In this week’s edition of The Space Review, Brian Chow submitted a brief article to discuss the “justification of US pre-emptive self-defense.” His focus was related to “space stalkers” that could attack “several critical satellites from such a close proximity that the US would not have time to save them-if it waited until the attacks had actually started.” He also mentioned two other editorials he sent into Defense News where he mentions why pre-emption is justified and needed. I will dig deeper into those arguments at a later date, but for now, I would like to focus on some comments made by Brian Weeden in the discussion forum below the article.
In the discussion forum related to this topic, Brian Weeden stated…:
“I think most reasonable people would agree that self-defense applies in space, including pre-emption….” This starts off well, but then negates this first sentence by following up with a “but” and the following:
“At the moment, there’s no consensus in the international community about self-defense in space, let alone pre-emption….there’s no clarity on what it entails and what the boundaries are[?] I think there’s a clear need to have a broader national and international discussion to work out those details…” He then advertises and links to a report from a workshop Secure World Foundation put out late last year. He believes that “it depends on what type of pre-emptive attacks are beings considered…” and then begins to speak about scenarios where pre-emptive attacks “could be justified”.
Self-defense “could be justified”?! I find it hard to understand why defending oneself in an arena our nation is so dependent on for its critical infrastructure and daily way of life, prosperity and security, has to even be justified much less require “consensus” from other nations who aren’t even involved in the situation? Space, as many in the national security arena have articulated numerous times in the last few years, is an offense dominant domain. That means that defense in the traditional sense (as in air, sea or land domains) is much harder to do while you are being attacked. [Note: in the SWF report Weeden links to, he states that the groups weren’t sure what to consider as a “use of force”, an “armed attack”, or an “internationally wrongful act.” Any purposeful interference across the counterspace spectrum should be considered as an “attack” albeit on varying levels of escalation.] As such, and as Mr. Chow stated correctly…we as a nation “would not have time to [protect our satellites]-if it waited until the attacks had actually started.”
It should be stated that Mr. Chow was apparently thinking more of kinetic damage style attacks, which are higher up on the counterspace escalation ladder, and as such require more options to provide deterrence and defense. As space is an offense dominant domain, in order to defend your assets from kinetic attack especially, requires offensive action. Thinking that the United States and its allies will have the time or the capacity to spend weeks and months contemplating their navels at the ICJ is ludicrous. Also, strange is how an act of aggression can be considered a “dispute” in the first place that could be mediated by a body that most nations that have the capacity to defend themselves don’t use in international conflict. We as a nation have the right to self-defense and in space, the term “pre-emption” does not mean the same thing as on the surface. If China, for example to stick with Mr. Chow’s example, was posturing its KE ASAT mobile warfare systems to leave their bases, whether precursor events such as jamming or lasing of overhead ISR assets had occurred first or not, the United States of America would have a right, as a nation to defend itself by striking those assets kinetically or through other means as available. This would be both self-defense AND deterrence. I might add also, that Chinese thinking on space deterrence and warfighting approaches believe this to be true.
Over the past several years, reversible attacks have occurred under the guise of “purposeful interference” using RF means. ITU tracks these and can be seen online, while other more high profile ones are in open press. This is the real norm of international behavior in space, which is the use of reversible RF and DE counterspace means and the active development and testing of KE ASATs and laser systems. Having discussions on “rules of engagement” between spacefaring assets is not a bad thing, but thinking we have to have agreement among other nations, especially those building and fielding those weapons that we have been failing to deter, despite our policy documents statements, before we defend space systems, many of which are inextricably linked to our vital national critical infrastructure and those of our allies, is crazy. In the reality that is the 21st Century space environment, protecting space assets isn’t just about protecting the spacecraft itself, its about protecting the American homeland’s capacity to operate and by extension, the Western economic and political system. In short its a matter of survival of the homeland, not one requiring consensus as if its a squabble over bandwidth.