Pentagon Not Ready for Space Fight, Experts Say

The Defense Department hasn’t done enough to secure satellites and prepare for greater militarization of space, experts say, as it rolls out a new strategy for the domain.

By Jack Detsch, Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter.
Gen. Jay Raymond, chief of space operations, points to the newly designed rank insignia of a Space Force officer
Gen. Jay Raymond, chief of space operations, points to the newly designed rank insignia of a Space Force officer at the White House on May 15. Samuel Corum-Pool/Getty Images

The U.S. Department of Defense’s new space strategy is doing little to settle fears that the United States isn’t ready for a conflict that would extend beyond Earth’s atmosphere, experts told Foreign Policy on Wednesday. 

The Defense Space Strategy, a sublayer of the 2018 National Defense Strategy, indicates the Pentagon’s growing concern that China and Russia have developed military doctrine that would extend a conflict into space, where the Pentagon admits it has little operational experience.  

“More than any other nation, the United States relies on space-based capabilities to project and employ power on a global scale,” the strategy, which was released on Wednesday and follows a 2011 effort from the Obama administration, said. “China and Russia have analyzed U.S. dependencies on space and have developed doctrine, organizations, and capabilities specifically designed to contest or deny U.S. access to and operations in the domain. Concurrently, their use of space is expanding significantly.”

Stephen Kitay, the deputy assistant secretary of defense for space, said that while the United States remains ahead of China and Russia in developing capabilities, the strategy would serve as a wake-up call that outer space could become an area of conflict.

“The U.S. space enterprise was not built for the current strategic environment,” Kitay said. “I would say that we are still ahead of them, but we are absolutely at risk with the pace they are developing these capabilities. And these are very serious threats.”

According to a recent report from the Secure World Foundation, China has worked to develop a wide range of technological tests in low-Earth orbit and geosynchronous orbit, and it may have as many as three anti-satellite programs that the organization assesses to be “likely mature.” But Beijing has had less success in medium and geostationary earth orbit—as it looks to grow out capabilities for jamming and directed energy weapons that could disable communications or knock out satellites.

Russia, which the Pentagon recently slapped on the wrist in a series of statements condemning Moscow for tailing an American satellite in space and testing an anti-satellite missile in low-Earth orbit, has a track record of developing counter-space weapons dating back to the Cold War. But even with the launch of the Space Force, the United States has been slow to protect satellites from attack. 

“We had the better part of 20 years to do something about it,” said Brian Weeden, the director of program planning at the Secure World Foundation, a Colorado and Washington-based private foundation. “It’s hard to point your finger to show what we actually did.”

Weeden, a former U.S. Air Force officer who worked on space and ballistic missile operations, said the Pentagon had been able to successfully bring in allies into the fold after spending a long time viewing space unilaterally. Vandenberg Air Force Base in California was inaugurated as a combined space operations center in 2018, enabling greater allied participation.

The Air Force’s space command’s war games, known as the “Schriever Wargames,” include U.S. allies, as does “Thor’s Hammer,” a National Reconnaissance Office war simulation. The Florida-based defense contractor L3Harris is working on a next-generation jamming system called Meadowlands.

But Weeden criticized the new strategy, which calls on the United States to develop defensive systems that can “counter hostile use of space” and improve its intelligence and command and control functions, as failing to connect ends with means. “In general I think this is something of a step back from what we had nine years ago,” he said. “It’s very big on the grand goals but it says even less about the specifics of how to get there than it did in 2011.” 

Even with the Defense Department calling out China and Russia for a greater militarization of space in recent years, some former military officials believe that the nascent Space Force is too focused on looking downward toward the Earth, by securing satellites that help with terrestrial combat.   

“You’re going to run out of money before you can make your satellites secure,” said Steven Kwast, a retired Air Force lieutenant general who led the service’s air education and training command until last year. “You can make the satellite as Fort Knox as you want, but if you know where it’s going to be, your enemy can paralyze it and kill it.”

Instead, Kwast said, the United States needs to think about adapting more quickly to develop the technological edge when it comes to maneuvering and using firepower in outer space. “We’re here in space,” he said. “If you try to defend the orbits it will be like building a moat and a wall around your city in the age of air power.”

Jack Detsch is Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter. Twitter: @JackDetsch