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Peace through the Space Force: How Washington Must Assert Itself Today and Tomorrow

Conflict in space might seem a tad far-fetched, but emboldened Russian and Chinese investments in advanced anti-satellite (ASAT) strike and inter-continental ballistic missile (ICBM) capabilities are fueling new suspicions of a threatening military build-up in the cosmos. When understood as part of a greater strategic framework, these developments reflect a greater Sino-Russian vision of space as a future theater of great-power competition. In this regard, particularly with China’s actions, they have outlined the perception of military preeminence in the high ground as a zero-sum game. Recent maneuvers by Russia’s Kosmos 4525 stalker satellite to spy on a US intelligence satellite earlier this month have further confirmed this outlook from Moscow.

Image courtesy of United States Space Force

In response, the Administration has taken important steps in developing space defense capabilities by advancing a cohesive US space strategy through the Space Policy Directives, which established the United States Space Force (USSF) late last year. Moreover, the development of integrated satellite security systems under the nascent USSF is a first, and crucial step in enhancing the US’s military-readiness. Providing for about 70% of the military’s combat systems, inadequately defended satellites represent an “unquantified risk to the United States,” as reported in a recent National Defense University study. The fielding of new defensive space technologies will guarantee the closing of this existential security gap.

To date, America’s adversaries have developed a distinct forward policy in space. Through completely militarized space programs, China and Russia pose a variety of unprecedented threats. Their most salient ASAT technologies, as reported in a recent DIA review,

include in-orbit electric magnetic pulse (EMP) directed energy weapons and ground-based anti-satellite missiles.

To provide some perspective, China established the precedent for space weaponization in 2007, when it launched the first-ever ASAT missile into space to destroy a PLA weather satellites. Today, a mere 12 years later, China’s space dream is described in the 2019 US-China Economic and Security Review Commission’s Annual Report as “plans not merely to explore space, but to industrially dominate the space within the moon’s orbit of Earth” – an ambition supported by the belief that space is “a critical U.S. military and economic vulnerability[.]” In China’s words, it’s truly an all-or-nothing scenario.

Russia has demonstrated similar ambitions, culminating in the March 2018 testing of a direct-ascent ASAT weapon, the PL-19, which was described by an IHS Jane’s Review as “one of several Russian ASAT systems that are being developed to engage targets in lower earth orbit (LEO).” Furthermore, according to the 2019 Missile Defense Review, “Russia is developing a diverse suite of ground-launched and directed-energy ASAT capabilities, and continues to launch “experimental” satellites that conduct sophisticated on-orbit activities to advance Russian counterspace capabilities.”

Thankfully, the newly established USSF provides the US with the necessary defense architecture to effectively counter these threats whilst dramatically improving early-warning capabilities. In fielding a cadre of satellite defense systems which range from improved anti-jamming capabilities to high-energy laser technologies, the USSF is positioned to effectively defend critical US assets. Additionally, by bolstering space-based missile sensors, the USSF may dramatically improve early warning missile defense systems, establishing what the 2019 Missile Defense Review defines as a “space based defensive layer.” Specifically regarding missile defense, space-based sensors will enhance the “targeting of advanced threats, including HGVs and hypersonic cruise missiles.”

The newly established Space Force will also vastly strengthen international stability through more US-led deterrence. Given the importance of GPS and GNSS signals for the global financial system, navigation, and telecommunications (to name a few), security on the high frontier is an international civilian necessity which the USSF will prove instrumental in furthering. In fact, interagency collaboration on the topic of civilian satellite security was established by a crucial executive order signed by the President on February 12th to “protect critical infrastructure that rely on positioning, navigation, and timing services.” Seeing the collaboration of the Department of Commerce’s National Institute of Standards and Technology with the Pentagon, these efforts will ensure the long-term security of position, navigation and timing (PNT) technologies.

The Space Force, established in the spirit of strengthening US national security and ensuring international peace, will work to protect “the Nation’s interests in space and the peaceful use of space for all responsible actors, consistent with applicable law, including international law.” A positive development for America and the international community, the US Space Force will secure America’s leadership in space while underwriting the important contributions of international space law.

After all, tomorrow’s challenges can only be faced by today’s resolve. As General James H. Doolittle stated in 1959, “We the United States of America, can be first. If we do not expend the thought, the effort, and the money required, then another and more progressive nation will. It will dominate space, and it will dominate the world.”

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Fabio Van Loon

Fabio van Loon is a DC-based Foreign Policy Correspondent for the Italian foreign affairs review, Atlantico Quotidiano, where he has focused on space affairs, cybersecurity and a range of international security topics. As a dual US-Italian citizen and graduate of LUISS University in Rome, Fabio is passionate about the Italy-US relationship, and has extensive research experience in US Space Policy and International Space Law.

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