Holding the High Ground

12 February 2011


The US National Security Space Strategy

A New Statement from the DOD and ODNI

It is one of the timeless verities of military engagement that holding the high ground is an advantage in combat (we would say today that it increases combat power is a “force multiplier”). When the battlefield was literally a battlefield, the high ground was literally high ground. When air power became technologically feasible and Giulio Douhet wrote his great prophetic treatise on the future of military air power, The Command of the Air, the high ground ceased to be ground at all in the literal sense and became the sky instead. Now that the battlefield has become battlespace, the high ground remains in the sky, and the higher you go in the sky the higher your “ground” and the greater your relative advantage over those who do not hold the high ground.

Even in the space age — I should say, especially in the Space Age — holding the high ground remains a military priority. While we now frequently hear about the efficacy of “boots on the ground,” it nevertheless remains true that combat on the ground is predicated upon air superiority, and air superiority is now predicated upon space superiority.

In recent decades, no world power has been more focused on establishing and maintaining air superiority than the US. All US combat operations are predicated upon air superiority. Recently in The End of the Age of the Aircraft Carrier I made the following observation:

The power that an aircraft carrier is projecting is the air arm that it carries. This is important. An aircraft carrier is not important because it mounts enormous naval guns like the Dreadnought class battleships of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. An aircraft carrier doesn’t mount any big guns at all. An aircraft carrier is a force to reckoned with because it brings aircraft to the theater of operations in an age in which command of the air is crucial to all combat operations.

Since air superiority is central to US strategic doctrine, it stands to reason that the US would be centrally concerned with continuing to hold the high ground, and today this means establishing and maintaining military superiority in space. To this end, the Department of Defense and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence have jointly issued a strategic document titled National Security Space Strategy. A 21 page unclassified summary has been released. While I am sure that all the good stuff is in the redacted classified portions, the public has nothing to go on except that unclassified portion. In a climate of imperfect information, we work with what we have and not what we wish he had.

The report provides us with the handy mnemonic device of summarizing the strategic challenges of space with three “C”s: congestion, contestation, and competition. The report then goes on to outline three strategic objectives in space:

Strengthen safety, stability, and security in space;
Maintain and enhance the strategic national security advantages afforded to the United States by space; and
Energize the space industrial base that supports U.S. national security.

There are also five “strategic approaches”:

Promote responsible, peaceful, and safe use of space;
Provide improved U.S. space capabilities;
Partner with responsible nations, international organizations, and commercial firms;
Prevent and deter aggression against space infrastructure that supports U.S. national security; and
Prepare to defeat attacks and to operate in a degraded environment.

These “strategic approaches” are central to the report, since each bullet point above is given a page of exposition, which is more material than is devoted to any other aspect in the report. The conclusion addresses the three “C”s mentioned above:

We seek to address congestion by establishing norms, enhancing space situational awareness, and fostering greater transparency and information sharing. Our words and deeds should reassure our allies and the world at large of our intent to act peacefully and responsibly in space and encourage others to do the same.
We seek to address the contested environment with a multilayered deterrence approach. We will support establishing international norms and transparency and confidence-building measures in space, primarily to promote spaceflight safety but also to dissuade and impose international costs on aggressive behavior. We will improve and protect vital U.S. space capabilities while using interoperability, compatibility, and integration to create coalitions and alliances of responsible space-faring nations. We will improve our capability to attribute attacks and seek to deny meaningful operational benefits from such attacks. We will retain the right and capabilities to respond in self-defense, should deterrence fail.
We seek to address competition by enhancing our own capabilities, improving our acquisition processes, fostering a healthy U.S. industrial base, and strengthening collaboration and cooperation.

Compared to what the US and other spacefaring nation-states could be doing in extra-atmospheric space, the most advanced industrialized economies are doing very little in space. Yes, space and the electromagnetic spectrum in space are becoming increasingly crowded and congested, to the point that accidental collisions may become a real concern in the not too distant future. Most of what is being done in space is filling near earth orbit with the communications satellites that have become so central to the telecommunications revolution, as well as the now-multitudinous cameras in space that supply pictures from orbit to anyone with a computer and an internet connection. What was once the preserve of a few spies and intelligence specialists is now available to almost anyone.

The items mentioned in the report above focus on what is being done on the ground to support these communications and intelligence-gathering capabilities in orbit. If any person of an ordinary degree of imagination stops to think about it, something seems a little odd about this picture, especially if we compare the militarization of space to the militarization of the air as projected in Douhet’s visionary book on air power mentioned above. It takes but little reflection to imagine what could be done in terms of the militarization of space in order to secure and maintain the high ground. Why are these things not being done? There are several reasons for this.

Travel from the surface of the earth to earth orbit — the minimum condition of a spacefaring capability — is still extremely expensive and still risky. Rockets still occasionally explode on the launch pad, fall into the ocean, or failure to separate their stages. There is a reason we call it “rocket science”: it is technically very difficult to do. However, we know that technically difficult and risky measures are routinely undertaken in the service of national defense. Indeed, soldiers give their lives every day in the pursuit of this aim. Thus this cannot be the only reason; expense and risk are limitations, but not primary motivations.

There is also the Outer Space Treaty of 1967. This idealistic and forward-thinking document (dating from two years prior to the first moon landing) includes, inter alia, the following two items:

States shall not place nuclear weapons or other weapons of mass destruction in orbit or on celestial bodies or station them in outer space in any other manner;
the Moon and other celestial bodies shall be used exclusively for peaceful purposes;

These provisions reflect a strong sentiment of the time, and apparently still widely present. There is, quite simply, on the part of a great many people, a certain revulsion of the idea of the militarization and weaponization of space. Since the dawn of the Space Age, the discovery and exploration of space have represented the highest ideals of scientific-technical civilization, and they have become a kind of naturalistic eschatology to which individuals and nation-states alike can aspire. This latter feeling is less prominent today than during the period of excitement and achievement culminating in the Apollo moon landings, but it is still present. One need only look at the prominent role of science fiction in popular culture (film, television, novels, comic books, etc.) to understand that space travel is a dream that resonates with a great many people in the world today.

Thus we see that there are strong cultural limitations placed upon the exploitation of space for military purposes. Although the Outer Space Treaty forbids only “weapons of mass destruction” in space, and forbids the use of the moon and other celestial bodies to military uses, as time has passed and technology and civilization have continued to evolve on the surface of the earth, these limitations are less limitations than they were in the past, and it is more and more only the cultural limitation that prevents the militarization of space. And, as anyone acquainted with history might easily guess, in an existential struggle these cultural limitations would disappear as quickly as capital and technology were made available to overcome them.

We are, at present, in a great age of the precisification of weapons systems. I recently wrote about this in Precisification of Small Arms Fire, but this applies far beyond small arms fire. Many of the same considerations of the precisification of small arms fire apply to China’s development of the DF-21D anti-ship ballistic missile, for example. Traditional weapons of mass destruction — nuclear, chemical, and biological — are slowly, gradually, incrementally becoming obsolete and irrelevant as and the technology and industrial tooling become available to create precision conventional weapons systems.

One of the unintended consequences of the cultural construction of nuclear weapons as “unthinkable” and the development of Cold War conflicts under the nuclear umbrella was a spur to the development of conventional capabilities beyond anything previously imagined. Now that the past twenty years of rapid developments in telecommunications and computers have given us technological assets of which no one had previously dreamed, conventional military capabilities refined in the proxy wars of the Cold War are being updated, upgraded, and augmented by the high technology capabilities that will make it possible to strike any target, no matter how small, at any time, at any place, in less time than it takes to eat your lunch. These capabilities could be greatly facilitated by orbiting installations.

Without the use of celestial bodies for military purposes, and without the use of weapons of mass destruction, conventional precision weapons on orbiting platforms could reduce the response and strike time of the conventional precision weapons systems now based on naval, ground, or aerial platforms. A hypersonic missile traveling between mach 5 and mach 10 could travel from low earth orbit (100 – 1,240 miles above the Earth’s surface) to a point on the earth’s surface in no more the 20 minutes or, under ideal conditions (very low earth orbit and very high mach number) less than one minute. Counter-measures to a weapons system such as this would be difficult in the extreme.

As I noted above, in any existential struggle the cultural limitations voluntarily imposed on the weaponization of space would vanish in a puff of smoke. I have no doubt that the defense departments of the US, Russia, China, India, France, Brazil, and many others possess detailed contingency plans to make such capabilities available on relatively short notice. Yet these obvious scenarios are utterly absent from the National Security Space Strategy, just as NATO is not mentioned a single time, as though it didn’t even exist, notwithstanding the widely publicized NATO plan to pursue an anti-ballistic missile program, which would obviously involve space-based assets. Silence is golden.

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