In a New Space Age, US Needs More Communication, Less Classification

1st Space Operations Squadron Geosynchronous Space Situational Awareness and Space Based Space Surveillance crews operate satellite vehicles on the ops floor at Schriever AFB, Colo., April 28, 2017. Courtesy photo.

In order to navigate a new era of broader activity and greater belligerence in space, the US needs to talk more about space in unclassified settings and establish clear thresholds for adversary behavior, according to a new Center for Strategic and International Studies report. At a launch event in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday, the report’s authors said better communication from the US about space capabilities and intentions is necessary to sharpen the nation’s space deterrent.

The new space age, which began with the end of the Cold War, is “more international, more commercial,” and is marked by a proliferation of “new entrants,” said report co-author Todd Harrison, a senior fellow at CSIS. While he insisted that space was “contested from the very beginning,” the rise of multipolar space and an increase in the number of on-orbit assets means that the domain is “more dangerous” now.

The US is “increasingly dependent on space-based capabilities,” and at the same time “our adversaries are increasingly developing counter-space capabilities,” Harrison said.

In this environment, however, to “focus on the capability” alone would be a mistake, said report co-author Zack Cooper, a senior fellow at CSIS. The most urgent challenge is one of communicating space capabilities and thresholds to allies and adversaries alike in order to strengthen deterrence.

This is particularly tricky in the space domain, where “communicating your space capabilities may actually give away the capabilities themselves,” Cooper said. This is one reason why military space has maintained a “super high level of classification,” according to Harrison.

But despite the risks, it’s crucial for the US to talk about space more “in unclassified settings,” Cooper said. If it doesn’t, the risk of misunderstanding operations in space escalates dramatically. US Strategic Command may see an adversary’s dazzling of a US missile defense sensor as worthy of a nuclear strike in response, Harrison said, whereas a US combatant commander may identify in the same action a more limited, conventional intent.

This kind of confusion “gives adversaries more opportunities to use grey zone tactics in space,” Harrison said.

The US goal should be to “instill a clear understanding on the part of your adversary of exactly where the thresholds are and your seriousness about upholding the thresholds,” Cooper said. In order to deter combat in space effectively, the US needs to maintain “a tension between having a very clear red line” for some kinds of space aggression, and “having enough flexibility” to prevent escalating a conflict unnecessarily.