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Future Thinking – Space Culture: What do we need for the Future Fight?

sunrise of earth, blue shining in the space

Space is a domain that is increasingly contested, congested and competitive. As the cost and technical barriers to space diminish, the range of states and non-state actors able to access space (either directly or by leveraging another’s capabilities) continues to grow.

Over a dozen states are now capable of independently launching satellites into space; more importantly, almost every state is now capable of owning or leasing orbiting satellites. Such services allow states and non-state actors alike, the ability to conduct navigation, communication and surveillance from space, and are increasingly critical to terrestrial operations. Commercial operators have expanded beyond the traditional field of communications into space launch and earth observation services. SpaceX (founded by the internet entrepreneur Elon Musk), conducted the first contracted delivery of cargo to the International Space Station in 2012 and is now the ‘contractor’ of choice for NASA’s resupply missions. 

The space domain has therefore transitioned from the playground of major powers, to a global commons, where almost all nations have a stake in protecting their access, while denying it to others. As a result, space operations increasingly must account for human threats, not just the natural challenges of the space environment.

A Chinese test of an anti-satellite weapon in 2007, followed by a similar demonstration by the US, underlined the vulnerability of satellites to earth-based systems. The subsequent collision in 2009 between a decommissioned Russian satellite with an active Iridium communications payload reinforced the increasingly crowded character of the space environment. The 2015 breakups of US earth observation satellites (NOAA 16 and DMSP 13) were traced to internal faults – however in the future the potential for external interference can no longer be ruled out.

These changes have in turn altered the requirements of the personnel responsible for operating space capabilities. The historical focus of recruitment and training has been on developing the technical competence necessary to operate highly complex space capabilities in a naturally hostile environment. However, the character of this hostility has been based on physics and chemistry, and operators have been largely able to ignore the human element. In a future where the nature of human conflict intrudes into this environment, such technical skills may be found wanting.

‘Warfighting’ – Weapons in Space and Rules of Engagement

To overcome these challenges, space operators are attempting to develop an appropriate set of behavioural norms to account for the nature of war, while understanding the character of a potential war in space. The broad intent is to develop a ‘warfighter’ culture, one that can successfully defend against the hostility of other actors, and maintain access to space and space capabilities. As in most things worth doing, this intent, however worthy, does not translate into a simple solution.

At the heart of this difficulty lies in the term ‘warfighter’. Wars are a means of settling disputes through violence. We rely on weapons for the production of such violence. Thus to be a warfighter at its heart is to be the employer of weapons – even in the defence. One does not truly learn how to employ a shield until one wields a sword as well, and understands the character of the threat.

However, the space domain has characteristics that blur the distinction of what constitutes a weapon. In the terrestrial domain, weapons of war are differentiable from non-warlike objects and are operated by personnel separate from civilian life, who train to master their field. When every satellite in space contains more kinetic energy than its equivalent mass in high explosive, and every transmitter in space can interfere with other signals, such differentiation becomes difficult. How does one build a culture of warfighting when their tools might not be ‘weapons’?

Added to this quandary, the vulnerability of objects once placed in orbit has resulted in many of the means available to protect and deny space capabilities residing in the terrestrial domains. Indeed, the relative success of legal constraints on the militarisation of space (such as the banning of weapons of mass destruction in orbit) probably has more to do with the military utility of ground-basing such capabilities, rather than any particular desire for peace in outer space.

A corollary of this is that the best means of defeating threats to one’s space capabilities probably also reside in the terrestrial domains, and are hence under the control of other warfighters. The ability to disrupt an adversary’s control of their space capabilities may best be achieved through targeting by the land, maritime or air domains. How does one create appropriate mindsets and behavioural norms of warfighting when the means of violence are someone else’s?

A Space Odyssey?

Space operators therefore, face distinct challenges in developing an organisational culture that can employ the resources available to them, while integrating effectively with other domains. So, where to from here? And what does it mean for an ADF with a small effective role in space power?

Firstly, I would offer that it remains of vital importance to continue to develop an appropriate culture for space operations that centralises the role of space control within the space operations community. ‘Space control’ as a term has been reluctantly used by some, due to its association with weaponisation or militarisation of space. However, it is also a vital role that must be performed if access to space is to be assured.

Secondly, I would propose that, given the difficulty of growing ‘warfighters’ within the community, we continue to import them. A diversity of perspective will be important. The space domain shares characteristics with aspects of all the other domains, and yet it differs from all of them, so it would be surprising to expect one experience set is sufficient to answer all the challenges that space operations will face.

About the author

Richard Harrison is an Air Combat Officer who has spent time in several space-related positions over the past decade. In 2016 he returned from three years on exchange in the USAF Joint Space Operations Center. He is passionate about continuing to develop the Australian Defence Force’s approach to operations in, and using, the the Space Domain.

Grounded Curiosity is a platform to spark debate, focused on junior commanders. The views expressed do not reflect any official position or that of any of the author’s employers – see more here.