Satellites may be the least thrilling component of the U.S. force posture, but they are vital in providing key intelligence and upholding deterrence. As offensive technology advances and the final frontier becomes increasingly congested with thousands of satellites owned by dozens of countries and corporations, there is growing concern that our space-based assets have become sitting ducks, continuously traveling in the same, predictable orbits and equipped with few defenses.
Why are these systems at risk of being targeted? The conventional military applications that satellites provide cannot be overstated. Satellites produce critical geospatial imaging, near real-time intelligence on missile launches, and help guide troops and munitions via global positioning systems (GPS). According to Department of Defense statements, intelligence and guidance provided by Defense Support Program satellites proved essential to successes in Operation Desert Storm, the 1999 Kosovo air campaign and the 2003 Iraq invasion. A 2017 Center for Strategic & International Studies (CSIS) report entitled "Escalation and Deterrence in the Second Space Age" describes how U.S. utilization of precision--GPS and laser-guided--munitions has increased from 8 percent at the start of the first Gulf War to over 96 percent as of the Syrian Civil War in 2014. Some have argued that the United States has become over-reliant on the national security advantages provided by satellites, calling this growing dependence America's "Achilles Heel" in modern warfare. Curbing access to these advantageous tactics early on in a conventional conflict would certainly level the playing field for an aggressor.
Some of these same systems would be integral before and during potential nuclear crises, because, by nature of their design, they are also able to provide early warning should an adversary launch an ICBM. This intelligence would create a vital window for decisionmaking, missile defense operations and potential retaliation before one's own targeted weapons might be destroyed. Other satellites enable communications between political and military officials regarding nuclear command and control should such a crisis occur. James Acton, co-director of the Nuclear Policy Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, has noted that because many of these satellite constellations have both conventional and nuclear applications, it may be difficult to characterize the intent of an attack and control escalation once one is targeted.
Part of the growing fear surrounding the vulnerability of our space assets comes from the fact that the key major powers in space--Russia, China and the United States--have been unable to fashion any meaningful agreements to limit the types of satellite-threatening weapons or constrain worrisome behavior in orbit--measures in which the Obama and Trump administrations have expressed interest--albeit to varying degrees. Should the international community attempt to pursue such agreements now or in the future, it will have to consider the three obstacles that follow, each of which confounds traditional approaches to norm-building and arms control.
The first obstacle is that an adversary could use a wide range of tactics to compromise a state's satellite, some of which are non-kinetic and complicate the notion of what constitutes a "weapon" or an "attack."
A substantial challenge to any hopes of anti-satellite (ASAT) arms control is the sheer variety of tactics that an aggressor could utilize to harm or disable an opponent's space assets. For this reason, the United States has repeatedly refused to sign various versions of the Treaty on the Prevention of Placement of Weapons in Outer Space, the Threat or Use of Force against Outer Space Objects (PPWT), a long-winded name for a joint Russian-Chinese UN proposal where signatories would refrain from (1) putting any sort of weapon in space, and (2) from threatening or using force against objects in space--all in the noble name of creating a safer commons and preventing anti-satellite warfare.
At first blush, this treaty sounds like an anodyne, collaborative way to temper growing ASAT fears. So why exactly does the United States refuse to sign? Though the proposed agreement purports to restrict co-orbital ASAT systems (satellites capable of offensive operations against other satellites), it...