Flashpoints | Security

Space-Based Nuclear Command and Control and the ‘Non-Nuclear Strategic Attack’

Counterspace capabilities may meet dual-purpose command and control assets to create new risks.

Ankit Panda
Space-Based Nuclear Command and Control and the ‘Non-Nuclear Strategic Attack’
Credit: NASA via Wikimedia Commons

The Trump administration’s 2018 Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) drew much attention for the inclusion of language expanding the scope under which the United States might employ nuclear weapons. Specifically, the document observed that certain “extreme circumstances,” which “could include significant non-nuclear strategic attacks,” would rise to the level of meriting a nuclear response.

In remarks delivered during an online video conference this week, Christopher Ford, U.S. assistant secretary at the State Department’s Bureau of International Security and Nonproliferation, discussed this language in the context of space security. Ford emphasized that for the purposes of parsing that bit of the 2018 NPR, American adversaries should understand that U.S. space-based dual-use (nuclear and nonnuclear) command and control assets qualified as what the 2017 National Security Strategy had dubbed a “vital U.S. interest.”

Accordingly, Ford continues: “I need hardly point out — but I will nonetheless, for emphasis — that the U.S. National nuclear Command, Control, and Communications (NC3) architecture depends to some extent upon space-based systems.” He is clear therefore that nonnuclear attacks on this architecture would potentially rise to the level of a nuclear response: “Any harmful interference with or attacks upon such components of our space architecture at any time, even if undertaken only with non-nuclear tools, thus starts to move into ‘significant non-nuclear strategic attack’ territory, and would lead to a significant and potentially drastic escalation of a crisis or conflict.”

Much of what Ford says here is not new or surprising, but his remarks offer one of the starker presentations of these ideas by a U.S. official in recent years — at least since the release of the 2018 NPR. The problem that arises is one of “entanglement,” where a crisis might escalate to the nuclear level inadvertently if an adversary — say China — is attempting to degrade U.S. conventional operations by taking aim at certain space-based assets. Though the United States openly acknowledges the role of space-based assets in nuclear command and control, there is no explicit tabulation of which American military satellites are “nuclear” and which are “nonnuclear.”

With anti-satellite weapons and counterspace capabilities quickly becoming a growth area for several countries, including Russia and China, these issues deserve serious consideration. That’s why Ford notes that “It is essential that any potential adversary understand this with crystalline clarity,” further adding that, “with the PRC exploring capabilities to attack satellites in orbits such as those of our NC3 systems, it is important to note that this is not just a theoretical or hypothetical question.”

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

The entire array of nuclear command, control, and communications (or NC3) systems in the United States is vast, encompassing space-based early warning satellites, sensors, terrestrial radars, and several networked facilities. Space-based NC3 assets deserve special consideration after the 2018 NPR’s widening of the conditions for nuclear use. Unfortunately, with no serious talks between the United States and China on strategic stability, risks will remain high and mutual understanding low.