankind by cooperating with others to maintain the long-term sustainability, safety, security and stability of the outer-space environment,” she added.
Creedon said work is underway to build deterrent coalitions and increase space awareness. She said the “Five Eyes” nations, which include the United States, United Kingdom, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, are extending their intelligence cooperation to expand their collective space situational awareness.
“The more we all know about what’s going on in space, and the more we can all share with each other about what’s going on in space, [the better we can] we establish a … deterrent environment so that no one can do something and get away with it,” she said.
The United States is meanwhile working to lower the benefit to potential attackers by employing more satellites, participating in satellite constellations with other countries and purchasing payload space on commercial satellites when feasible.
Creedon said the U.S. approach to space deterrence is similar to its strategy in any domain: take “prudent preparations to survive, and to operate through, and, hopefully, prevail in any conflict.”