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Research Questions

  1. What lessons do the pursuit of deterrence in the nuclear and cyber domains have for deterrence in space operations?
  2. What are the nature and requirements of deterrence in the space domain, what constitutes success in space deterrence, and what are the thresholds of deterrence failure?
  3. What are the key characteristics of selected national concepts of space deterrence?
  4. What are main archetypes of space deterrence, which type is likely to be most successful, and how can messaging, selective revelation of space capabilities, and development of norms of responsible space behavior help deter attacks on space systems?

Over the past two decades, potential adversaries have developed a wide array of means to disrupt or deny the United States and its allies access to space capabilities that are essential to their security and military operations. This situation and deepening great-power tensions have given new urgency to understanding the counterspace strategies of potential adversaries and how they can be deterred from attacking U.S. and allied space assets or be dissuaded from even developing certain counterspace capabilities. There is no broadly agreed-on framework on the nature and requirements of deterrence in space operations. This report presents such a framework. The authors begin by identifying several foundational principles of deterrence and then consider what lessons pursuit of deterrence in other domains—nuclear and cyber—have for deterrence in space. They examine the nature and requirements of deterrence in the space domain, what constitutes success in space deterrence, what thresholds might lead to a failure of deterrence, and selected national approaches to space deterrence—by China, Russia, France, Japan, and India. Integrating all these components, the authors present three archetypes for space deterrence and consider questions about their application. They conclude that a comprehensive approach to space deterrence is likely to be most successful and should be tailored to address the distinct risk calculus and informational needs of various adversaries across the phases of conflict. Strategic messaging, selective revelation of space capabilities, and development of norms of responsible space behavior can also help deter attacks on space systems.

Key Findings

There are several key elements of deterrence in space operations

  • Canonical strategies of deterrence by denial, deterrence by punishment, and some mix of the two are relevant to space deterrence.
  • Assurances, declaratory policy, dissuasion, and de-escalation also have utility in deterring or terminating counterspace actions.
  • Nuclear deterrence offers five central concepts relevant to deterrence in space: credibility, deterrence stability, the inversion of offense and defense, crisis stability, and escalation.
  • The challenges associated with deterring cyberattacks often parallel those for deterring space asset attacks: attribution, credibility, proportionality of response, and the ability to control escalation.
  • Various countries have quite different conceptions of space deterrence, including emphasis on defensive measures; reliance on preemptive, offensive attacks; and some mix of the two.

There are three archetypes for space deterrence

  • Denial dominant: This type of deterrence relies primarily on resilience, stealth capability, defensive measures, and redundancy to convince an adversary that it would be unable to achieve a decisive advantage by attacking the target country's space systems.
  • Mixed deterrence: This type of deterrence is achieved by a mix of resilience and defensive measures, combined with robust active defenses of space assets and more-substantial capabilities to degrade the space systems of other countries.
  • Offense dominant: This type of deterrence includes elements of denial and resilience but relies more on punishment. It places emphasis on a wide variety of counterspace weapons capable of severely degrading the space systems of other countries, possibly combined with the threat of debilitating responses in other domains.

Recommendations

  • Success in space deterrence should be measured along a spectrum that takes into account differing requirements for space services at various phases of a conflict and in light of how the conflict is unfolding in other domains.
  • The prospects for complete success in deterrence of hostile attacks on space assets, particularly reversible, nondestructive attacks, are limited.
  • Strategic messaging, deliberate revelation of selected space capabilities, and the development of international norms of responsible space behavior can enhance stability and deterrence in the space domain.
  • Because cyber and space attacks will likely have mostly material and economic effects rather than a human toll, threats to retaliate may be viewed as disproportionate, escalatory, and incredible. Responding to such attacks requires carefully calibrated retaliatory actions, though not necessarily in kind.
  • An effective space deterrence strategy should be tailored to address the distinct risk calculus of various adversaries across the phases of conflict (peacetime, competition, crisis, and conflict).
  • A comprehensive approach to space deterrence—one that seeks to regulate the use of force in space in the interest of stability; ostracizes states that violate agreed-on norms; and allows states to retain some capacity to punish space aggressors in multiple domains and to develop measures to enhance the defenses, resilience, and redundance of space systems—may have the greatest probability of success.

This research was sponsored by the U.S. government and conducted within the International Security and Defense Policy Program of the RAND National Security Research Division (NSRD).

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