Rather like the case of aviation at the beginning of the Great War, it is essential that today we have mastery of space. The development of a space defence strategy would seem vital and could draw on ten proposals.
Ten Proposals to Consider in Forming a Space Defence Strategy
Whilst military history seems to be stuttering its way to extinction, extra-atmospheric space is at last being recognised as a zone of confrontation. In some ways we currently regard space as we once regarded aviation just before the Great War. At that time, the majority of military commanders still only saw the flying machine as a supporting tool for ground operations among others. Yes, its usefulness for gathering intelligence, communication and directing artillery fires had been recognised, but more offensive missions for aviation had not been considered. The First World War rapidly altered opinions by demonstrating in particular the need to fight in the skies in order to impede the enemy and to conduct one’s own operations. Materiel was therefore adapted to this new mission, men trained for it and ad hoc organisations established to manage it.
At the outset of battle of Verdun, the Germans had mastery of the air and were able to stop static balloon deployments and French aviation missions. The command therefore no longer had a precise picture of the front line and its artillery lost effectiveness. It was then that an anxious but far-seeing Pétain spoke to his head of aviation saying, “Rose, clear the sky for me! I’m blind (…). If we are chased from the sky, then it’s simple: Verdun will be lost”. Whilst nobody today contests the advantage in having space assets for the conduct of military operations, they are as vulnerable as were the aircraft and the balloons at Verdun, given that a number of nations possess means of action in space which could potentially target them.
Where and when will be our next ‘Verdun’, that test in which a military
commander might say, on the lines of Pétain in 1916, “Clear space for me, I am blind, I can’t communicate any more, my forces don’t know where they are and can no longer fire with accuracy”?
Wisdom dictates that we should look closely at the ways and means capable of substantially reinforcing the security of our space operations since, were conflict to break out, inability to control space risks military rout. It is with this in view that ten proposals are presented below for consideration in forming a strategy for space.
1. All countries are concerned by the exploitation of inner (or circumterrestrial) space, which is common property. Regulation of space activity needs therefore to have a multilateral approach even though an infinitesimal minority of states have complete control of it.
In less than half a century space has entered the daily life of humans by bringing them a considerable number of services. Humans resort to space-based systems to communicate with each other, for the accurate synchronisation of some of their activities, for better knowledge of their environment and even for preservation of the planet. Given that, it is hardly surprising that more and more countries are showing interest in space, witness a constant increase in the number of national space agencies. Add to this shared interest the fact that extra-atmospheric space has no respect for the principle of territorial sovereignty and the consequence must be that any attempt to regulate human activity in space has to be multilateral in nature.
Shared interest and a multilateral approach are therefore key elements to any policy on space. But if extra-atmospheric space is presented as property common to all humans, it has to be said that it remains an environment access to which is extremely selective and which only very few powers are able to conquer. It is a fact that fewer than half of all countries possess orbital platforms, even though all benefit from space-related services. Moreover only some 3 per cent of countries have autonomy of action in space, meaning that they are capable of designing, producing, launching and setting orbital platforms to work on a regular basis. On a more strategic level, it might be considered that a little more than just one per cent of countries could be considered as genuine military space powers, those which have added a coherent space element to their defence policy linked to independent capabilities for space surveillance, launching, a range of supplementary services and activity in space. These few countries enjoy a strategic advantage over others and find themselves in a position that history has afforded but very rarely.
2. No military space power can exist unless supported by civilian industry and competences in the sector.
In 1965, France became the third space power when it put the Asterix satellite into orbit with the Diamant launch vehicle. What is less known is that with that same activity, our country began trials of a ballistic missile intended for its nuclear deterrent force, which had been developed in parallel with the Diamant vehicle. This glance at history is a reminder that duality was at the heart of space activities as they began—and it still is, as demonstrated by the simple fact that all defence satellites have been put on station by civilian launchers, and that the services provided by the Galileo constellation of satellites will very soon find military applications. And what goes for France goes also for all space powers, from the United States, which entrusts major military contracts to the company Space X, through Russia and India to China.
Fact is that the capability to design, produce and launch orbital systems constitutes a distinguishing factor in the evaluation of a country’s ‘space power’. And yet these are the same assets and competences that are mobilised for both civil and military aspects of space activities, something ever more true when relating to a medium power like ours, which is not in a position to spread its effort. From that point of view we can only be pleased about the presence in our country of an effective industrial ecosystem that in space matters ranks on a worldwide scale, along with the repeated successes over several decades of the Ariane launchers, which owe much to French expertise.
A truly sovereign military space strategy is conditioned in the long term by the vitality of that industrial ecosystem which supports it. Their joint future merits adoption of measures to maintain competences and the industrial base.
3. An orbital platform does not operate like an aeroplane. It does not fly, as such, and is physically accessible only to a very limited degree. Furthermore, it is subject to Kepler’s laws throughout its operational life.
An often-made error is to envisage space operations in the same way as air
operations, as if satellites behaved like aircraft, and yet the latter allow a wide range of manoeuvres and offer the great advantage of being in permanent contact with their users. None of that applies to an orbital platform: its dynamics are subject to Kepler’s laws, which constrain its ability to manoeuvre, and for the few years of its operational life it is stationed far from its operator in a barely accessible and aggressive environment which precludes virtually any maintenance operation.
Space operations need therefore to be understood in the context of the three major constraints affecting them which, although seemingly evident, are too often forgotten:
• Above all, a satellite rotates around the earth and does not ‘fly’. Given that, changing an orbit consumes a lot of energy, and arranging an r/v with another orbital platform can be achieved within a given plan if programmed before launch, but is hard to arrange thereafter if not.
• Next, a satellite has little on-board energy available, between 2 and 20 kW for a standard satellite, which amounts roughly to what is available in an apartment. For a nano-satellite, the available power amounts to just a few watts. Operational possibilities are therefore very limited.
• Finally, a satellite is far removed from its operators—typically between 300 and 36,000 km (roughly 180 and 22,500 miles) away—in a barely accessible environment, which complicates any intervention on the said satellite.
4. Everywhere on earth can be seen from space.
One consequence of the laws of space mechanics is that at some moment every point on earth is visible from a space platform in polar orbit, and another is that a large area of the earth’s surface can be permanently visible from a satellite judiciously positioned in geostationary orbit. Whilst numerous operational opportunities are offered by these facts, they are at the same time limited by the same space mechanics, which mean that permanence and accuracy of observation work in opposition. Put another way, a distant geostationary orbit at around 36,000 km/22,500 miles from earth offers permanence to the detriment of accuracy (and of latency, if considering communications), whereas for a polar orbit, the lower it is, the more accurate it is, but any observation is only fleeting, to the extent even of being stealthy.
Improvement in the performance of detection devices is the lever that allows the situation of the geostationary satellite to be corrected. In time such improvement should allow observation of the earth from that orbit with a degree of accuracy that would have certain operational interest. With regard to polar orbits, this improvement in detection devices adds to the altitude of the orbit as another parameter leading to improved observation quality. Improvement in the persistence of the observation is made by increasing the number of orbital platforms. It is because of this that numerous plans for constellations of low-orbit observation satellites are being developed, since they additionally afford a considerable capacity for revisits.
The result of this situation is that hiding a military manoeuvre will in the short term become extremely difficult because of the presence in space of a multitude of highly effective military and civilian detectors. For the military chief, this means that surprise will no longer come so much from concealment, but more from speed of execution, control of information, decoys and deception.
5. Freedom of access to space is the prerequisite of any space strategy.
This proposal, a truism, is worth advancing given its strong relevance and that the requirements stemming from it are structural. Forty-five years ago our country was forced to understand the meaning of lack of freedom of access to space when the United States refused permission for the commercial exploitation of one of our satellites that was due to be launched by an American rocket. France learned from the incident and offered Europe a launch vehicle that it had designed. This was the start of the Ariane programme, which for the past forty years has ensured Europe’s independence of access to space.
The other key element of autonomous access to space is having a launching base on one’s own territory. Conscious of the strategic challenges presented, our country quickly took the decision to equip itself with sovereign launch facilities and dedicated considerable effort in that direction. Since its creation in 1964, the space centre in Guyane (French Guiana) has been a visible demonstration of the French will to possess independent access to space. It allows our country to launch military satellites from a very advantageous geographical position in terms of performance whilst protecting our secrets and freeing us from any constraint linked to export.
The United States, Russia, China, India, Japan and other countries well understood that independent access to space was a condition for all space activities. It is therefore in this context of greater competition that we have to consider the preservation of the European launch capability and the upkeep of the European spaceport.
6. Circumterrestrial space is a transparent environment for those who possess the right means of detection. Knowledge of the situation in space is primordial among military space missions.
The positivist Auguste Comte argued that we need knowledge so we can anticipate in order to be in a position to act. (savoir pour prévoir afin de pouvoir). Mastery of space does not escape the logic of this situation, and indeed begins with knowledge of the activities being conducted there, sometimes just a few hundred kilometres above our territory.
Space surveillance responds in practice to two needs: that of removing as far as possible from orbital systems the risk of collision with other platforms or space debris, and that of establishing a situation in space with the aim of preserving our interests. Whilst radar is the most appropriate way of keeping watch over low orbits, higher orbits can only be observed by optical means. It is almost impossible to hide in space, and once detected, an object can be tracked—all the more easily, given that orbital movements are broadly predictable.
Surveillance of space is the cornerstone of space security in its three aspects of detection, identification and tracking, which is why it is a high priority to possess independent and robust assets for space surveillance in order to assess the threats to satellites and to take appropriate protection measures.
7. Digital data is both fuel and product of all space activity.
The space environment is one of collection and transit of data. On this we should not forget that each of us, every day, uses information from several dozen satellites to communicate, navigate, inform ourselves about the weather, and to search for information on internet. Economic activity is also partly dependent on space assets, and it is in that way that some stock and share trading organisations link their activity to a common time reference supplied by satellites. Regarding the military field, it takes little imagination to realise that were satellites to fail, there would no longer be any significant operations, since the element that in great measure gives Western forces their superiority would disappear.
Digital data has well and truly become both fuel and product of space activity. That being so, the security of the data is very closely linked to the cyber-security of its environment. Taking into account the threats observed in cyberspace, protection against cyber attacks on the entire chain of a space system—ground and satellite segments—needs to be very meticulously controlled.
8. The centre of gravity of a spatial vehicle is on the ground.
Orbital platform attacks may, using different methods, be initiated from the ground, from space or within the atmosphere. The methods are all technically very demanding and require considerable, specialised expertise. It would seem easier to attack the platforms by setting about the ground elements upon which they depend—exist, even—in some conventional manner. This goes for the industrial base that produces them, and even more so their launch, control and exploitation infrastructure in which there is little redundancy, and which makes them relatively vulnerable.
The corollary of recognition that the space environment has become one of confrontation, even of conflict, is establishing redundancy in, and protection of ground-based space infrastructure.
9. Destruction of a space vehicle by impact will in time affect the capabilities of all players, including the aggressor’s.
A physical attack on a satellite runs a high risk of creating space debris, which represents a danger to all orbital systems, including those belonging to the aggressor. In 2007, the intentional destruction by the Chinese of one of their satellites created thousands of particles of debris which today pose a significant risk to low-orbit satellites. Moreover, the impact on satellites of munitions fired from earth or from low altitude tends to throw the debris ‘upwards’. This means that such destruction of a satellite in a very low orbit (under 400 km/250 miles) might be considered non-problematic since the debris created would be rapidly consumed by the atmosphere, but is in fact quite the opposite, since the reality is that far higher orbits become lastingly polluted. This fact helps to reduce the probability that an offensive act in space would be in the form of a destructive shot. The risks of non-destructive offensive acts against satellites are therefore greatest, taking the form, for example, of EM pulses, jamming, lasers or degradation of certain components of the platform. Nevertheless, the main risk remains that of computer attack on a satellite’s control chain, which might go as far as taking over control of the satellite.
Having the capability to destroy satellites in orbit with kinetic weapons is of greater value to a country which itself possesses few space assets. In this case it would have a sort of equalising power when compared with more advanced military powers: a paradoxical situation in which it is able to hold mastery over highly developed space techniques without being capable of exploiting the potential of them. Thus a country little advanced in space technology but which began to develop kinetic anti-satellite weapons should be very closely watched.
10. Attrition of space assets produces short-term irreversible effects which can only be compensated by a number of prearranged resilience measures.
The production and launch cycle of satellites is currently still very lengthy even without taking into consideration the costs involved. It follows that a lost satellite cannot be replaced numerically in a timescale compatible with normal operational requirements unless a similar model is held in reserve and there is a suitably reactive launch capability, both of which are beyond the financial scope of almost all countries. Besides that, it is clear that when faced with attrition, a constellation offers the best guarantee of resilience.
Against the same background, attrition of space assets should also be seen as being applied to ground infrastructure and equipment, including launch bases, satellite ground segments or space surveillance assets.
Faced with the possibility of attrition of its space assets, a wise country would well beforehand set in place resilience measures that would be activated according to need and rely in particular on international cooperation and use of civilian systems.
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Strategic thinking today on space is largely confined to inner, or circumterrestrial, space, to which the ten proposals presented here should be considered as applicable. In the future, discussion should be on what is possible in that space between the earth and the moon, then outer space, and further proposals considered. ♦