Ability to Deter Attacks on U.S. Space Systems “May Be Eroding”

Potential adversaries understand that U.S. space systems significantly enhance U.S. conventional warfighting capabilities, and a growing number of prospective foes are acquiring the ability to degrade or to destroy those systems, according to a new RAND study.

“In the past, satellites, though inherently fragile, were relatively isolated from threats because of the inability of most adversaries to reach them,” said Forrest Morgan, a RAND senior political scientist and the study’s author. “Now, while satellites continue to be fragile, the spread of space weapon technology is creating a distinct first-strike advantage for opponents who could launch a surprise attack in space against selected U.S. systems at the onset of a future conflict.”

The study finds that strengthening America’s “first-strike stability” in space — that is, making U.S. space systems resilient enough to withstand a confrontation and to prevent it from growing into a crisis — could be a tough challenge given the nature of outer space and the degree to which potential adversaries believe the United States is dependent on vulnerable systems there.

Some space systems are more vulnerable than others.

While declaring that America’s first-strike stability in space “appears to be eroding,” the study finds that some space systems are more vulnerable than others. For example, weather satellites are probably safest from attack, because the political cost of attacking them is high and the robust infrastructure supporting them would limit the impact of an attack.

The study also finds that different types of attacks — nondestructive ones (such as jamming satellite signals) versus destructive ones — offer different costs and benefits to attackers at different levels of conflict. For example, since commercial satellite communication platforms typically support a host of international users beyond U.S. forces, the political costs and military risks of destroying those assets might deter the opponent from attempting to do so until the conflict escalated to a higher level.

The study concludes that the United States should implement a coordinated national space deterrence strategy designed to operate on both sides of a potential adversary’s cost-benefit calculus by simultaneously raising the costs and reducing the benefits of acting. The table shows selected elements of that strategy, along with some potential means to fulfill it.

U.S. Space Deterrence Strategy Should Raise Costs and Reduce Benefits of Attack

Elements of Strategy Potential Means to Fulfill Strategy
Raise Costs of Attack: Condemn the use of force in space, and declare that the United States will severely punish attacks on its space systems and those of its allies in ways, times, and places of its own choosing. Bolster emerging international taboos on space warfare through diplomatic engagement, treaty negotiations, and other means.

Enhance the credibility of U.S. threats to punish space aggressors through diplomatic, economic, and, if necessary, military actions.
Reduce Benefits of Attack: Persuade potential adversaries that the probability of deriving sufficient benefits from attacking space assets would be too low to risk the inevitable costs of U.S. retribution. Conceal vulnerabilities of space systems, and demonstrate the ability to operate effectively without space support.

Pursue ways to make vulnerable U.S. space systems more resilient and defendable, and demonstrate the capability to deny potential adversaries the benefits of attack.

“We propose the broad outlines of a comprehensive space deterrence regime,” said Morgan. “But there is still a need to determine the most effective and affordable mix of strategies, policies, and systems for strengthening space deterrence.” square

For more information:

Deterrence and First-Strike Stability in Space: A Preliminary Assessment, RAND/MG-916-AF, ISBN 978-0-8330-4913-1, 2010.