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Research Questions

  1. What generally accepted theories and concepts undergird U.S. policy related to escalation in space?
  2. What evidence is there to support or validate these propositions?
  3. How can USSF or other stakeholders better manage escalation risks in the space domain?

Improvements in Russian and Chinese counterspace capabilities could endanger the space-based capabilities that the United States relies on for a broad array of military and economic functions. The proliferation of U.S. and adversary capabilities could lead to unstable competition in space, raising the risk of unintended military escalation. In this report, the authors examine the conventional wisdom on escalation in the space domain to offer recommendations for how the U.S. Space Force (USSF) and other stakeholders can better prepare to deter and manage escalation. They investigate the implications of six propositions related to stability: (1) the incentives to employ offensive capabilities early in a conflict, (2) the benefits of leveraging foreign and commercial systems, (3) the utility of communications channels for crisis prevention and de-escalation, (4) the feasibility of promoting shared norms of responsible behavior, (5) the strategic benefits of selective revelation, and (6) the use of reversible capabilities to manage escalation.

Key Findings

  • The U.S. Department of Defense space enterprise should separately evaluate U.S. and adversary incentives to undertake attacks at different stages of crisis and conflict. There is value to identifying adversary responses to more- or less-resilient architectures.
  • Enhancing the resilience of commercial, allied, and partner country constellations can help deter attacks but might be insufficient. Given the likelihood that commercial satellites may be targeted, articulating potential U.S. responses to attacks on commercial satellites can bolster deterrence.
  • USSF should prepare for a strategic environment in which communications channels with China are not available in a crisis or conflict. Nevertheless, continuing to offer communications channels may be worthwhile for if, and when, Chinese perspectives change.
  • Despite the obstacles to U.S. norms advocacy, persistent attempts to open dialogue are still valuable to preserve the possibility of future improvements. U.S. norms advocacy might also foster greater cohesion among U.S. allies and partners and help counter Russian and Chinese alternatives that are contrary to U.S. interests.
  • A greater ability to release information on current space capabilities and emerging risks will enhance the U.S. ability to persuade other actors of the dangers inherent to the current environment and the benefits of desired responses.
  • Decisionmakers should weigh the prospective signaling benefit of selective revelation against the opportunity costs associated with enabling an adversary to develop countermeasures that might reduce the disclosed capability's military utility.
  • Demonstrations or revelations of U.S. space capabilities should be accompanied by additional strategic messaging to improve the likelihood that an adversary interprets the information as intended.

Research conducted by

The research reported here was commissioned by Headquarters, U.S. Space Force, Chief Strategy & Resourcing Officer (CSRO) and conducted within the Strategy, Doctrine, and Resources Program of RAND Arroyo Center.

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