AirSea Battle and America's Maginot Line in Space

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When strategic thinkers were trying to name what eventually would become AirSea Battle, there was discussion of naming it AirSeaSpace Battle. That makes for a very bad acronym, but in a way it’s probably more accurate.

At its core, AirSea Battle (ASB) is about maintaining the U.S. military’s freedom of operation in the face of increasingly advanced anti-access, area-denial (A2/AD) technologies. Despite its name, the Pentagon’s AirSea Battle Office has emphasized repeatedly that this imperative extends across all five operational domains, including space. Indeed the ASB Office’s May 2013 concept outline described space as “increasingly important and contested” and “integral to such military capabilities as communications, surveillance, and positioning.” ASB assumes that potential adversaries will contest space, which is why the ASB Office warned that essential space-based capabilities “are vulnerable to adversary capabilities with a low barrier to entry such as computer network attack and electronic jamming.”

“Air Sea Battle is critically dependent on space-based capabilities. There is no doubt about that,” says Todd Harrison, Senior Fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments (CSBA).  Despite widespread knowledge of the importance of space, Harrison says “people tend to either overlook this dependency, or worse, assume that there is nothing we can do about it.  Space is a critical part of ASB, and just about any other operational concept, because combat forces at all levels are dependent on space-based capabilities and there are few viable substitutes.”

To some, the critical role of space operations in ASB is one of its weaknesses. T.X. Hammes of the National Defense University extended on this point in a recent piece in War on the Rocks:

“If one considers the deterrent value of ASB, one has to understand its reliance on space and cyberspace.  When one examines our vulnerabilities in these domains – as China has – there is major cause for concern.  China knows it can severely degrade US space and cyber assets – and thus ASB — quickly. China has repeatedly demonstrated its ability to penetrate U.S. government and commercial computer systems.  It has also demonstrated the ability to intercept a satellite in space and can also use lasers to dazzle a satellite as it passes over Chinese territory. Their aptitude in these domains may lead their political leaders to believe they can win a short war.  Unfortunately, political leaders seem more likely to start a war when they believe the war will be short.

So where do we go from here? 

Yesterday, Harrison released a CSBA study, “The Future of MILSATCOM,” which underscores concerns about U.S. space posture. The report examines a critical slice of U.S. space systems: military satellite communications and their vulnerabilities in an era when counter-space capabilities are prominent features in potential adversaries’ A2/AD operations. Harrison’s study is a thoughtful, comprehensive examination of the issues at stake in shaping the next generation of U.S. space architecture. A few important points are worth highlighting.

A Maginot Line in Space

Harrison fears the United States is in danger of building a Maginot Line in space. Like the French network of fortifications built following World War I to prevent another German invasion (oops), today’s U.S. space systems are technologically advanced, a significant improvement over the previous generation, and provide impressive levels of protection against a specific type of threat. The problem is that their other similarity is a strong dose of “last war syndrome.”  As Harrison writes:

“As Rudolph Chelminski noted, the Maginot Line’s ‘shortcomings derived not from failures of execution but from the inability of its proponents to anticipate how much warfare would change in a mere two decades.’ The Maginot Line serves as a lasting example of how a military can be incredibly prepared for onetype of threat only to find itself vulnerable to a range of other threats…For much of the Cold War, space systems were primarily designed for strategic conflict. The extension of war into the space domain was viewed as unlikely or, at worst, a prelude to a full-scale nuclear war between the United States and Soviet Union. From this perspective, the key type of protection needed for space systems—and MILSATCOM systems in particular—was nuclear survivability. Moreover, not all MILSATCOM systems needed to be nuclear survivable—only those used for nuclear command and control.”

That is simply not the reality any more. Potential U.S. adversaries are determined to contest the space domain in the event of conventional conflict. Moreover, the threats facing U.S. space systems today have multiplied and proliferated. MILSATCOM systems are vulnerable to physical attack from kinetic anti-satellite weapons (anti-satellite ballistic missiles or space mines), directed energy weapons (lasers), and conventional weapons against ground segments. In 2007, China demonstrated its anti-satellite capabilities by destroying a weather satellite with a weapon similar to its DF-21 ballistic missile.

Adversaries could also use electronic attacks by jamming satellite communication links with accessible and inexpensive technologies that are difficult to detect and distinguish from accidental interference.

Another option for U.S. adversaries would be cyberattacks, which can be used to intercept data, corrupt data, or take control of satellite systems altogether. Cyberattacks against satellites are not merely theoretical. Harrison cites a few examples:

“In 2009, it was discovered that insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan had been intercepting video feeds from U.S. Predator unmanned surveillance aircraft after copies of the videos were found on insurgents’ laptops. Because the video feeds were transmitted without any protection or encryption, insurgents were able to use commercially available software to intercept the data. In its 2011 report to Congress, the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission cited four instances in 2007 and 2008 in which cyberattacks were used against two U.S. government satellites in an apparent attempt to target their command and control systems. The most successful of these attacks was against a National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) satellite used for earth observation, known as Terra EOS. In this attack the commission notes that, ‘The responsible party achieved all steps required to command the satellite but did not issue commands.’”

Harrison feels threats against U.S. space systems are of greater concern than in the past because “the technological barrier to entry is lower, attacks are less attributable, and the technology itself is more easily proliferated.”

In short, U.S. space systems have critical vulnerabilities in conventional warfare, which have not been addressed meaningfully since the end of the Cold War.

Space Is Already Weaponized

One of the reasons Harrison believes the Unites States has not taken steps to address current threats and vulnerabilities is sensitivity surrounding “the militarization and weaponization of space.” Such concern is outdated, Harrison warns:

“Because space systems, including communications satellites, are an integral part of U.S. global power projection capabilities, space is already militarized—that is, the military recognizes the value of and benefits from the use of space assets.13 Moreover, these capabilities and the effects they produce create such a powerful advantage for the United States that military space systems are effectively weapon systems as well, even if they are not literally armed. Arguing that military space systems are not weapons is like arguing that an M-16 rifle is not a weapon but merely an enabling capability for the ammunition. Such arguments obscure the military utility of space and the attractive set of targets it presents for potential adversaries. From the perspective of other nations, U.S. military space systems are weapon systems, and space is a domain of warfare that can and will be contested.”

Space Deterrence Might Not Hold

Harrison’s report concludes that the U.S. dependence on space and proliferating means of attack place traditional assumptions about space deterrence in doubt:

“Since the end of the Cold War, an implicit assumption in the space domain has been that deterrence would hold and space systems would not be attacked in conventional conflicts…Potential adversaries do not have symmetric vulnerabilities, since no other nation’s military is as dependent on space as the U.S. military. This asymmetry makes traditional deterrence in space a difficult proposition. Just as the Germans violated international norms by attacking France through Belgium and Luxembourg, future adversaries could exploit U.S. vulnerabilities by violating international norms and launching an attack in the space domain.”

Today, U.S. space systems are vulnerable because the U.S. has been focused on threats of the past. The good news is, Harrison says, is that “there is a lot we can do to improve the resiliency of our space systems, and MILSATCOM in particular, if we focus on the most likely threats of the future rather than Cold War-era threats.”

If AirSea Battle is to be viable in the future, Congress and the Pentagon should heed Harrison’s advice.  

Dustin Walker is the Editor of RealClearDefense.

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