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Fight For Space Assets, Don't Just Deter


Remember the Chinese shooting down their weather satellite? Remember the Chinese using a laser to paint a US satellite? Remember the US shooting down its own crippled spy satellite, US 193? All these have put the protection of space assets on the front burner of the Defense Department's strategy and space experts. Democrats pretty universally have opposed what they call the weaponization of space. Republicans have been extremely cautious, concerned that the debris caused by weapon strikes could ruin the utility of space. The Pentagon is leaning toward deterrence, not active protection of space assets. One of the top national security space experts, Bob Butterworth, weighs in below for what I will call (in the best Chinese tradition) the third way, arguing that space defense does not require weapons in space.

If the Pentagon knows an important military system is vulnerable you’d think they would take every action to protect it, right? Not when it comes to national security satellites. Pentagon planners are looking toward deterrence instead of protection to safeguard critical services provided by space assets in times of peace, crisis, and war.

Why they are doing so remains a puzzle, particularly when there are means ready to hand that can assure continued space support for the joint fight, even when space itself is contested. Perhaps the end of the Cold War has left the defense establishment with no recent familiarity with the dangerous complexities of deterrence policies.

Or perhaps there is a misreading of history, imagining a golden age in which space was a sanctuary because pitted adversaries acted on perceived common interests, rather than because technology did not yet enable selective attacks against enemy satellites without endangering one’s own. Or perhaps there is a hope that continued vulnerability will inspire future regimes of arms control and international monitoring.

Or maybe slipshod language has muddied the conceptual clarity developed in years past. Deterrence, as Glen Snyder noted in 1961, aims to discourage “the enemy from taking military action by posing for him a prospect of cost and risk which outweighs his prospective gain. Defense means reducing our own prospective costs and risks in the event that deterrence fails. Deterrence works on the enemy’s intentions . . . [while] defense reduces the enemy’s capability to damage or deprive us . . . .”

Defenses offer protection, while deterrence threatens punishment. Defenses can succeed whether the enemy believes in them or not. Deterrence can only succeed if the enemy finds the threat of punishment to be believable, embodied in actual capabilities, and meaningfully related to the costs and risks of the action at hand. In practice, therefore, while the failure of deterrence might be obvious (although accidents, unauthorized actions, misperceptions, and misinterpretations can complicate even that determination), its success can almost never be shown without embracing a post hoc fallacy.

Defenses can deter, but deterrence policies cannot defend. Defenses can be tested and exercised; deterrence threats cannot: their efficacy depends on the perceptions and actions of a foreign government. That other government, Fred Ikle often remarked, might well involve a complexity of organizations, interests, personalities, and bureaucracies comparable to our own. And from Macarthur’s assurance that the Chinese would not come into Korea, to expectations that invading Iraq would look like the liberation of Paris, the record of American insight into those perceptions and complexities is demonstrably poor.

But wait—doesn’t the “assured destruction” policy during the Cold War show that deterrence policies need not be so uncertain and tenuous? Well, no. Assured destruction was part of a declaratory policy that differed appropriately from acquisition and execution policies, all three of which matured through successive administrations toward providing the national command authority with increasingly flexible options to respond effectively to a range of circumstances while limiting the potential for uncontrolled escalation.

The 1981 Defense Guidance, for example, listed six nuclear objectives, among them the ability “to deny the Soviets (or any other adversary) their political and military objectives,” and “should deterrence fail, deny the Soviet Union (or any other adversary) a military victory at any level of conflict and force earliest termination of hostilities on terms favorable to the United States.” Moreover, interviews and research in the early 1990s revealed several instances of mutual misperception of national security events and “messages” between the United States and the Soviet Union. The two had widely differing approaches to preparing for strategic warfare (despite what Soviet negotiators may have told US foreign service officers).

All these considerations are especially problematic for US military space systems. What action would one seek to deter—destruction of a satellite? Reversible interference with it? Jamming of uplinks? What threat of punishment would be believable and meaningful? Certainly not retaliation in kind: That would give the advantage to the attacker, because the US has integrated space into the joint fight far more completely than any one else. Certainly not attacks on the enemy homeland: even if the US would actually execute such attacks, the threat of doing so (for deterrence) would be impossibly difficult to make credible.

Fortunately these problems need cause no worry, because the US can pursue programs of defense, rather than policies of deterrence. Nor need those defenses exacerbate concerns over warfare in space. Being able to augment and surge space systems rapidly, to complicate enemy detection and targeting, to capitalize on the “virtual armada” of allied and commercial systems, and to integrate the products of space and terrestrial sensors, can eliminate the military advantage an enemy might seek from attacking US satellites, and none of those measures requires anything in the way of space-based weaponry. The US needs space in warfare, not warfare in space.

Bob Butterworth is a consultant to government and commercial clients on national security space issues, a job he's done since 1991. Before that, Bob was a professional staff member on the Senate Select Committee for Intelligence and served as deputy executive director of President's Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board.

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