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We Must Not Allow a Satellite Gap!

Satellites have become indispensable to modern life. GPS all but ended the need to stop and ask for directions. Satellite radio opened the airwaves. Satellite phone and internet connected the world in ways previously unimaginable. What would happen if this satellite system was attacked and disabled?

space debris
Image courtesy of NASA, © 2005

The United States must be ready to defend its space assets, especially as the United States loses its monopoly on space, and potentially hostile competitors gain a presence. In order to gain control of the situation, the United States should use a combination of active defenses, including designating a dedicated space command, fully funding NASA, and promoting a set of international norms to secure space.

One of the most pressing dangers facing U.S. space assets is not a malicious foreign actor, but how crowded space is becoming. During the Cold War, the United States and Soviet Union were the only major space-powers. However, as more states gained the ability to put satellites into space, more were put into orbit. Problems arise not just from the sheer number of satellites, but especially when these satellites remain in orbit past their functional life and become space debris. There is an estimated 8,400 tonnes of uncontrolled space debris in orbit. Combined with the vast number of satellites in orbit, it is only a matter of time before a collision with a navigation or military satellite occurs.

Some efforts to clean up space are already under way. The British have successfully tested an autonomous satellite that can harpoon and reel in space junk. Other countries (and private companies) have been testing autonomous or remote controlled satellites that can scoop up large quantities of space debris. The United States must also develop its own space cleaners, and take the lead on developing international norms and laws regarding responsibility for space debris in order to maintain its position as a preeminent space leader and power. Defining responsibility and liability for space junk will not only benefit the United States, but every space power by promoting good behavior in space, as well as energizing efforts to clean up space.

Autonomous space cleaners are only one facet of autonomous satellite development. The major space-faring states are developing autonomous or remote controlled satellites that can repair, refuel, upgrade, or change the orbit of existing satellites. These drone satellites will allow states to keep their satellites in orbit and functioning longer, cutting down on space junk and saving money (in the long-term) on the development of new satellites.

These same drone satellites could be used by malicious actors to damage, de-orbit, or otherwise sabotage vulnerable military and communications satellites. At the moment, there is no international law or norm regarding satellite defense, and as space launching abilities become more affordable and available, any hostile power could put one of these drone satellites in orbit that would threaten U.S. command and control. In order to gain control over the situation, the United States should both defend its satellites and promote the idea that a “zone of control” exists around U.S. and allied satellites. Akin to national airspace and national waters, traversing another state’s space zone of control would require prior authorization and notification. This way, the United States would be able to track and keep tabs on foreign objects that stray close to our satellites, and would be able to determine if the object is malicious or not.

When it comes to actively defending U.S. space assets, the United States has a number of things it can start implementing right now. Planet-based defenses of antennae and control centers can be improved or modified to better protect command and control interfaces. In space, drone satellites can also be used for defense, either as a blocker or an armed bodyguard to protect a space asset from an encroaching hostile object. Implementing these measures, along with establishing and enforcing zones of control around U.S. space assets, would be significant steps in securing American space assets from attack.

While initially mocked, the idea of a U.S. “Space Force” is not necessarily a bad one. Currently, the U.S. Air Force oversees the majority of U.S. military space operations, but each branch of the military has a need for space born assets. A unified space command, not necessarily a separate branch but a command that has total responsibility for protecting U.S. space assets, would be one small step for the United States, while promoting good behavior in space, backed up by a Space Command, would be one giant leap for mankind.

As more states turn towards the stars and look to compete with the United States in space, the United States must not only do more to secure its position, but also begin to tame the final frontier. Reliance on satellite communications and GPS is both a great asset and strategic weak point for the United States. Washington must do more now to ensure that this asset is not endangered.


John Ashley

John Ashley was the 2017 YPFP Nuclear Security Fellow; he holds a Master of International Policy degree from the University of Georgia, where his studies concentrated in CBRN nonproliferation, export controls, and international security. John also holds a B.A. in History from the University of Georgia, and wrote his thesis on the Great War in Africa. His career goal is to work on the committee staff for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
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