U.S. space systems are the backbone of the U.S. economy and national security. Chinese counter-space weapon developments promise to make the satellite protection mission ever more challenging. There are significant challenges to deterring China from aggressive behavior in space, and for this reason U.S. policy makers and defense strategists must start planning now for a possible future military confrontation involving China that also may involve military space operations.
Successful deterrence strategies are, to the extent possible, tailored to the unique characteristics of diverse adversaries and political circumstances. By merely threatening to attack U.S. space systems unprotected by a strong deterrent or defenses, a country might be able to deter, or significantly alter, the U.S. involvement in the region or even its willingness to enter a conflict. When it comes to a possible conflict involving China, space cannot be considered a sanctuary from war.
For U.S. space deterrence to be as effective as possible, a space aggressor must perceive and fear that unacceptable costs will be imposed following an attack and that he will not adequately achieve expected goals by aggressive action in space. This means having actual and known retaliatory capabilities that may be employed in space or on earth. Deterrence assumes that the United States will be able to recognize that an attack has occurred, when it occurred, and by whom. For the strongest possible deterrence, the adversary should have a good understanding that its own highly valued assets would be at risk as a consequence of attacking the United States, be they in space, on land, or at sea.
Beijing has invested significantly in expanding its military capabilities, including its anti-satellite (ASAT) capabilities, to support an aggressive active defense strategy. Chinese military leaders believe that deceiving the enemy and being unpredictable can enhance deterrence and have operational advantages when deterrence fails. China’s military strategy involves the use of coercive tactics short of armed conflict in order to advance China’s interests. A brief war in space, in other words, may be viewed as a way of preventing a larger, more violent and bloody contest with the United States.