Smallsats, Space War and Deterrence Credibility

Another interesting week in space policy and strategy news folks. One article in particular caught my eye. It was an article from Via Satellite magazine entitled: “DoD might want smallsats to help prevent space war.”

http://www.satellitetoday.com/regional/2016/10/18/dod-might-want-smallsats-help-prevent-space-wars/

There are a few points I would provide for your consideration….

First, smallsats are sort of a popular thing these days, despite many naysayers that thought that it would never catch on, now for some reason, its the new topic (like STEM) that just about everyone will say nice things about publically. They provide access to space for many groups and schools and nations that otherwise may not have had the ability to fly their experiment in space. Deputy Assistant Undersecretary of Defense for Space Policy Doug Loverro was quoted as saying that “We certainly understand that a part of this resilience equation is leveraging this industrial base of small satellites” of which the author of the article equated with “deterring a war in space”. As I have stated many, many times in articles, this blog and on the Space Show, resilience while a good thing is NOT a deterrent. Having an ability to take hits and survive first contact with the enemy is a wise thing, but it does not deter war.

Second, having multitudes of smallsats swarming around the Earth in various orbital planes does not deter war in space either. it does provide for more target sets for an adversary to look at, but it does not mean that it will prevent an adversary from taking out just enough of them to make a point, attack for psychological effect or just build up more offensive capacity to offset the numbers. Lets take a look at history form another venue of deterrence-nuclear weapons. In the Cold War, strategists in the United States decided that survivability was an important thing since first strike was not in the policy interests of the United States according to the leaders of the time. They built numerous ICBMs and dispersed them throughout the United States. This dispersion made the ICBM option more resilient enabling (at first) the ability for the ICBMs to survive a first strike in order to be used for retaliation. for a time this seemed to enable the ICBM to be “secure” however, eventually the Soviet Union developed Multiple Targetable Reentry Vehicles (MIRVS) and Maneuverable Reentry Vehicles (MARVS) that were able to be carried about single missiles in multiples of warheads. These were able to counter the dispersion by hitting multiple targets with one missile. Thus, the resilience was there but not capable of deterring. If the United States goes to a mostly smallsat structure, it may do a lot of good things, but preventing an adversary from attack is not one of them.

The second and most concerning comment from the author that stated:

“Loverro said DOD is still rather unsure about how war in space might take place or how it could evolve. He said the Pentagon recently had a war game on space war where a considerable amount of time went to arguing about what an attack in space would look like. Parties, he said, debated whether jamming was an attack or if laser was an attack. Loverro wondered if an attack on a satellite has to be kinetic to be truly considered an attack. He said this has not been settled in international law and probably will not be for a long time.”

So a senior space policy official at the Department of Defense is saying that the Department is not sure how war in space might take place or evolve? He wasn’t sure if jamming was an attack or laser was an attack? This is concerning because if current policy and strategy is to deter war in space through the four deterrents coupled with the concept of resiliency, then wouldn’t it be good to at least have some idea what you are deterring? Even if you do, saying such things in public make one’s adversary believe that doing more innovating things in orbit could easier to get away with given the US Government is too busy contemplating the meaning of attack rather than seeing them happening across the counterspace continuum (short of kinetic strike). Back to another analogy, lets say that something similar had been said by Secretary Robert McNamara regarding nuclear weapons…”well we aren’t sure what a nuclear war would look like, so we wargamed things to see if perhaps an ICBM strike was an attack, or a sub missile was an attack or bombers and light planes…but having smaller cheaper programming will enable us to deter effectively Soviet aggression.” This would result in an outcry. The fictional account of McNamara would bring up accusations of hurting credibility of deterrence. There have been numerous commissions, reports and books that explore what war in space could and does look like.

More to follow but…something to think about in the near future.

 

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