Note: this article originally appeared in Air University’s The Wright Stuff.
Space Warfare and Space Weapons
By Mark Stout
Arms control efforts, as they pertain to the space domain, often attempt to constrain, control, or manage capabilities instead of behaviors. But this focus on capabilities instead of behaviors is misplaced. Consider the modest hammer: hammering a nail is a condoned and necessary task; hammering someone’s face isn’t.
One example of misdirected concern regards the attempt to keep space from becoming “weaponized.” Ah, you ask, but just what is space weaponization? As a point of intellectual departure, the group Reaching Critical Will offers this:
Space weaponization is generally understood to refer to the placement in orbit of space-based devices that have a destructive capacity. Many experts argue that ground-based systems designed or used to attack space-based assets also constitute space weapons, though they are not technically part of the “weaponization of outer space” since they are not placed in orbit.
Space is one of the “global commons” which also include international waters, the associated sea bed and subsoil, and by some definitions, the Antarctic. The implied benefit of anti-space weapon campaigns is that those efforts will preserve the global commons of space for the benefit of all mankind. However, space weaponization–the capability–is not the driving issue. Rather, the concern is the behaviors–space warfare.
Space warfare is the process of military struggle regarding information that’s delivered in, to, through, or from the space domain, and it can happen with or without space weaponization. While space weaponization gets all the headlines, it’s really a subset of space warfare which is both more common and more significant.
Space warfare is characterized by purposeful behaviors which affect the delivery and availability of space domain products and services. As such, space warfare is concerned with the behaviors that are used to create particular outcomes. Space warfare might affect a space capability in a temporary and reversible manner, or as with a kinetic anti-satellite attack, it might be permanent and irreversible.
The ability to conduct space warfare has become a pragmatic necessity for U.S. adversaries, and by extension, for the United States and its allies. However unlike Clausewitz’s definition of war, space warfare — as with cyber warfare — is generally going to be (but is not limited to) an act lacking physical force. Space warfare, even when it employs temporary and reversible methods, can still be used to compel an enemy to do our will.
If someone intentionally jams a GPS or communications signal, the event doesn’t entail a weapon in space, but the intent and effect created is that of space warfare. Similarly, if an intelligence community spacecraft is laser-dazzled for the purpose of affecting its ability to gather information, this too is an act of space warfare.
Finally, a satellite is just an information gathering and disseminating device until it runs into someone else’s satellite. At that point — depending on the intent of those controlling the satellite — it is at minimum a space debris dispenser or even a de facto space war machine. “Ramming speed,” to borrow from Ben-Hur, is easily enough achieved in space when objects are travelling in a nominal low earth orbit at seven kilometers per second.
In all of these examples, space warfare is being purposefully used to deprive users of space domain delivered information. So why is it space weaponization and not space warfare is the issue that warrants so much of the arms controller’s attentions?
The most compelling hypothesis is the anti-space weapon campaigns are largely an attempt to pre-empt space-based missile defense. Space-based missile defense would be exceedingly useful in countering attacking ICBMs before those ICBMs deploy countermeasures which can confuse and overwhelm defensive efforts. But why would anyone want to stop incoming ICBMs which would almost certainly be loaded with weapons of mass destruction, even if it requires the use of (gasp!) “space weapons”?
Beyond consulting Freud, it may be because space-based missile defense upsets the arms control community’s sense of balance. This desire for balance often has the enduring and overarching goals of stability and equitability. Unfortunately, the results are security policies which support a stable “balance of nuclear terror” with a fair and equitable “mutually assured destruction.”
Space warfare, whether it includes space weapons or not, is merely a political act; a Clausewitzian extension of competing terrestrial wills between political bodies. As such, to prevent space warfare — or space weapons — one must prevent earth warfare and earth weapons, propositions which have eluded mankind for some time.
It’s been said the three stages of innovation are: 1) it’ll never work; 2) it’ll cost too much; and 3) I can’t believe we weren’t doing this before. As peace has yet burst out all across the global commons, let’s start working more on addressing behaviors like space warfare and less on often misnamed capabilities like “space weapons.” To modernize and again borrow from Ben-Hur, let us keep our space warfare shields ready and our swords bright as we ponder a future that includes space-based “weapons.”
Mark Stout is a researcher and analyst at the Air Force Space and Cyber Strategy Center and administers its unofficial blog Songs of Space and Nuclear War. The opinions expressed here are those of the author alone and may not reflect the views and policies of the US Air Force or the Department of Defense.