Preventing space war the focus of cross-sector experts at ASU forum

Representatives from Space Force, academia and policy explore strategies for a more sustainable use of space

Image showing a satellite or spacecraft in orbit over Earth

“Space has become essential to our security and prosperity.”

Those words were among the first spoken Wednesday by Lt. Gen. DeAnna M. Burt at the Preventing Space War forum hosted and sponsored by Arizona State University’s Interplanetary Initiative.

Burt, the deputy chief of space operations for operations, cyber and nuclear for the U.S. Space Force, was the keynote speaker at the forum, held at ASU’s Barrett & O’Connor Washington Center in Washington, D.C.

The forum also included panel discussions featuring wide-ranging viewpoints from cross-sector experts on space domain awareness, space law and armed conflict, and deterring conflict in space.

In her remarks, Burt made clear how space systems have woven themselves into our daily lives.

“From the use of satellites to surf the internet and call our friends, to enabling first responders to communicate and respond in times of crisis, to timestamping financial transactions and allowing the use of credit cards at gas stations,” Burt said, “we harness the benefits of space every day.”

But, Burt added, “space is not only integral to our daily lives. It also underpins our national security space and enables our military forces to anticipate threats, rapidly respond to crisis and project power globally.”

Burt said the creation of the Space Force in 2019 was a response to the growing number of countries capable of launching systems into space and the potential consequences of a more congested domain.

In 2008, she said, the United States was tracking approximately 13,000 objects in orbit around Earth, only 1,500 of which were active satellites. Since then, 53 additional nations have become space-faring, the number of orbit satellites has grown nearly 500% and the U.S. is tracking more than 45,000 total objects.

In addition, Burt said, Russia and China both view space was a “war-fighting domain.”

“Russia has demonstrated their belief that supremacy in space will be a decisive factor in winning future conflicts,” Burt said. “It is clear our competitors understand the advantage space provides. We are in a new era in space, an era in which space is more congested, more contested and includes increased competition from adversaries able to execute space-enabled attacks on our forces across air, land and sea. … Today, we can no longer assume freedom of operations in orbit. A military service dedicated to maintaining space superiority is required.”

Burt said the U.S. and its allies must adopt a theory of success called “competitive endurance,” the goal of which is to maintain a state of perpetual competition so that “our adversaries are never desperate or emboldened enough to pursue destructive combat operations.”

“That is the essence of competition,” Burt said. “This also means there is no end to this competition. There is no victory in space. If we get this right, we will deter a crisis or conflict from extending into space but, if needed, we will ensure space superiority for the joint force in a manner that maintains safety, security, stability and long-term sustainability of the space domain for all responsible actors.”

Space domain awareness

A panel moderated by Robert Schmidle, professor of practice with ASU’s Center on the Future of War and the School of Politics and Global Studies, explained why space is a shared domain.

“It is not a place where states can extend their sovereignty,” said Charles Galbreath, a senior resident fellow for space studies at the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Suties. Christopher Johnson, Space Law Advisor at the Secure World Foundation, added that, "this is why that idea of dominance in outer space or space superiority is impermissible under the (1967) Outer Space treaty.”

Asked to define space superiority, Galbreath said it was the ability to do two things:

“Have the freedom of action to do what you want to do when you want to do it,” Galbreath said. “We have that today, right? If we’re not being interfered with by China or Russia, we can do what we want in space. The other side of it is the ability to deny the adversary to get that same benefit, to do what they want to do when they want to do it.

“I think their use of space as a war-fighting scenario is important because it’s not about the assets in space, it’s about the men and women on the ground that those assets protect.”

Schmidle asked if there’s such a thing as “high ground” in space.

“The fact that you can now over-fly any point on the Earth from space provides a unique perspective that’s part of the ultimate high ground,” Johnson said. “But the analogy breaks down quickly after that. You get to a point where you’re so far away from the fight that it really doesn’t matter too much.

“It’s important to protect national interest in space. But if we think that’s going to help us directly impact a terrestrial conflict, I think we’re deluding ourselves.”

Space law and armed conflict

Participants in the panel on space law and armed conflict were asked what keeps them up at night when they think about potential conflict in space.

Dan Ceperley, founder of LEOLabs, said the potential for a country to be “surprised” in space has increased because there are close to 7,000 satellites in lower orbit, compared with about 800 in 2019.

“Does that surprise lead to a conflict?” Ceperley said. “One of the interesting and alarming things that happened within about the last eight months was that a dead Russian satellite came alive. It had been dead about six years, but it came alive, executed a massive maneuver and pulled over next to some other Russian satellites, and they proceeded to practice proximity operations.

“There’s 13,000 pieces of debris in lower Earth orbit right now. So, what else is out there that could potentially wake back up? We’ve seen debris-removal missions and satellite-servicing missions, and I think these are part of a healthy space economy in the future, but they can also look threatening. There is a need for better communication and better cooperation across the industry so that we don’t inadvertently surprise somebody.”

An audience member asked if binding agreements could stop an “unfriendly actor” from doing something unwanted in space.

“Everybody could sign something that says you will not do X, Y or Z, but that’s not going to stop them from doing that unless there is a remedy that will actually cause them not to do it,” said Col. Matthew King, chief of international and administrative law for the Office of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

“If every state could be confidently trusted to adhere to all of their international obligations, then it’s a difference conversation, but I don’t think that’s the world we live in. That’s what makes it so difficult for the U.S. I think you have to separate the remedies from the obligations. And I think when you do that, you’ll see when we’re talking about starting armed conflict or things that will initiate armed conflict, it really boils down to core concerns the state has for its own security and, essentially, what will trigger a right of self-defense.”

Deterring conflict in space

The overarching questions for this panel: How does the U.S. deal with adversaries using space as a domain of war? And is there a red line countries cannot cross in space?

“For a red line to work, you have to have a mechanism to follow through on it, and you have to have the will to follow through on that,” said Col. William Sanders, deputy director of strategy and plans for the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Space Policy. “And I think that’s really hard to do absent an empirical data set where we know how countries would respond to that.”

China’s incursion into space — and what to do about it — was a major topic of the panel’s discussion.

“When I listened to or talked to my Chinese colleagues, what became clear was that from a military doctrinal perspective, they viewed the U.S. as conventionally much more superior,” said Namrata Goswami, an author and strategic analyst and consultant on space policy. “And one way they could limit that capability was to target space support. That’s very clear in their thinking.”

All of the panelists, agreed, however, that China’s reliance on space would deter it from engaging in conflict.

“They have a huge market, a huge population that depends on space support,” Goswami said. “So, they will be careful in terms of creating so many obstacles in space that it reduces their own capability to use it.”

Top photo illustration by dima_zel/iStock

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