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Experts Warn Space Force Rhetoric Risks Backfiring

Posted by Theresa Hitchens on

“Always the predator, never the prey,” Air Force Chief Gen. David Goldfein’s catchphrase for US mil-space strategy, bristles allies


WASHINGTON: The message for the US at the annual United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research (UNIDIR) space security conference could not have been any clearer: the domestic debate around national security space is backfiring outside of the US.

The rhetoric in Washington from the Trump Administration’s proposal for a new Space Force is leading to fears about US intentions and sharpening tensions among major space powers. It is not having the effect of  reassuring to allies and putting potential adversaries on notice of US resolve as a means of deterrence.

“Language is important,” said André Dupuis, a retired Canadian Air Force lieutenant colonel who now heads Space Strategies Consulting Ltd. “I was at the Space Symposium a couple of weeks ago and there was a booth from [Air Force Space Command] with the tag on it: ‘Always the predator, never the prey’.” (A favorite space talking point of Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein.) “That sends the wrong message,” he said.

“The challenge I have with the idea of Space Force and warfighting in space is that it’s blurring the concept of combat support mission — which for a long time has been accepted as a peaceful use of outer space — with a combat offensive mission mandate,” said Jessica West, a program officer with Canadian nongovernmental organization Project Ploughshares. “I don’t think that blurring is positive for space security, because it muddies the waters on intent muddies waters on intent and perception.”

While an official from China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs didn’t mention the US by name — in observance of the unspoken rules of diplomatic discussion — she did raise a skeptical eyebrow about continued US insistence that its move to treat space as a warfighting domain rather than a combat support mission is being driven by Chinese and Russian threats. She noted: “It seems to me that now there is a kind of practice to conveniently explain the military buildup of some countries as the result of the perception of others’ threat, whether that threat is real or not.”

Victoria Samson, Washington office director for Secure World Foundation that also funds the conference, pointed out that one problem with assessing intent to understand security threats is that unlike the United States, not many countries have actual space policies or formal space strategies. (Read China, but also India which threw itself into the great power military space competition with its March test of an anti-satellite weapon.) When there isn’t anything written down, she said, “all you can do is read a report about something happening and then speculate wildly.” That said, she also chided the US for sending a negative message about its intent by “consistently refusing to use the option of diplomatic outreach as a way to ensure access to space.That sends a message that diplomacy is not a valid tool or at least a useful tool.”

Paul Meyer, retired former Canadian ambassador and now senior fellow at the Simons Foundation that also provides funding for the UNIDIR event, explained that in discussions of international security everyone understands that it is much harder to measure intent than capabilities. Policy statements and speeches by senior officials are some of the few tools available for assessing intent, he said, therefore “language really does matter.”  He added: “So when you have a policy pronouncement that suggests that American dominance in space is the goal, that worries people. Similarly, a common sense reaction to hearing that space is being described as being a warfighting domain is that there is an intent to conduct a war in that domain.”

West said that the question of the US Space Force is “a canary in a very toxic space environment that is warning us about the challenges —  military competition, a sense of vulnerability, increasing capabilities for counterspace operations — that we are just not dealing with very well.” West, who also oversees the annual Space Security Index that annually reviews the state of space security, added that these perceptions about the challenges are shared by many states. “A lot of other countries are grappling with the challenge of how to  protect and maintain access to their space capabilities,” she said. “At the same time there is a wariness and a reticence on the part of a lot of countries asking these same questions to go so far as to talk about warfighting missions in space which include a combat mandate.”

Rajeswari Piali Rajagopalan, distinguished fellow at the Observer Researcher Foundation in Dehli, noted that the US is not the first space power to reorganize its political-military structures for national security space — China, Russia and even Japan have done so already. (China’s  PLA Strategic Support Force for space and cyber operations. Russia Space Forces are underneath the Russian Aerospace Defense Force. Japan late last year set up a Defense Ministry center to counter space and cyber threats, and has the intention of standing up a ‘space domain mission unit’ by Japanese fiscal year 2022.)

India, she added, is also considering how to set up a new “tri-service” space command in Bangalore (home of the Indian Space Agency), to be headed by an Air Force officer. She said this trend by militaries is an indication of the deteriorating space security environment and associated great power politics. “Given the worsening security scenario within the outer space domain, these were bound to happen in a sense.”

That said, Rajagopalan cautioned that while these new military space organizations were currently focusing on integrating domestic forces to better deal with space security threats, they also could hasten the emergence of an arms race in space that would be negative for all space operators. “The competition among the major powers could deepen further.”

This is why all of the speakers at the conference, including former Pentagon space policy cbief Doug Loverro, agreed that countries need to get more serious about setting rules of the road for activities in space — including regarding the conduct of space warfare. While there should be dialogue about preventing conflict in space, there is also a need for establishing rules of engagement — including some restrictions on certain types of combat operations. This is no different that in any other domain of warfare, where the law of armed conflict and treaties set boundaries for combatants, Loverro pointed out, adding that concerns about preventing conflict in space should not prevent discussion of the latter.

On the other hand, Loverro argued that the Space Force’s creation could free Washington to be more willing to consider restrictions on military space activities. “Today in the US we don’t want to go ahead and negotiate anything, because we don’t know what our doctrine is for space combat, or space war or space conflict — whatever you call it. Lacking our doctrine, we don’t know what rules can agree to and what rules we can’t agree to, so we agree to none, which I think is very harmful.” One of the first duties of the Space Force, he said, should be creating that doctrine, which in turn would “then allow us to shape rules that are in everybody’s interest.”

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