Defining a Military Strategy for the New Space Environment

by | Oct 12, 2011

By William J. Lynn, III, U.S. deputy secretary of Defense, Washington, D.C.

As disaster struck Japan and revolution swept the Middle East, Americans again watched global events unfold in real time through a network of satellites in space that has revolutionized both information dissemination and how we live. For decades, we have taken this network for granted, along with the operational environment of space that supports it. But quietly, almost imperceptibly, revolutions of a less visible kind have been unfolding in space itself.

Rethinking Our Approach to Space

In less than a generation, space has fundamentally and irrevocably changed. Unlike the environment we knew for the first 50 years of the space age, space now can be characterized by three Cs: It's increasingly congested, contested and competitive. These changes pose tremendous technical challenges to military space systems and force us to rethink how we use space to maintain our national security.

The National Security Space Strategy released on Feb. 4, 2011”the first ever of its kind”establishes a new approach to space. Building upon emerging norms of behavior and a renewed commitment to share capabilities with allies and partners, the strategy charts how we will maintain our strategic advantage despite the more complicated environment.


In 1957, at the dawn of the space age, there was just one man-made object in space”the Soviet satellite Sputnik. Today, more than 1,100 active systems and 22,000 pieces of man-made debris orbit earth (Figure 1). Eleven states now operate 22 launch sites, and more than 60 nations have a presence in space.

Not only has the number of objects in space grown, but the rate at which they materialized also has increased dramatically. It took 40 years to place the first 10,000 objects in outer space and a mere 10 years to place the next 10,000 in orbit. Hundreds of thousands of additional pieces of debris remain too small to track with our current sensors. The danger is that each collision exponentially raises the potential for another, such that a debris cascade could someday render entire orbits unusable.

In 2007, the United Nations General Assembly approved guidelines to mitigate the creation of space debris. But how to operate safely in space needs to be further defined. The United States is working with the European Union (EU) on a proposed international Code of Conduct for Outer Space Activities. These guidelines will lay down ˜˜rules of the road'' and allow the international community to hold accountable those who break them.

In addition, we're expanding our sharing of information regarding situational awareness in space. For years, the United States has provided data on the location of space objects to the global community so operators of space systems can avoid accidental collisions.

The Secretary of Defense recently signed statements of principles with Australia, Canada and France that lay the groundwork for expanding this cooperation. Further expanding the amount and kind of data we share will, over time, help foster the sustainable space environment that our own strategic advantage depends upon.


During the Cold War, space largely remained the private preserve of the United States and the Soviet Union, with space assets as tools of superpower control. Missile warning and imagery satellites enabled us to detect missile launches and to verify the arms control arrangements meant to lessen the risk of conflict.

Although in the past information derived from space capabilities went almost exclusively to national decision makers, today we rely on space for almost everything we do. With such widespread reliance comes potential vulnerability. A greater number of potential adversaries now employ a wider spectrum of weapons capable of countering U.S. space capabilities. As a result, physically shooting down a satellite is no longer the most likely threat to our military systems.

Electronically jamming Global Positioning System and communications signals are among a range of relatively low-cost options for states seeking counterspace weapons. The threshold for using these weapons has been lowered, with several nations employing them for political purposes in peacetime or during crises. For example, Iran recently jammed the BBC's Persian television service to limit information about regional unrest.

To respond to the proliferation of counterspace weapons, the National Security Space Strategy outlines a multilayered approach we'll take to deter aggression. This approach includes several important initiatives.

First, we're assessing diplomatic initiatives, such as the EU Code of Conduct, to promote international norms of responsible behavior. These initiatives define how responsible space-faring nations are expected to conduct themselves and should, over time, discourage destabilizing acts that threaten the overall stability of the space domain.

Second, we can use alliances in space to serve the same deterrent function as basing troops in allied countries. They can ensure an attack on one is an attack on all. At their fullest, these partnerships could consist of completely interoperable systems in which costs, benefits and risks are shared among trusted participants. Increasingly, we'll want to operate in coalitions in space, just as we do in other domains.

One way to foster greater cooperation is to transform the Joint Space Operations Center, which provides command and control for our space forces, into a Combined Space Operations Center run in concert with international partners. Such an arrangement will allow our partners to work side by side with U.S. commanders, improving our situational awareness while integrating a multilateral approach to daily operations.

Third, we need to make our space systems more resilient and our combat power less reliant on their full functioning. This will help deny adversaries the benefit from an attack in space. Just as in the cyber domain, denying the benefit of attack in space can join retaliatory deterrence as a disincentive to adversaries.

Responsive space capabilities that rapidly launch replacements can play an important role in reconstituting functionality either during or after an attack. In addition, broader partnerships with commercial firms that enable national security payloads to ride on commercial satellites will further improve our resiliency.


Addressing the congested and contested environment isn't the only challenge to maintaining our strategic advantage in space. Our nation's fiscal climate and the globalization of the aerospace industry also present new challenges. As noted,
today there are more than 60 nations with satellites. Many of these nations have a national aerospace industry, presenting both challenges and opportunities for greater collaboration and partnership.

Although the United States continues to enjoy technological leadership, our share of satellite manufacturing has steadily declined since the end of the Cold War. As a result, advanced capabilities are more diffuse. For example, the precise navigation and timing data transmitted by the U.S. Air Force-operated Global Positioning System is a capability that soon will be replicated by Europe's Galileo, Russia's Glonass, China's Beidou, Japan's Quasi Zenith and India's Regional Navigation System.

More broadly, space-enabled information and services that were once the exclusive province of the national security community now are available commercially. Satellite imagery distributed by companies like Google and satellite communications, such as phones and radio broadcasts, can be purchased globally. The U.S. technological lead is eroding in other areas as well, and without immediate intervention, the vitality of our space industrial base is at risk.

To ensure we maintain world-class space capabilities at affordable costs, the Pentagon must alter how it buys space systems. Our current approach of procuring one satellite at a time creates unpredictable demand, fostering a boom-and-bust dynamic unhelpful to accumulating manufacturing and design expertise. So we're adopting a new approach to space acquisition meant to drive down costs and improve the stability of the space industrial base.

Key tenets of this approach are block buys of satellites, fixed-price contracting, stable investment in research and development, and a modified annual funding approach. Our hope is that increasing the predictability of how we buy and manufacture space systems will yield both cost-savings and performance increases.

Change must also stretch beyond the Department of Defense to the regulations that govern what our space industry is allowed to export. Presently, many items generally available on the global market for space commerce are prohibited from being sold by U.S. companies without government approval. To redress the current state of affairs, the administration is undertaking export control reform.

The foundation is to consolidate responsibility for export control into a single licensing agency; a single tiered list of controlled items; a single coordination center for enforcement; and a single, unified IT infrastructure. We recognize that controlling sensitive space exports remains a concern. So we're building ˜˜higher fences'' around our most sensitive technologies while de-listing those items whose export does not threaten our security.

A New Type of Leadership

Space has fundamentally changed, and our national security strategy must change along with it. Today, our relationship to potential adversaries is different from our past stance toward the Soviet Union. Throughout the Cold War and for some years beyond, the United States focused almost exclusively on protecting the national security advantages we derived from space. Now we must also worry about protecting both the domain itself and our industrial base.

Our new National Security Space Strategy addresses the changing nature of space by building on our sources of strength at home while continuing to lead the international community in pursuit of common objectives, including the sustainability, stability and free access to space. Our success will increasingly be predicated on active U.S. leadership of alliance and coalition efforts in peacetime, crisis and conflict. Strengthening our space posture will follow an approach that integrates all elements of national power, from technological prowess and industrial capacity to alliance building and diplomatic engagement.

To provide the necessary leadership, we are revalidating the Secretary of the Air Force as the Executive Agent for Space. This administrative designation makes clear to everyone who is in charge. We also have established a Defense Space Council to coordinate space issues across the department. Our expectation is that better governance inside the department will lead to stronger capabilities, greater efficiencies and a healthier space industrial base.

Given the dramatic changes we have witnessed in space, succeeding in the new space environment will depend as much on changing mindsets 50 years in the making as it will on altering longstanding institutional practices. The fundamental mission of the Department of Defense to deter war and to protect the security of our country stays the same. But how we use space capabilities to achieve this mission must change.

Publisher's Note: This column is an adapted excerpt from A Military Strategy for the New Space Environment, William J. Lynn, The Washington Quarterly, copyright © Center for Strategic and International Studies reprinted by permission of Taylor & Francis Ltd. ( on behalf of the Center for Strategic and International Studies.


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