Small Wars

This Week at War: Lost in Space

Can the Pentagon afford to protect its orbital interests?

Alex Wong/Getty Images
Alex Wong/Getty Images

Will diplomacy and soft power be enough to defend space?

The U.S. Department of Defense released its first-ever National Security Space Strategy (NSSS), on Feb. 4. The document "seeks to maintain and enhance the national security benefits" the United States derives from its activities and capabilities in space. This week, Gregory Schulte, deputy assistant secretary of defense for space policy, explained the new policy in an essay for Foreign Policy. Schulte described the benefits the United States receives from a wide variety of surveillance, communications, and navigation satellites. He also noted the increasing competition among a growing number of players who are seeking their own advantageous positions in orbit. Schulte explained some clever diplomatic and soft-power strategies that U.S. officials hope will protect the country’s space interests, along with some hedges in case the soft-power strategies fail. However, growing those hedges could get very expensive for the Pentagon.

Of greatest worry to the Pentagon is the vulnerability of its satellites to attack. In 2007, China shot down one of its old weather satellites with a direct-ascent missile, demonstrating its ability to threaten the space systems on which U.S. military forces depend. In addition to missile attack, many commercial and Defense Department satellites are also vulnerable to directed energy (laser) attack and to electronic jamming. U.S. adversaries may view attacks on U.S. satellites as a high-payoff/low-risk strategy.  By attacking U.S. satellites, an adversary could hobble U.S. military forces without the usual indications of warfare, at least in the public’s perception. For example, without any images of explosions, burning buildings, or wounded civilians, U.S. policymakers might find it difficult to generate political and diplomatic support for a military response.

As Schulte explained, U.S. officials hope to use diplomacy and soft-power tools to deter attacks on satellite networks. The first such hoped-for line of deterrence is to establish a code of conduct and international norms against attacks on space infrastructure. A second strategy is for the United States to share some its defense-related space platforms with other countries. In this case, an adversary with designs on U.S. space assets would be forced to attack a shared platform, and thus attack an alliance of countries and not just the United States. U.S. officials hope that such a complication would deter such an attack in the first place.

Such soft-power methods might not be effective against determined adversaries who may already be isolated from the international system and thus have little more to lose from violating international norms or alliances. The NSSS hedges against the failure of the soft-power approaches. Proposed hedges include hardening satellites against kinetic and electronic attack and keeping redundant satellites standing by in launch position to rapidly replace those destroyed. Another hedge is to vastly increase the number of reconnaissance aircraft and terrestrial communication platforms as substitutes for space-based systems. Finally, the Air Force — operator of the global positioning navigation satellite system and thus the service most familiar with that system’s vulnerabilities — is seeking in its technology roadmap to devise a new system of precise navigation that won’t rely on satellites. Hedging against the vulnerability of space-based systems will not be cheap.

And if soft-power strategies and redundant hedges fail, the Pentagon reserves the right, as Schulte explained at a Pentagon briefing "to respond in self-defense to attacks on space. And the response may not be in space either." With much more to lose in space than any other adversary, an escalating war in space is the last thing the Pentagon would like to see. Thus the threat to shift the mode of retaliation to terrain an adversary may value most.

Although the U.S. government’s diplomatic and soft-power tactics to defend its interests in space are clever, they may not be enough against rogue state or non-state actors with few of their own assets at risk. In this case, the Pentagon will need to harden and diversify its space assets or develop terrestrial work-arounds that avoid its vulnerabilities in space. Those costly solutions could not come at a worse time for the Pentagon’s budget masters.

How many nukes does Pakistan need?

A Jan. 31 article in the Washington Post reported that researchers at three separate think-tanks now estimate that Pakistan has roughly 100 nuclear warheads, double the number it was estimated to have just four years ago. When compared with the estimates of the arsenals of the world’s other nuclear powers, prepared by the Federation of American Scientists, Pakistan has moved ahead of its rival, India, and sometime this decade could surpass Great Britain and China. Apparently leaving nothing to chance, Pakistan has now begun construction on a fourth plutonium-producing reactor which when operational will allow it to grow its nuclear weapons stockpile even more. Just how many nuclear weapons does Pakistan need?

The most obvious and enduring explanation for the continuing buildup in Pakistan’s nuclear stockpile is the inescapable demographic and economic superiority enjoyed by India. India’s economy is nearly nine times larger than Pakistan’s, it spends 7.6 times more per year on its military and can mobilize 6.8 times as many military-aged males. Absent the arrival of previously unknown trust between the two countries, nuclear weapons are the only way for Pakistan to reassure itself about this unfixable strategic imbalance.

Of course, this has always been the case. Why the recent ramp-up in Pakistan’s nuclear production? The completion of the civil nuclear agreement between Washington and New Dehli, which opened India’s civilian nuclear industry to the global market, was no doubt highly disturbing to Pakistan. With India’s nuclear technology and expertise fungible, the civil nuclear agreement allowed India to divert resources to its military nuclear program. Pakistan likely concluded that it had to respond to a potentially much larger Indian nuclear program at some point in the future.

Another point of stress for Pakistan is the need to divert ground combat power to the fight against the Pakistani Taliban along its northwest frontier. The United States government has urged such deployments for years. Pakistani policymakers may have concluded that they could take the risk of redeploying ground forces from the Indian frontier to the northwest only when its nuclear deterrent was larger and more survivable. Interestingly, when asked about the Washington Post story on the doubling of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal — a clear affront to U.S. President Barack Obama’s nonproliferation goals — the State Department’s spokesman had no comment.

Finally, Iran’s eventual nuclear breakout will not help matters in Pakistan’s neighborhood. With the prospect of another neighbor having nuclear weapons and the ballistic missiles and aircraft to deliver them, Pakistani policymakers likely concluded that even more warheads are needed in order to assure that a retaliatory reserve will always survive.

The latest round of nuclear news out of Pakistan demonstrates that South Asia has not found a way out of the security dilemma it has long been in. The addition of Iran to the game won’t help. The Obama administration has attempted to address the issue, but its efforts may be no match for the scale and tenacity of this problem.

Trending Now Sponsored Links by Taboola

By Taboola

More from Foreign Policy

By Taboola