MH 370 Reminds of US Vulnerabilities in Space

03/24/2014 02:44 pm ET | Updated May 24, 2014

Co-authored with Dylan Rebstock, intern at the Atlantic Council's Eurasia Center

The recent loss of Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 is an international tragedy, and its complete disappearance is mystifying to a modern society based around instant information transfer. As the intrigue increases, space-based assets have taken a more prominent role in the search process. China in particular has been vocal about refocusing their satellites to concentrate on finding the missing plane.

China has pledged the use of 21 satellites, which represents almost a fifth of their total space assets. This commitment is all the more impressive once the numbers of communications, navigation, and scientific satellites are removed. While the space assets of the United States are likely contributing behind the scenes, NASA's sole public dedication of its Earth-Observing-1 satellite to the search seems marginal next to the 42 percent of all available imaging and earth science assets committed by Beijing.

This public display of peaceful space capabilities is reflective of a modern China with modern space ambitions, not all of which may be peaceful.

It is no secret that China has recently looked to outer space as a theater to counter the United States' overwhelming military advantage in the Pacific. The People's Liberation Army (PLA) has conducted multiple kinetic anti-satellite (ASAT) tests in different orbital layers, and Beijing is fully aware that America's execution of high-tech, precision-guided combat relies on satellite support. A recently published article also suggests that China possesses ASAT capabilities to target objects in orbits where a bulk of telecommunication satellites are located.

This emphasis on ASAT warfare has been widely talked about by policy wonks, with the most popular solutions involving constellation decentralization and individual satellite hardening. While there is little doubt to their effectiveness, both options are expensive and not especially creative.

Instead, the United States should counter aggression in space asymmetrically, by using their comparative advantages in two key sectors: ASAT attack attribution and greater situational awareness. This combination would increase deterrence effectiveness by removing perpetrator ambiguity while increasing the freedom of action for the US in outer space.

This is a priority shared by the Pentagon, as evident by the main references to space in the 2014 Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR), where special emphasis is given to "fielding new capabilities to detect and characterize interference with space systems, to enable timely attribution and response."

The attribution factor is especially relevant when it comes to non-kinetic ASAT attacks. While lacking the splash of a confirmed knock-out, directed-energy weapons could be a preferred weapon for any future Chinese ASAT strike, especially given the widespread international condemnation after their 2007 kinetic interception.

China has possessed a non-kinetic ASAT ability since at least 2006, when they temporarily blinded US reconnaissance satellites, and it is likely their methods have only become more effective in the last eight years. Energy strikes may take an extended time for their effects to be apparent, yet the attack itself is quick, making accurate attribution a challenge, especially if the target satellite is in a higher orbit with a wide line of sight. By using America's technological advantage to increase monitoring of ground-based laser systems, accurate attribution can be improved and deterrence made more effective by ensuring the capacity for punishment remains prompt and credible.

Space deterrence would be further strengthened by the second US asymmetric capability: improved space situational awareness (SSA). The Air Force recently launched two satellites (Geosynchronous Space Situational Awareness Program or GSSAP) into Geosynchronous (GEO) orbit in order to monitor space objects at the highest altitudes, which includes some of America's most critical communications nodes and ballistic missile sensors. Satellite launches are planned years in advance and while GSSAP was not directly in response to the successful 2013 Chinese GEO missile test, it likely is a reaction to the increased ASAT capabilities of the PLA. Not only will GSSAP and other similar constellations provide an extra layer of defense for US satellites, but they can better predict benign satellite congestion and prevent unwarranted escalation.

While the ultimate goal of these space systems would be to deter and prevent conflict, improved SSA and attribution would be critical American asymmetric advantages in the event of open hostilities. The ability to discern an enemy's movements and abilities without reciprocation is an advantage that has been coveted by military leaders for time immemorial. The US Space Surveillance Network is unparalleled in its ability to monitor objects in outer space, constantly tracking around 23,000 objects ranging in size from baseballs to Buicks. The strengthening of these asymmetric capabilities would allow the Air Force to effectively dominate the space domain, barring the entry of nuclear weapons which would have significant escalatory and discriminate effects.

The military presence in space has come a long way since the days of Sputnik, and it is likely the United States will face significant challenges in maintaining its domain superiority. China's recent ASAT advancements are especially troubling, but the emphasis espoused in the new QDR on asymmetric defenses will be a giant leap toward maintaining successful deterrence in outer space.