A new US Air Force doctrine document on counterspace operations reveals that neutral, commercial and third party space hardware could be on the target list. The document, says Noah Shachtman in Wired, suggests the Air Force sees it as its duty to “slap down other countries’ space efforts, should the need arise,” and will be prepared to take out – in the gentlest way practicable – non-combatant systems that may be being used by the other side.
The document doesn’t specifically say anything like ‘we’ll shoot down any neutral satellite we find being used by our adversaries.’ But neither does it say, ‘whatever we do we must ensure we don’t shoot down any neutral satellite.’ It does strongly imply throughout that destroying, disabling or interdicting non-combatant space assets is something that may have to be done, after giving due considerations to all of the consequences. So we have here the Air Force outlining the Bush doctrine* in space, alongside the extension of Article 51 of the UN Charter to extraterrestrial matters. Non-combatants who’re sure they’re not threatening US lives may feel safe enough (aside from collateral damage, which the Air Force comfortingly hopes to minimise), but those who don’t altogether agree with the US about whether or not US lives are being threatened could be reasonably nervous.
The preface doesn’t help as a scene-setter. Undersecretary of the Air Force Peter Teets is quoted saying: “What will we do five years from now when American lives are put at risk because an adversary uses space-borne imagery collectors, commercial or homegrown, to identify and target American forces? What will we do ten years from now when American lives are put at risk because an adversary chooses to leverage the global positioning system or perhaps the Galileo constellation to attack American forces with precision?”
He seems not to have answered these questions when he posed them, nor does Counterspace Operations answer them directly, but they’re kind of rhetorical. And well, as the US tried mightily to persuade Europe it didn’t need to build its own GPS system, ten years from now Europe may only have itself to blame, right? The Air Force is basically saying what it is going to do in order to discharge its mission of controlling the high ground, and pointing out as it goes along that there may be implications, collateral damage and blue on blue incidents.
The Air Force’s difficulty regarding neutrals is understandable in that space systems, commercial and government, are used for multiple reasons and most of the world’s armed forces use commercial capacity. Knowing who owns what and who’s using what for what is therefore a hard one to get on top of, and figuring out how to kill one thing (or even just make it temporarily unwell) without pulling the plugs on all sorts of other stuff is possibly even harder.
The document’s legal underpinnings are provided by self-defence: “To the extent allowed under international and domestic laws,” it says, “national space policy allows defense- and intelligence-related activities in pursuit of national security and other goals. In general, counterspace operations are legally permitted to the extent they are conducted for national or collective self-defense under Article 51 of the United Nations Charter or when the United Nations Security Council authorizes the use of force.” What constitutes self-defence can however be debatable, and the current administration’s views on preemption have widened the definition considerably.
According to the document: “A planner must understand friendly space capabilities, provided by organic and/or third party assets. Identification of a friendly space COG [COG? Centre Of Gravity – perfectly clear if you think of it as something up there that’s not space] is not always clear-cut, particularly when a third party provides space support. Extensive use of military, civil, and commercial space systems, and the resulting dependency on these systems, makes friendly COG identification an important step in counterspace operations.” Adversary COGs are similarly difficult to nail down, but a “thorough analysis of adversary space capabilities, including insight into the owners, operators, and users of both organic and third party assets, should minimize unintended effects of counterspace operations.” It’s worth flagging here that the Air Force sees the development and maintenance of a detailed directory of space assets as absolutely vital, on the basis that the US needs to know what’s up there and what it’s doing.
All kinds of assets, right down to weather satellites, are potential targets: “When planning operations against an adversary’s space-based weather capabilities, consider potential collateral impacts on friendly or neutral nations’ assets or information”, and while considering the cost-benefits here, bear in mind that “infrastructure supporting adversarial interests may be in third party countries.”
And Blue on Blue? “Counterspace operations must be deconflicted with other friendly operations to minimize unintended effects… space situation awareness of DOD and non-DOD space systems is vital for deconfliction of counterspace operations… Counterspace operations will likely require different levels of approval authority depending on the type of operation, potential collateral effects on civilian and third party populations, ownership of the target, location of the target (space node, terrestrial node, or link), permanency of effects, and the policy regarding that type of operation… counterspace operations against adversaries using third party space capabilities may have economic, diplomatic, and political implications.”
This implications could be a worry, if we didn’t have somebody of Dick Cheney’s calibre keeping on top of them. ®
* “Our forces will be strong enough to dissuade potential adversaries from pursuing a military build-up in hopes of surpassing or equaling the power of the United States” and “We will not hesitate to act alone, if necessary, to exercise our right of self-defense by acting pre-emptively.” The possibility of compelling states to stop actions the government considers assistance to terrorists has also been mooted.
John Lettice, The Register