April 24, 2024

Space domain awareness as a strategic deterrent to Russian aggression in space

As the first Russian columns crossed the border toward Chernihiv, Ukraine, on the morning of February 24, 2022, millions of people around the planet watched the invasion unfold. They were able to do this thanks to a steady stream of satellite images broadcast not by governments, but by commercial space companies operating from downtown San Francisco, the outskirts of Denver and the coast of Santa Barbara.

That steady stream of Earth observation data quickly became a crucial source of intelligence for Ukraine and its allies. Never before have the impact and importance of the new space economy been felt so deeply. The availability of commercial intelligence of a quality and scale previously available only to the spy services of a few countries has had an undeniable impact on the way those preparing for the conflict and those following its build-up opposed involvement looked at. For the first time in modern warfare, independent, near real-time, unclassified commercial data from space shaped the world’s understanding of an emerging conflict.

Today, almost exactly two years later, America and its allies face a new and yet analogous challenge from Russia.

On February 14, 2024, Representative Mike Turner (R-Ohio) announced the existence of an emerging and serious “national security threat” in space, a threat that was quickly reported to be of Russian origin. As the international community responds to this latest Russian provocation – this time faced with the prospect of one or more Russian anti-satellite nuclear weapons being launched into orbit, likely as part of a broader anti-access/area denial strategy (A2/AD ) – we are about to see another direct illustration of the geopolitical value of the new space economy. But this time, the commercial space-based capabilities needed to understand and monitor this new threat are neither as developed nor as capable as the Earth observation constellations in 2022.

Russia has reportedly not yet deployed such a capability and is unlikely to deploy it anytime soon. However, should Russia launch such a weapon, there are currently limited resources available to provide meaningful insight into what that system does and what risks it poses. This potential information asymmetry increases the risk of miscalculations and places U.S. decision makers at an unnecessary disadvantage.

Despite operating several dual-use Space Domain Awareness (SDA) assets both in space and on Earth, the United States and allied nations have only a handful of dedicated, preeminent space-based capabilities. To date, however, U.S. government investments in non-terrestrial imaging capabilities have fallen prey to competing DoD priorities such as the proliferation of LEO data transmission and next-generation missile warning/missile tracking systems. And with each launch, the challenge of maintaining surveillance of objects orbiting Earth and now lunar orbit only increases as the complexity of the orbital environment increases.

Commercial entities are also rapidly developing a comprehensive architecture capable of effectively targeting, collecting, and exploiting data about the orbital environment. But like government investments in SDA capabilities, private investments in non-terrestrial imaging capabilities have lagged behind those of Earth observation companies. As a result, today, while commercial space domain awareness capabilities are rapidly maturing, there are no commercial constellations of non-terrestrial imaging sensors capable of effectively tracking and monitoring such a weapon, if and when Russia deploys it.

The US Space Force is developing capabilities to support competitive endurance in orbit, including a substantial SDA capability seen as fundamental to America’s ability to conduct sustained operations in orbit feed. But such capabilities do not exist yet and will not do so for years to come. Without these systems, America will have fewer resources to deter this new Russian threat. In retrospect, what U.S. and allied lawmakers have not learned over the past two years is that today’s commercial providers of traditionally government-produced orbital intelligence provide a crucial secondary source of unclassified, actionable intelligence—and that that source alone viable if prioritized. investment. It is because of the historically slow investment in non-terrestrial imaging that America and its allies have limited options.

Commercial SDA capabilities are a clear solution to the Space Force challenge. Commercial capabilities can be unclassified, allowing broad distribution and therefore increasing their strategic signaling value. Commercial SDA sensors can also be managed by a contractor, reducing DoD personnel costs and freeing up resources for other national security priorities. Finally, as in Ukraine, industry players have demonstrated that new space companies can quickly develop effective and actionable intelligence solutions. Yet, both private and government funding for commercial SDA capabilities has remained modest to date.

Despite the clamor of experts citing the clear violation of the Outer Space Treaty if a Russian nuclear bomb in space would mean a Russian nuclear bomb in space, we must remember that Russia has shown a willingness to disrupt the world order when it serves its purposes. America and its allies should assume that Russia will not hesitate to violate its obligations under international law if doing so would help Russia achieve its goals in space, on Earth, or both.

The question then becomes: What should America and its allies do today to provide a meaningful deterrent to Russia or its proxies, who intend to jeopardize strategic space assets?

Ultimately, there is no one-size-fits-all solution to the complex problem of maintaining effective SDA. What is clear is that the diversification and proliferation of space-based sensors is the only effective way to provide comprehensive SDA, thereby enabling a meaningful strategic deterrent for Russia.

To this end, America and its allies must do three things. First, they must quickly provide more resources to commercial SDA operators to support the development of comprehensive architectures of space-based non-terrestrial imaging capabilities. Increased investment in capabilities will result in accelerated development and deployment, providing both a clear signal to Russia and a meaningful limitation on their new weapon. Second, lawmakers should require the use of detection capabilities on any new satellite weighing more than 50 kilograms. Such a shift in spacecraft licensing would quickly lead to a fundamental proliferation of onboard sensors, while contributing to the safety of space operations. Finally, the U.S. and allied countries should continue to share SDA data and seek to pool SDA information among domestic and foreign governments and commercial sources. By increasing available resources, mandating vision systems on certain spacecraft, and increasing international and industry cooperation, lawmakers can leverage existing commercial investments in space domain awareness technologies to quickly field a critically important distributed capability.

Whether or not Russia chooses to deploy a nuclear A2/AD capability, it is clear that the Kremlin is trying to negotiate the space agenda on distinctly Russian terms. Only through a revived U.S. and allied focus on a distributed orbital sensing infrastructure can we maintain a secure and transparent orbital environment—and thereby push back Russian sabre-rattling in a strategically crucial and increasingly commercialized warfighting domain.

Philip Hover-Smoot is an experienced aerospace and defense executive, a seasoned space industry attorney and the CEO of Scout Space Inc., a leading space observation services provider focused on space security and comprehensive space domain awareness.

Col(ret) Stuart Pettis is the director of STEM programs for the Air & Space Forces Association. He served as a space operator in the U.S. Air Force for 29 years and is also a Department of Defense advisor to Scout Space Inc.

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