A New Space Race?

The U.S. should be wary about seeing space as an opportunity to counter China militarily, says Andrew Erickson.

Andrew Erickson, an associate professor at the U.S. Naval War College, is known for his views on Chinese aerospace and naval capabilities. His latest edited volume is entitled: 'Chinese Aerospace Power: Evolving Maritime Roles.'

Erickson holds a distinct viewpoint concerning tensions between the U.S. and China in space. In this exclusive interview with The Diplomat, he argues for a more conservative approach – one that takes into account the unique vulnerabilities of space systems.


You seem wary of policymakers viewing space as a “panacea” for the U.S. military as it tries to balance China. How should policymakers view space?

Since the 1980s, the U.S. military has progressively increased its reliance on unrestricted access to the space commons. This dependence is a double-edged sword. The conflicts the U.S. has waged thus have all been against adversaries that were unable to challenge this critical linchpin. China is a great power with a very different level of capability. In developing jamming, anti-satellite (ASAT), and directed-energy weapons, China is accruing capabilities to compromise and harm U.S. space assets to a degree not seen since the Soviet Union confronted the U.S. in the Cold War.

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One of a wide variety of reasons that U.S.-China conflict should be avoided if at all possible is that it would be extremely detrimental to both parties and the rest of the world given the two nations’ ability to harm both each other and the fragile environment of space. At the same time, the U.S. must protect its interests, allies, and friends, as well as global norms. This will be a difficult balancing act, particularly as China (like Russia) seeks to limit the U.S. military’s exploitation of space by promoting “anti-weaponization” policies in the U.N. and other fora, while at the same time pursuing ground-based systems designed precisely to achieve some of the very effects in space that it decries. This Janus-faced effort should not go unquestioned, and the U.S. must prepare deterrent and defensive measures accordingly.

Despite their differing rhetoric, both the U.S. and China are already able to fight through space and have developed capabilities to fight into space. Neither would benefit significantly from attempting to fight from space, and it is in both their interests to avoid fighting in space.

Today, U.S. policy-makers must view space comprehensively as a vital medium, primarily to support peacetime activities and deterrence, but — in a worst-case scenario — to support wartime activities as well. This requires developing and maintaining a complex portfolio of assets with very different roles, strengths, and weaknesses. Survivability and functionality are very different in peacetime and wartime, and “one size fits all” standards and objectives should not be imposed across the board. Not everything needs to be geared to high-intensity conflict with a near-peer; fortunately, this is a low-probability contingency, albeit one whose very possibility casts a penumbra of strategic deterrence. This penumbra makes strategic competition and deterrence matter in peacetime. It makes Sino-American great power relations promising yet often problematic. It makes it necessary to discuss frankly difficult issues like the potential for hostilities in space.

If space systems are vulnerable, why not simply harden them with passive and active defenses, and protect them with offensive space capabilities?

Let me address this in two parts. With respect to hardening space systems, this should be done as feasible and cost-effective, but many measures are expensive and there is only so much that can be done, even at exorbitant expense. Most systems likely can’t be protected completely against a determined attacker. They typically stay in predictable orbits, facilitating both the prediction of variance in their operations and their targeting. Unlike that of land or even the seas, the exposed environment of space offers no terrain to hide in or to channel enemy attack in a specific direction. Orbital assets are difficult to maneuver and even more difficult to attempt to hide. This offense-dominant environment favors the arrow, not the shield.

This raises the question as to what extent it might be feasible and desirable to develop and deploy capabilities to degrade, disrupt, deny, disable, and destroy another nation’s space systems in order to deter it from attacking our own. A robust posture that goes beyond limited preparations to fight into space might be termed the “Sean Connery Approach,” after the actor’s memorable line as officer Jimmy Malone in the 1987 movie The Untouchables: “You wanna know how to get Capone? They pull a knife, you pull a gun. He sends one of yours to the hospital; you send one of his to the morgue. That’s the Chicago way!”

This approach has several potential problems, however. First, it might succeed in deterring a potential adversary. But what if that nation is less reliant on space than the U.S. — as is China today? In a worst case scenario, PLA strategists might view having both nations’ military space assets being disrupted, or “taken off the table,” as an advantageous trade. Then there is the issue of asymmetric interests. In the least unlikely source of Sino-American military conflict, a confrontation over Taiwan, Chinese decision-makers might well perceive threats from Washington as lacking credibility because they believed that Taiwan’s status was more important to Beijing, and that Washington would therefore be unlikely to make equivalent sacrifices to further its position. Finally, there’s the “Glass House Dynamic.” Space is an incredibly important supporting medium for U.S. military and commercial activities — as it is for other nations, including, increasingly, China. At the same time, it is an offense-dominant environment, meaning that it is very easy to target assets there, and very hard — if not impossible, in certain cases — to defend them. Great care should be taken, therefore, in engaging in activities that might be perceived as inciting its disruption. Whatever any nation may say, both “defensiveness” and “offensiveness” are in the eye of the beholder.

Certainly the U.S. should prepare relevant countermeasures, and in a worst case scenario should not be limited to bringing “a knife to a gun fight.” But given the many options available, care should be taken not to promote a full-blown “Chicago way” in space by moving from preparing to fight into space to its outright weaponization. Space’s nature as an inherently offense-dominant environment makes it not only unnecessary, but also counterproductive and even dangerous, for a nation to preemptively deploy inherently offensive weapons in space. Weaponization of space could favor asymmetric countermeasures, thereby partially negating American advantages in comprehensive national power. Keeping space as peaceful as possible for as long as possible will therefore best preserve both U.S. interests and international stability. Since space assets are difficult to protect, the U.S. should consider the following measures: developing robust (micro)satellite replacement capacity, non-space alternative capabilities, and retaliatory forces for use in a worst case scenario. (Micro)satellite replacement may or may not be cost-effective against enemy kinetic interceptors; further analysis is needed in this area. In any case, to the extent possible without compromising American national interests, the U.S. should work to minimize the chances that a potential opponent feels that it must create a “Pearl Harbor” in space to defend its own national interests. While limiting redundant safeguards may be essential to control costs, non-space alternate capabilities may be particularly useful. Space capabilities may not be fully defensible in war, but are extremely useful in peacetime, and their destruction may be retaliated against.

The U.S. is already developing the capacity to conduct defensive space actions by using ground/sea-based launch-on-demand weapons, a far more cost-effective approach than permanently deploying space-based weapons. By leading the way in militarizing space, the U.S. would increase the vulnerability of its numerous space-based assets, upon which much of its economic and military power depends. This is both because the U.S. has more in space that could be shot down, and because space-based weapons increase our space vulnerability by prompting a potential adversary to build them also.The United States must continue to improve a range of aerospace capabilities (while considering whether some capabilities could be achieved more cheaply by other means) and should not enter into agreements that would constrain its peaceful and defensive uses of space. By continuing broad-based aerospace development while avoiding both unnecessary hostilities and overly restrictive agreements, the U.S. will be ready to change its space posture should new threats warrant it.

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If the U.S. can’t depend entirely on space, how does America preserve its advantage in command-and-control and intelligence systems, as they are currently largely space-based?

Space is expensive to enter and maintain assets in, but has inherent advantages, including in global coverage. This is tremendously important for two reasons. First, there is simply no way to equal such a high level of global coverage by other means without incurring far greater costs and complications; at least, in peacetime, before asset destruction becomes a factor. Second, space is the only one of the four global commons (the others being maritime, air, and cyber) in which China is not currently making active operational efforts to restrict U.S. access and use in peacetime. In the maritime and air domains (which begin 12 nautical miles from a country’s shores) by contrast, China uses policy and operational measures to attempt to limit the actions of U.S. and other militaries’ platforms in areas clearly beyond its territorial waters and airspace. In the cyber domain, China engages constantly in offensive operations beyond Chinese borders. Space is the one medium left in which China isn’t engaging in such restriction based on peacetime policies intended to regulate operations within specific geographic areas. At the same time, China is working to enable such restriction by physical means in the event of conflict, and even in peacetime. Jamming/dazzling from the ground is easy; there is no technological obstacle to China’s denying the U.S. use of the space commons.

To ensure that it can survive temporary or semi-permanent loss of critical space systems, the U.S. should increase its capabilities in other domains, bearing in mind China’s determination and increasing ability to hold at risk platforms operating near in its contested periphery. What needs to be accomplished and how this might be done in different ways should be given careful consideration.

In an engineering sense, the great advantages of an airborne “layer” for communications (as opposed to a space-based layer) are: denying the enemy the line of sight (LOS) to target and shoot one’s assets; and the ability to maneuver and deny the extreme predictability of Newtonian orbits. This last is probably the most important; even given an LOS, it is hard to hit a maneuvering target at high speeds and altitude, but satellites are capable of only the most limited maneuvering or “orbital divert.” For these reasons, satellites dominate peace-time ISR (and, to a lesser extent, communications) while aircraft are superior platforms in wartime against a China-sized opponent.

Unmanned aerial vehicles and near-space vehicles and are two types of platforms that could provide important capabilities, but have their own strengths and weaknesses. Near-space vehicles, for instance, have great advantages in wartime, but are probably the worst of both worlds in peacetime, being as expensive as spacecraft, but lacking persistence and often “re-usability.”

It seems you’re advocating greater distribution of command-and-control and intelligence assets across more regimes — air, space, manned, remote, etc. Do American research-and-development, launch and support capabilities allow for such dispersion at this point?

For airborne [Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance] and communications, launch facilities are a trivial issue. The R&D is more or less the same for the sensors, differing only in the platforms, and air platforms are generally less R&D intensive, and cheaper, than spacecraft. The U.S. military isn’t engaged in dispersion per se, but is rather diversifying, ideally into a space-based peacetime technical intelligence-gathering operation (focused on such factors as geospatial intelligence and order of battle), and an air-based wartime ISR and communications network. The U.S. already enjoys a large airborne ISR network, and the money for an airborne communications network might well come from reducing emphasis on the real-time space-based communications of the sort that might (in theory…or not) survive a Chinese assault.

Interestingly, China is likewise developing a diversity of ISR assets in both the air and space realms. On 3 January 2011, Vice Adm. David J. Dorsett, Deputy CNO for Information Dominance, stated that: “China likely has the space based … ISR … command-and-control structure, and ground processing capabilities necessary to support DF-21D employment. China operates a wide spectrum of satellites which can provide data useful for targeting within its maritime region. China [also] employs an array of non-space based sensors and surveillance assets capable of providing the targeting information necessary to employ the DF-21D…the satellite [command-and-control] systems are likely in place…China’s non-space based ISR could [likewise] provide the necessary information to support DF-21D employment. This includes aircraft, UAVs, fishing boats and over-the-horizon radar for ocean surveillance and targeting.

Manned vs. “remote” (unmanned) is not a key dimension of the space vs. alternatives debate, since all major U.S. military-relevant space capabilities are not piloted. It might be more important to Chinese force structure discussions, as Chinese strategic writings (like their Soviet predecessors) still maintain that astronauts can play a militarily-useful role in space.