US and Russia on the Brink of a War in Space

January 18th, 2020 - by Sandra Erwin / Space News

Study Raises Prospect of Space Conflict if US and Russia Abandon START Nuclear Arms Control Treaty

Sandra Erwin / Space News 

WASHINGTON (January 15, 2020) — The military and intelligence community’s space agencies may have to cope with growing instability in outer space if the United States and Russia don’t renew the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) that is set to expire on February 5, 2021, experts warn in a new report.

A study released Jan. 15 by the Aerospace Corporation’s Center for Space Policy and Strategy notes that abandoning the New START Treaty could not only reignite a nuclear arms race but also destabilize outer space.

If US President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin allow the treaty to expire, limits on US and Russian nuclear arms will cease as well as prohibitions on interference with space-based “national technical means” that are used to verify treaty compliance, the Aerospace report says. Space-based national technical means include satellites operated by the National Reconnaissance Office and the Defense Department.

Michael Gleason, senior strategic space analyst at Aerospace and co-author of the paper, said the United States and Russia have for decades maintained a de facto ban on interfering with each others’ surveillance and military satellites but that could change in the absence of an arms control regime.

The United States might have to prepare for the possibility that Russia could try to interfere with both US government and commercial remote sensing assets, Gleason said Jan. 15 at an Aerospace Corp. news conference in Arlington, Virginia.

At stake is a “50 year legacy of prohibition on interference that helped establish legitimacy of overflight,” he said.

The study considers scenarios that could unfold if New START is not extended. A likely outcome is that “strategic stability in space may suffer,” he said.

The treaty was signed April 8, 2010 in Prague by Russia and the United States and entered into force on Feb. 5, 2011.

A key concern for the US military — both for US Space Command and the US Space Force — is that if the treaty is not renewed there could be a higher demand for satellite surveillance of Russia’s nuclear capabilities because there won’t be on-site inspections, Gleason said. That would incur an “opportunity cost” if satellites have to be tasked to do additional imaging and pulled away from other areas.

Another concern is the possibility that Russia would try to interfere with military constellations like the Space Based Infrared System, the Global Positioning System and strategic communications satellites which are considered part of the national technical means that support treaty compliance. “If NTM overflight legitimacy is broadly challenged, space stability will be significantly worse than today,” the report says.

Neither the United States nor Russia have identified what satellites are considered national technical means but it might be worth rethinking that policy in the absence of New START, the report says. “Reaching a separate agreement on noninterference with NTM seems more likely if specific satellites, on all sides, are identified as NTM.” That does not mean specific spacecraft capabilities would need to be revealed, but “removing the ambiguity over which satellites are NTM might be judged worthwhile in order to proactively shape the future strategic context in space.”

Deterring aggression in space is “more important than ever,” says the report. It suggests that revealing the identity of NTM spacecraft might strengthen deterrence as adversaries have to know about one’s capability to be deterred by it.

The end of New START would give the United States the opportunity to reconsider the current policy of not attributing interference against US satellites, the study says. “The current reasons for not publicly attributing incidences of interference has been the concern that attributing interference may divulge US technological capabilities.”

Attributing interference could subject the United States to criticism by other countries, but the study suggests that public attribution of bad behavior could shape the strategic environment by reinforcing noninterference as an international norm of behavior. “The national security space enterprise could follow in the vein of the cybersecurity community, in which incidences of cyber interference and attacks are publicly ‘named and shamed’ comparatively aggressively,” the study says.

Gleason noted that different types of satellites may be considered national technical means. Imaging satellites and synthetic aperture radar satellites collect detailed imagery of things on the ground, such as inter-continental ballistic missiles and aircraft. Other satellites detect electronic signals, which may provide insights into a missile’s or missile launcher’s performance.

US missile launch warning satellites such as Defense Support Program and Space-Based Infrared System spacecraft detect the heat generated by a missile launch, and monitor Russian ICBM and submarine-launched ballistic missiles launch tests.

GPS could be put in the NTM category as well because of its nuclear detection capability, the study says. GPS detects the flash and radiation of nuclear detonations and may be used to verify compliance with the Limited Test Ban Treaty and the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.

The impact of not extending New START on space security also was addressed by CNA analyst Vince Manzo in a March 2019 report.

Without New START, the United States would “face an opportunity cost of diverting scarce national technical means, such as satellites, and technical analysts from other missions,” Manzo wrote. Neither the United States nor Russia “would have the same degree of confidence in its ability to assess the other’s precise warhead levels.”

Experts Call for More Diplomacy, Less Militarization of Space

Sandra Erwin / Space News 

WASHINGTON — (October 4, 2017) —As Congress debates a contentious proposal to create a military “space corps,” some of Washington’s top experts say the US government should promote more civility and less bellicosity in the cosmos.

Shifting the management of military space programs from the Air Force to a separate space corps is an idea that has long been talked about but never acted upon until this year, when the House Armed Services Committee inserted language in the House version of the 2018 defense policy bill.

The Senate did not include the provision in its version of the bill so the outcome of the space corps is still uncertain. Air Force leaders oppose it, claiming that such a drastic reorganization would be disruptive and counterproductive. Some space industry insiders worry that it will send the wrong message at a time when a war in space seems more likely than it has in decades.

“It’s a touchy subject to say the least,” said Michael Neufeld, senior curator at the Smithsonian National Air & Space Museum.

Congress should weigh this legislation carefully and consider unintended consequences such as a dangerous space arms race, Neufeld said Oct. 4 at a Washington conference commemorating the 60th anniversary of the dawn of the space age, when the Soviet Union launched the world’s first artificial satellite Sputnik.

There is no question that the United States has to protect its access to space, Neufeld said. “We can’t take it for granted, but it can go away if you don’t deal with this properly.”

A 1967 treaty bans the deployment of weapons in space. Neufeld nevertheless sees fundamental threats to US access to space — particularly low Earth orbit — that the nation should be able to address without overly militarizing what has been largely a peaceful domain.

One daunting challenge is the proliferation of space junk as more satellites and other objects continue to create clutter, said Neufeld. The Union of Concerned Scientists estimates there are 1,459 satellites currently orbiting Earth.

Another concern is the possibility that other nations will deploy weapons in low Earth orbit. Neufeld said this could be destabilizing and endanger the wide array of commercial and civilian government activities that fuel the space economy.

“More civility and deterrence” are needed in space, said Bruce MacDonald, adjunct professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.

“What is troubling to me is the prospect of a rapid escalation in space once a certain ‘red line’ is crossed,” MacDonald said Oct. 4 at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. The think tank unveiled a new study titled “Escalation and Deterrence in the Second Space Age.”

To better protect its satellites, CSIS analysts suggest, the United States needs new and improved technology to identify and locate sources of radio frequency interference and cyber attacks. The nation also should invest in more resilient systems to reduce or deny the potential benefits of an adversary’s attacks.

For example, rather than continuing to buy small numbers of large and expensive satellites for critical missions such as missile warning and nuclear command and control, the US military could transition to flexible constellations of smaller, less expensive satellites in a variety of orbits.

The United States also should consider greater use of alternative commercial and non-space systems in order to augment or replace degraded military space systems, the study proposed.

What constitutes a red line that, if crossed, could set off a conflict is another issue that needs further attention, the study said. The answer today depends on whom you ask. One country may take the dazzling of a satellite as an act of war, without necessarily knowing if it was intentional or an accident. As it becomes easier to disable satellites with cyberattacks, these questions are getting tougher to answer.

The odds of a war in space are increased by the United States’ reluctance to engage with other space powers, said Theresa Hitchens, a senior scholar at the Center for International & Security Studies at the University of Maryland.

“We have failed in this country to learn how to talk to China,” she said. “We need a greater understanding of capabilities and intent.” China is a rising space power, Hitchens noted. “We are shooting ourselves in the foot by our inability to open those doors.”

The business of setting policies for military use of space is complicated by the fact that many agencies are involved from the Defense Department and the intelligence community. “We don’t understand what the red lines are because we haven’t had a conflict in space,” said Todd Harrison, director of the CSIS Aerospace Security Project.

Military commanders have different views on what constitutes a hostile attack against spacecraft, for instance. Having a space corps may not necessarily solve these problems, although it would give space a bigger voice in the national security debate, Harrison said. Having a chief of space on the Joint Chiefs of Staff, he said, would be significant.

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