Space as a Militarily Contested Domain – Implications for the Air Force

June 11, 2022

Space Technology

Space technology enables our way of life – each time a cell phone is used, a television is switched on or when the fastest route to a given destination is needed, a constellation of satellites makes these benefits possible. Providing over-the-air connectivity and being an extremely useful vantage point to monitor vast expanses of earth from, space technology has become a vital component of military capability. The use of space in military operations has evolved much since the end of Desert Storm and the preceding decade has seen space leveraged more extensively. Space-based systems providing intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) and positioning, navigation, and timing (PNT) solutions, for example, make possible the early detection of missile launches, enable surface mobile tracking of targets and remote environmental monitoring – all at relatively low lifecycle costs.

Generating situational awareness (SA) round-the-clock across vast geographical areas, the reliance on space has grown across almost all military operations other than war (MOOTW) and warfighting. Extending operational reach and the synchronization of dispersed force elements it makes possible, space-based military systems directly translate into operational advantages on earth. With the ability to mass and concentrate fires with greater precision for the Air Force, just as the number of combat platforms in its operational inventory are shrunk owing to high unit costs, space will act as a force multiplier that can compensate for lower numbers of deployable combat assets in the future. The role and importance of space set to expand further as it becomes the key enabler of more resilient command and control (C2) enterprises that compress operational cycles by allowing better and faster decision-making at the edge.

Leveraging Space for Military Operations

Now recognized as a distinct military operations domain alongside the traditional domains of land, sea and air, together with a fifth, cyberspace, the fusion of space into military operations is now the focus of concerted efforts around the world. As the traditional separation between operational domains becomes blurred, space occupies a pivotal position in developing the ability to prosecute multi-domain operations (MDO). The Air Force is best placed among the military services to lead the integration of space into military operations but it must be wary of claiming a monopoly or pursuing space objectives with a purely service-oriented approach. The Air Force’s sister services will continue to be just as powerfully impacted by the space domain and it is important for the Air Force to give shape to a long-term vision for fusing space into MDO so that its sister services are can independently tailor their own ‘downstream’ uses as per their requirements.

The immediate focus for the Air Force as it expands into space relates to delivering a proof of concept and CONOPS for space operations together with the necessary C2 so that military space operations can evolve to furnish the needs of a shared user base comprising sister services but also other government agencies. In doing so, the Air Force must consider the growing convergence on the strategic utility of space for military purposes which is driving military competition in space and will inevitably introduce new types of threats. Low cost manufacturing of space vehicles, a growing availability of commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) technologies and faster development cycles for engineered space platforms correlate to lower barriers of entry into space. The entry of smaller military powers into space alongside major military powers means more congestion and, as the development of anti-space (ASAT) capabilities around the world allude to, the assured, unimpeded and uncontested access to and the exploitation of space is no longer a given.

Military space strategy will need to adapt acquisition planning to account for space threats at the grand strategy, operational and tactical levels of warfare. However, as the space power architecture is globalized, evolving at multiple layers – in the space segment where space vehicles are positioned, the link segments where communications takes place and in ground segments where control stations, receiver terminals and users are based across different locations – the challenge is far from straightforward. Militaries will need to develop rules of engagement (RoE), concept of operations (CONOPS) and tactics, techniques and procedures (TTPs) for space operations that appropriately consider the distinct features and nuances of the space domain. As the Air Force thinks about ways to avoid or terminate conflicts in space as early as possible on favorable terms, there is a wide options space to consider. Growing constellations of commercial and mixed-use satellites make it likely that potential conflict in space or, short of that, the loss of military space infrastructure will only result in localized failure and temporal loss of services.

Security in Space

Even quantifiably low risks of long-range strike, on-the-move communications or critical ISR capabilities being taken down are too severe to ignore and it is necessary to devise appropriate responses to serious attacks or interference with the use of space. From tactical launch capabilities to the hardening, concealing or in-orbit maneuvering of satellites at one end to hard- and soft-kill ASAT operations on the other, appropriate responses need to be devised at the Air Force, Joint Force and broader national levels. There is much to ponder for space counterforce and countermeasure capabilities where the notions of objective, offense, mass, economy of force, maneuver, unity of command, security, and surprise will apply as much as have elsewhere in warfare. Cooperation and interdependence with allies, partners and, increasingly, commercial satellite service providers, may help generate new types of options for responding to hostile actors in space. Crucially, alliances and partnerships in space must be directed at promoting a rules-based order which can ensure responsible behavior and minimize the possibility of space conflicts occurring in the first place.

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