America’s Space Infrastructure: So Vulnerable It Destabilizes Geopolitics


America’s Space Infrastructure: So Vulnerable It Destabilizes Geopolitics

Jun 12, 2024 6 min read

Commentary By

Robert Peters @realbobpeters

Research Fellow, Nuclear Deterrence and Missile Defense

Wilson Beaver @WilsonCBeaver

Policy Advisor, Allison Center for National Security

As American and Chinese reliance on their space-based satellite constellations increases, so will the incentive for either side to target and strike the other sides. Yuichiro Chino / Getty Images

Key Takeaways

This incentive to strike first—a “Pearl Harbor” in space—could be so destabilizing as to precipitate a war that neither state wants but cannot avoid. 

The American comparative advantage is in the astonishing growth of U.S. commercial space over the past couple decades.

The next administration will need to develop a vision for American preeminence in space.

No one would die directly from an attack on satellites, and no one cries over melted plastic and copper. Yet as American and Chinese reliance on their space-based satellite constellations increases, so will the incentive for either side to target and strike the other sides early in a conflict. This incentive to strike first—a “Pearl Harbor” in space—could be so destabilizing as to precipitate a war that neither state wants but cannot avoid. 

The United States needs a space infrastructure that is both resilient and redundant enough to survive a Chinese first strike. That is, the satellite constellation infrastructure that the United States uses for its military and commercial needs must still be functional even if the Chinese were to attack the system and attempt to destroy it. Currently, the brittleness of our satellite constellation is such that any concerted effort by an adversary would render the American satellite constellation useless for military purposes. The satellite infrastructure must be resilient to non-kinetic counterspace weapons like electronic jamming and laser blinding, but also to kinetic anti-satellite missiles or even the deployment of a nuclear weapon. 

The modern U.S. military is dependent on satellites for global positioning system (GPS); communications; sensing and targeting of enemy assets; and even the movement of American ships and planes across the planet. Put another way, the U.S. military would be hard pressed to conduct successful operations without access to it. Modern aircraft and navy vessels rely on GPS to traverse the world’s oceans and skies; the military relies on satellites for open and secure communications; and intelligence and surveillance satellites enable America’s precision-guided munitions to hit targets with accuracy. Increasingly, China and Russia are similarly reliant on satellite constellations for military purposes

Given the reliance of the United States, China, and Russia on their respective satellite infrastructure, there are first-mover advantages to an adversary who strikes first in space. That is, the more an actor is reliant upon satellite constellations in prosecuting a war, the more incentives their adversaries have to preemptively destroy or degrade said constellations. Indeed, the benefits of striking first are so great—and the consequences of being the target of such a strike are so grave—that brittleness in space incentivizes first strikes and is therefore destabilizing.

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Strategic stability generally refers to a condition in which neither actor is incentivized to strike first—and both would pay significant costs for doing so. In the Cold War, neither side carried out a decapitation strike on the other, due in part because of the knowledge that such a strike would not provide meaningful benefit and would trigger a retaliation (a devastating nuclear second strike) the consequences of which would far outstrip any marginal benefit incurred in even a “successful” first strike.

In space, these incentives are turned on their head. There are real benefits to striking an enemy’s satellite constellation first and severe consequences for being the target of such a strike. It is entirely plausible that such a strike would lead to a quick defeat for the target. And in contrast to the situation of the nuclear era, it is unclear if the actor who received a first strike in space would be able to respond in any meaningful fashion. 

Such an attack would leave the actor who received the first strike in space one of three options: respond in an escalated fashion (including some kind of asymmetric strategic attack); respond with a conventional conflict; or do nothing and accept a fait accompli.

The first option, while attractive on first blush, may not be feasible, as an escalated strategic response may not seem a proportionate (and therefore, credible) response, given that no one died directly from the attacks—and an escalating conflict could result in a strategic response by the instigator of the first strike. Such a series of strategic “tit for tats” may be in no party’s interest, but more likely than not, the actor with the intact satellite constellation would be far better situated to win such an exchange than the actor without the satellite constellation.

The second option of a general conventional conflict may not be possible at all for the party who did not shoot first, given that they may not have the ability to flow forces into a theater from which they could strike the instigator of the attack. Having lost their satellites, a country’s ability to target, launch, and hit enemy units may be non-existent.

Therefore, the third option of accepting the fait accompli, may be the least attractive, but nevertheless the most acceptable option. 

So, how can the U.S. compete and avoid being on the losing side of the 21st century’s space race? 

Well, with its civil-military fusion approach to national security matters, the Chinese government can outspend the American government on space. However, the American comparative advantage is in the astonishing growth of U.S. commercial space over the past couple decades, led in particular by Elon Musk’s SpaceX. In 2023, 78 percent of satellites launched were American, and this market dominance was driven primarily by SpaceX’s Starlink constellation. 

Instead of relying solely on the big prime defense contractors for its space infrastructure, the Department of Defense needs to be leveraging the entire commercial space industry.  

As Todd Harrison at the American Enterprise Institute argued in his Building an Enduring Advantage in the Third Space Age report, the federal government can reduce obstacles for new launch vehicles and companies by revising the Space Force’s launch acquisition strategy to create more opportunities for new entrants. Allowing new contractors to qualify and compete for launches as soon as their launch vehicles are ready, instead of the current system in which new entrants have to wait up to a year after qualifying before they compete, would make America stronger in space. 

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As is so often the case, the government can also help stimulate this industry by simply getting out of the way. The United States has much more stringent licensing and regulation restrictions on commercial space remote sensing than many close allies, including Australia and France. All American satellites that carry a sensor capable of Earth imaging must apply through the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) for licensing, and the strictest license requirements are actually imposed on American companies that offer a capability better than any existing foreign commercial remote sensing capability. Naturally, this creates a first-mover advantage for foreign companies and puts American companies at a disadvantage. 

Common-sense acquisition reforms to current acquisition can also help. The version of the NDAA currently under debate in the House of Representatives would elevate the management of the space acquisition Contractor Responsibility Watch List (CRWL) to the Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Space Acquisition and Integration, aiming to hold prime defense contractors responsible for poor performance. The CRWL was an innovation by the National Reconnaissance Office that sets out additional oversight measures for contractors with poor track records. The CRWL is a positive concept that deserves consideration across the Department of Defense, considering the delays and cost overruns that plague the defense industrial base. 

Of course, it does not help that the Biden Administration sees space as a sideshow. Vice President Kamala Harris, as head of the National Space Council, seems to view space policy as primarily a way to address climate change and direct federal money to special interest groups. To be successful, the next administration will need to develop a vision for American preeminence in space, explain to the American people why it matters, and then leverage the ingenuity of America’s commercial sector to defend America’ critical space infrastructure from the threat it currently faces. 

This must be done, and soon. As indicated, the first-mover advantages are so great that the United States may find itself in a crisis with a near-peer competitor like Russia and China that is so acute that both sides feel pressure to strike the other’s space-based constellations first out of fear of the consequences of the other doing so. In such a situation, the brittleness of satellites coupled with the benefits of striking first could precipitate a war that neither side wants, but both sides feel compelled to fight. Such a development would be the height of strategic instability, and a tragic byproduct of bureaucratic incompetence. 

This piece originally appeared in The American Conservative