TWQ: A Military Strategy for the New Space Environment - Summer 2011
July 1, 2011
As disaster struck Japan and revolution swept the Middle East, Americans once again watched events unfold in real time, through a network of satellites in space that have revolutionized the dissemination of information and changed how we live. For decades, we have taken this network, and the operational environment of space which supports it, for granted. But quietly, almost imperceptibly, revolutions of a less visible kind have been unfolding above us in space itself. Over the Middle East, censorship imposed by autocratic states has for the first time extended into the upper reaches of the atmosphere. The satellite-based telecommunications services of Thuraya—a regional satellite phone provider—have been disrupted, and the satellite broadcasts of Al Jazeera, the Voice of America, and the BBC rendered unintelligible. Libya and Iran are the primary offenders, but even less technologically developed countries such as Ethiopia have employed jamming technologies for political purposes.
The willingness of states to interfere with satellites in orbit has serious implications for our national security. Space systems enable our modern way of war. They allow our warfighters to strike with precision, to navigate with accuracy, to communicate with certainty, and to see the battlefield with clarity. Without them, many of our most important military advantages evaporate.
The specter of jamming is not the only new concern. The February 2009 collision of an Iridium communications satellite with a defunct Soviet satellite, and the earlier, deliberate destruction of a satellite by China, produced thousands of debris fragments, each of which poses a potentially catastrophic threat to operational spacecraft. In an instant, these events—one accidental, the other purposeful—doubled the amount of space debris, making space operations more complicated and dangerous.
In less than a generation, space has fundamentally and irrevocability changed. Unlike the environment we knew for the first 50 years of the space age, space is now characterized by three “C’s”: it is increasingly congested, contested, and competitive. These changes not only pose tremendous technical challenges to military space systems, they also force rethinking of how we use space to maintain our national security. The National Security Space Strategy released on February 4, 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.