The Chicken-and-Egg Debate About New Threats in Space

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April 12, 2019 | Originally published by Date Line: April 12 on

The final frontier is contested space. Nations across the globe are at work developing tools and techniques to survive a conflict in the heavens, should it occur. With the United States appearing to move toward a more formal Space Force and in light of new anti-satellite missile demonstrations, it’s worth examining where, exactly, other nations stand in terms of counter-space capabilities.

The 2019 edition of the Secure World Foundation Global Counterspace report builds on the 2018 version, and could hardly be more timely. On March 27, India announced it had successfully demonstrated an anti-satellite missile, by destroying one of its own low-orbiting satellites. In the United States, acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan used the test as an opportunity to emphasize the nature of space as a contested domain.

But what are the current dynamics of contesting the heavens?

“The big changes to Chinese doctrine and space organization happened a few years ago when they created their Strategic Support Force,” said Brian Weeden, Director of Policy Programming at the Secure World Foundation and co-editor of the report. “This is a new military organization that combines space, electronic warfare, and cyber capabilities. And I think it’s important to highlight that, unlike the U.S., China is not viewing it in a domain-centric way.”

Rather than treating space as a stand-alone domain, Weeden said China’s Strategic Support Force is “focused on how space, electronic warfare, and cyber can be used together for military effects instead of focusing on space as a domain by itself.”

The impetus behind this change is terrestrial at heart. Given that the change occurred years ago, it’s likely a response to how the United States relied on space assets during the start of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. This focus on space in response to U.S. activity is hardly a response unique to China.

“The Russian activities are part of a years-long effort that predates the U.S. announcement of a Space Force,” says Victoria Samson, Washington office director of the Secure World Foundation and co-editor of the report. “What I think we’re seeing is an increased willingness to speak more openly in unclassified media about the Russian counterspace capabilities, and this is probably partially (but not entirely) shaped by U.S. statements about space being a warfighting domain.”