Picture this: A Chinese fighter jet accidentally crashes into a Navy P-8 Poseidon surveillance plane while attempting to buzz it over the South China Sea, killing all on board both aircraft. Fearing U.S. retaliation, China goes a relatively unexpected route: It uses surface-to-air missiles to shoot numerous U.S. satellites out of the heavens in quick succession.
Very quickly, the Navy is forced to navigate the Pacific with little use of GPS and degraded communications, causing chaos and uncertainty. The Chinese strikes also have knocked out some of the Pentagon's ability to control its arsenal of precision-guided weapons.
None of this has happened. But the hypothetical scenario points out the reliance the Pentagon has on space and the military technology it keeps in it. Satellites have soared over the earth's atmosphere for decades, providing the United States with a huge advantage militarily, even at a time when the conventional weapons U.S. rivals have are formidable.
A new report released on Wednesday by the Center for a New American Security highlights the vulnerabilities the Pentagon has in space, and calls for a shift in strategy to safeguard it and prepare for conflict there. It's written by senior fellow Elbridge Colby, a former member of the presidential campaign staff of Gov. W. Mitt Romney, R-Mass., and argues that potential adversaries like China and Russia have noticed the degree to which the United States is reliant on its "space architecture," and begun to seek ways to threaten it.
"Indeed, many observers have noted that these potential opponents judge the U.S. space architecture to be the Achilles' heel' of U.S. military power, in light of the depth of American reliance on theses systems and the vulnerability of the U.S. military satellite architecture," the report said.
Threats to satellites include not only missiles, but also cyber and electronic attacks that could disable them. In effect, Colby argues, "space is becoming a domain like any other -- air, sea, land, and electromagnetic -- in which the United States will have to compete and fight the ability to access and exploit the domain rather assume safe and uncontested passage within and use of it."
The Pentagon already has begun to prepare in response. Last year, for example, Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter directed the military to begin looking at reducing its reliance on GPS satellites, arguing in a podcast that the the Defense Department probably won't buy them within 20 years.
"Here's a sentiment and a prediction for you: I hate GPS," Carter said in the podcast, produced by the investment firm Andreessen Horowitz. "The idea that we are all hooked to a satellite -- formerly bought by me to my great resentment -- in a semi-synchronous orbit that that doesn't work in certain circumstances, does not work indoors or in valleys in Afghanistan, is ridiculous."
Colby argued that regardless what steps the military takes, it is unlikely the United States will ever have unchallenged dominance in space again. Therefore, the United States needs to consider adjusting what it will do if a satellite is attacked. During the Cold War, Colby notes, there was the threat that the United States would respond to any attack in space with devastating force. He suggests adopting new norms, including that attacks in space can result in retaliation outside space, like airstrikes on ground targets.
"This is crucial to the United States' particular interests, given the greater current U.S. reliance on space and the consequent preference of its potential adversaries to confine legitimate retaliation in the face of such strikes to space itself," he wrote. "Yet such a candidate principle stands a strong chance of being more widely accepted as a wide gamut of countries have come to rely on space and appreciate its value and connectivity to the fullest range of civil and military applications."
In a phone interview, Colby said that space is a perfect example of the challenges to American military superiority. There's no reason to think China and Russia will be restrained there, and that prompted him to raise the questions about how the Pentagon can limit future warfare involving space.
"In my mind, we're going to be picking up a lot of the thinking that kind of stopped with the end of the Cold War," Colby said. "Some people are like, 'Well, that's Cold War thinking,' and my response is that there was a lot of bad thinking in the Cold War, but there also was a lot of incredibly good and deep thinking in the sense that there was this titanic struggle between the free world and the Communist bloc, and you had some of the best minds to deeply engage with these issues."
Colby said that even if the Russians or Chinese don't shoot down satellites, they'll look for ways to jam them and prevent their usage.
"Space is going to be a vulnerable domain, so we're going to have to think of ways to mitigate that risk and mitigate those threats," he said. "Fundamentally, we're going to have to find ways to persuade or coerce our adversaries not to take full advantage of their abilities to hurt us in space."