Deterrence and First-Strike Stability in Space: A Preliminary Assessment

  • Published

Deterrence and First-Strike Stability in Space: A Preliminary Assessment by Forrest E. Morgan. RAND, 2010, 810 pp.

Over the past half-century we have witnessed two separate periods where parallel technological developments have shaped the contours of US space policy. First, the near simultaneous dawn of the nuclear and space ages resulted in an era when most American space capabilities were created to support the nation’s nuclear posture. Since neither Cold War rival possessed the means—save for crude employment of nuclear detonations in space—to hold one another’s space-based assets at risk, the nature of the balance in space remained relatively tranquil, although occasional periods of instability did affect this military common. A second period of parallel developments began with the digital age as America’s networked conventional forces became more reliant on military and commercial satellites for command and control. But just as this advancement helped reshape the way the US military trained for and fought its wars, new developments in technology also stood to make antisatellite (ASAT) weapons more accessible to state actors who sought to undermine America’s newfound war-fighting advantages.

These historical developments form the basis for Forrest E. Morgan’s Deterrence and First-Strike Stability in Space: A Preliminary Assessment, which attempts to introduce what he describes as an “empty template” for the construction of a new national space policy. Morgan builds his template using the theory of first-strike stability, which “focuses on each side’s force posture and the balance of capabilities and vulnerabilities that could make a crisis unstable should a confrontation occur.” Initially developed for the nuclear realm, the first-strike stability model as applied in space has one clear difference: the specter of catastrophic destruction should deterrence fail is largely absent. Acknowledging this weakness, the author maintains it is nevertheless possible to “dull future enemies’ ardor for space aggression by manipulating both sides of their cost-benefit calculations simultaneously.”

The premise for Morgan’s analysis is that, given the benefits of space for America’s war fighter and the resultant expanding dependence on this domain, any policy that seeks to dominate space and “win” an engagement in this domain would be a losing one. Instead, he advocates a strategy aimed at preserving and enhancing stability through a deterrent regime that relies on a concert of tools. These tools would be used to establish credible threats of punishment against would-be space aggressors, increasing the potential costs associated with attacking America’s space infrastructure while also decreasing the benefits accrued by developing a range of capabilities to deny adversaries the benefits of their offensive.

While the contours of space policy have been discussed at length in recent years, Morgan’s assessment offers a number of fresh ideas for further consideration. First, he develops a taxonomy for the different thresholds of deterrence among varying satellite systems and across the spectrum of kinetic (destructive) and nonkinetic (reversible) ASAT capabilities. Cataloging these differences enables him to demonstrate the degree to which vertical and horizontal escalation can be managed from the early stages of a crisis to full-scale conventional conflict.

Second, Morgan outlines at length the value of strategic communications (StratComm) to a national space policy. A focused effort of this kind would establish clear norms, he argues, while also enhancing deterrence by broadcasting the consequences of unacceptable behavior to potential adversaries and conditioning international public opinion to accept the justice of punishing space aggressors. While the utility of StratComm in recent years has generally been discussed in relation to the war of ideas being waged against Islamist extremism, Morgan draws attention to the larger contribution it can have in the strategic realm.

Finally, he identifies the benefits of building “entanglements” into the military and commercial space architecture by jointly developing satellites and sharing data with friendly nations. Although this is already occurring largely as a cost-saving measure, Morgan insightfully notes that a more concerted effort to distribute US military payloads in such a manner would generate greater redundancy of assets, build lasting support for a US retaliation-based strategy, and perhaps most significant for a deterrence-based strategy, introduce the risk of horizontal escalation for potential aggressors with America’s partner nations.

Morgan also offers a balanced take on the often divisive debate regarding diplomacy in space. Rightfully questioning the feasibility of a treaty prohibiting the development or use of ASAT weapons, he levels equal discontent for the Bush administration’s 2006 space policy that declared outright opposition to any type of space regime. Placed within the context of a deterrence-based strategy that upholds the value of stability, Morgan identifies the confidence-building measures that could accrue from diplomatic engagement on space policy. Nevertheless, US policymakers would do well to remember that opening the discussion of a space regime could potentially pressure the United States to agree to measures that compromised either its interests or its image. Treading into such waters should be done only with the utmost caution.

Morgan’s analysis would have been enhanced had it also accounted for the effects that US policy could have on target states before they develop ASAT technologies. The concept of military dissuasion developed by Andrew Krepenevich and Robert Martinage in a 2008 Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessment report embodies a policy of predeterrence that could enhance America’s overall space policy by identifying how specific tools would interact to potentially influence a target state before it invests in an ASAT capability. A truly multifaceted national space policy would therefore seek to synchronize US strategy for both dissuasion and deterrence.

In an effort to reduce the perceived benefit of attack, Morgan also might have given greater attention to the methods and associated technologies for enhancing redundancy in space. Two important initiatives include miniaturized and fractional satellites (a series of miniature satellite subsystems that exist independently as part of a network) that can be dispersed in larger constellations in space or placed on standby on the ground to surge capacity in the event of an emergency.

True to the preliminary nature of his template, Morgan is clear that what he has developed is not a strategy and that further consideration must be granted to the options he presents regarding their viability and affordability. While the challenge of completing such a task is sizable, an even more formidable obstacle will be managing the interagency collaboration and implementation that a national space strategy would require. Nevertheless, this study constitutes a valuable contribution to fashioning a comprehensive roadmap devoid of any of the ideological dispositions that often make their way into discussions in the field. As a preliminary assessment, it is a commendable one.

Eric Sayers

Pacific Forum Center for Strategic and International Studies

Honolulu, Hawaii

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."