At the dawn of the new space age, the United States is racing to assemble a military coalition of spacefaring nations to rival that of Operation Enduring Freedom or the Western Bloc.
Its success could reshape yet another area of military power in America’s image, bringing the same security dynamics to the cosmos that have evolved for decades on Earth.
Countries have operated military satellites, radars, and other space-related weapon systems for years. But with a Cold War redux underway, the United States says it needs to beef up its defenses on orbit to fend off Russian and Chinese aggression in the cosmos. American officials argue it takes a multinational team to protect international space exploration and commerce—as well as GPS and other systems that enable terrestrial ops and modern civilian life.
In the grand scheme of things, the U.S. is still going to be the 800-pound gorilla when it comes to military space capabilities.—Victoria Samson, Secure World Foundation
“There’s a significant understanding of the importance of space, and U.S. leadership in space is resonating across the globe,” Gen. John W. “Jay” Raymond, the Space Force’s Chief of Space Operations, said Feb. 3.
In making the case that the United States needs its new Space Force, federal officials argue that the Pentagon now sees space as it sees everything else: a domain where countries are stocking their arsenals and could eventually spark aggression with consequences to U.S. citizens.
“The complexity of operations in the largest and most challenging warfighting environment requires us to strengthen … alliances and attract new partners,” U.S. Space Command boss Gen. James H. Dickinson said in January at an Aerospace Nation event hosted by AFA’s Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies.
Countries must be able to share information, connect their technologies, and “unite around a compelling narrative” of the U.S.-led coalition remaining the top dog in space, he said. And right now, that narrative is driven by the desire to outpace Russian and Chinese advancements and discourage aggression.
That may not always convince other countries with different histories and geopolitical realities. Whereas nations can agree on the merit of limiting space debris that could damage satellites and other vehicles, it may be harder to get them on the same page when it comes to offensive and defensive weapons.
For example, in a statement to the United Nations last year, Japan reiterated its “unwavering basic position” that it wants to prevent an arms race in outer space—a common criticism of the Space Force’s work.
“The U.S. and its allies do tend to share the common concern about a cluttered space environment, [and] competition that is focused on behavior as being threatening, as opposed to technologies,” said Victoria Samson, Washington office director for the Secure World Foundation. “Russia, China and … their allies still focus very much on, ‘The big threat that we have to worry about is space-based interceptors,’ i.e., U.S. missile defense systems.”
Certain countries are moving in the same direction as the U.S. by launching their own military space organizations, like the United Kingdom’s Space Command and France’s Air and Space Force. Some are nurturing early investments in civil and commercial space ventures, as well.
Those new groups don’t fundamentally change the nature of international military space cooperation, which the U.S. has done for decades, Samson said. But it does shift what other countries can bring to the table as they recognize the role space plays in national security.
“In the grand scheme of things, the U.S. is still going to be the 800-pound gorilla when it comes to military space capabilities,” Samson said. “If I were these other countries, what I would be doing is trying to look at [is] ‘OK, I don’t want to reinvent the wheel. I want to figure out, what’s our niche? Where’s my value added, as opposed to replicating everything the U.S. does?’”
American officials are reaching out across the globe to gauge ripe opportunities for new partnerships, or for building on existing alliances. Foreigners are learning in DOD’s space schoolhouses, and participating in space defense exercises. Much of those discussions are related to norms of behavior on orbit: what’s acceptable, what’s not, and how to react.
But not all space partnerships are created equal. Where wealthier countries may have more established national security space needs, others may only have the budget or desire to pursue civil and commercial space programs. The U.S. is learning to meet everyone where they are, said Lt. Col. Pete Atkinson, SPACECOM’s international engagements chief.
Raymond often touts agreements with Norway and Japan to carry American payloads on their satellites for communications in the Arctic and object tracking over Europe and Asia, respectively. Those are slated for launch through 2024.
Another 10-nation pact allows the signatories to work together on “microsatellite military utility, military optical satellite communications and optical space data relay, and responsive launch and range operations,” a Space Force spokesman said.
NATO IN SPACE
Raymond recently returned from a visit to NATO’s new space center at Ramstein Air Base, Germany, which aims to more regularly incorporate space into allied ops plans. That could mean anything from enabling satellite communications for coalition flights in the Middle East to tracking prospective ballistic missiles fired into Europe.
NATO, which lacks its own space inventory but uses that of its member countries, is ramping up its space strategy after recognizing the cosmos in 2019 as the next frontier for conflict. Partnering more closely with the U.S. will be key to the alliance’s success, according to Frank A. Rose, a former assistant secretary of state who is now a foreign policy researcher at the Brookings Institution.
“To date, U.S. leadership has been the key driver of NATO decision-making on outer space, and senior U.S. officials have actively engaged the alliance leadership,” Rose wrote. “Senior-level engagements between U.S. political and military leaders should continue and be expanded.”
He recommended creating a position for a NATO liaison officer at SPACECOM or Space Force headquarters, like those in similar jobs at U.S. Strategic Command. NATO also needs to strengthen its ties to the European Union to get access to space data that not all NATO members—or the organization itself—can see.
“The United States should also seek to incorporate NATO representatives into its outer space-related wargames where possible, especially the Schriever Wargame, the premier U.S. space wargame,” Rose wrote. “At the end of the day, all of this will require clear, sustained, and consistent U.S. leadership.”
In Latin America, countries are looking to collaborate on space situational awareness (or object tracking), space weather, and satellite imagery for humanitarian aid and other missions. Last year, U.S. Southern Command, SPACECOM, and the Space Force co-hosted a summit with Brazil, Chile, Colombia, and Peru to share their strategies and look for common ground.
“The Americas have seen a surge of space activity,” Lt. Col. Galen Ojala, U.S. Southern Command’s director of space forces, said in a November 2020 press release.
“Various civil and defense ministries actively operate and pursue additional capabilities across industry and academia for the good of their people and regional security. On a single overflight of Earth, their satellites support urban planning, crop estimates during [the coronavirus pandemic], law enforcement, environmental monitoring, and territorial security.”
Africa is also seeing a resurgence in military space plans for several countries after “domestic and international political dynamics halted or softened those quests” following the Cold War, South African researcher Samuel A. Oyewole wrote last year. The U.S. has helped partner nations across Africa learn to use satellite communications systems, and is in talks to further improve data-sharing with the Pentagon.
Samson said the Defense Department should also do more to court India, which has launched myriad satellites and is pursuing anti-satellite weapons. Signing a space situational awareness agreement would give the U.S. as much information as possible on what the Indians are putting on orbit and could help encourage nondestructive behavior.
There are multiple avenues to working with the U.S. in space. One of the most basic is to sign an agreement to share data on decommissioned satellites and other objects orbiting the Earth. At least 26 countries have formed those pacts with the U.S. so far, in addition to about 100 intergovernmental organizations, academic institutions, and commercial companies.
It’s not perfect: Even with those agreements in place, Samson said there’s more to do to ensure countries are sharing information in file formats everyone can read, and to overcome classification hurdles that often stymie closer collaboration.
Another avenue is to send liaison officers to the U.S. to provide their country’s perspective on daily operations. They rely mainly on unclassified information for tasks like crafting training exercises and public messages, said Maj. Gen. DeAnna M. Burt, a top commander in SPACECOM and the Space Force’s operations branches at Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif.
At the highest level are the coalition members of Operation Olympic Defender, the formal, overarching international effort to deter hostile actions in space. That includes the United Kingdom, Australia, and Canada—members of the “Five Eyes” intelligence-sharing alliance with the U.S., Canada, and New Zealand—who are allowed to operate U.S. assets.
Other countries, like France and Germany, were offered a place in Olympic Defender but have not formally signed on.
Members of Olympic Defender send exchange officers to the U.S. to work as part of the Pentagon chain of command. They handle missions such as space debris tracking and are privy to more secrets than liaison officers.
Burt said, “There are things that are U.S.-only that we have to do, but we try to limit those off of the main ops floor. The main ops floor, we operate every day at the U.S. top secret, Five Eyes level.”
Burt’s in charge of the Combined Force Space Component Command, the branch of SPACECOM that works with other countries during daily missions.
“Information about our constellations is passed back and forth to each other … because we’re operating together as a coalition on the ops floor,” Burt said of sharing navigation and other data with the U.K., Australia, and Canada. “For the [liaison officers], that data, where I can make it unclassified and share it at the right level with that particular country, we absolutely do that.
Vandenberg and Peterson
Vandenberg is the hub for most of the Pentagon’s international military space cooperation, including the Combined Force Space Component Command and the Space Force’s Combined Space Operations Center—a secretive command and control organization that tracks objects in space and acts as a liaison between those who operate military space assets and those who need their services.
SPACECOM wants to bring more foreign employees to its headquarters at Peterson Air Force Base, Colo., as well. Having everyone in the same room gives officials a better idea of what resources they have at their disposal—not only from the U.S. Space Force, but from across the coalition.
“One of the critical pieces of work the Space Force is doing in this year two is to develop a force design for space,” Raymond said. “What I’ve told our team is to build that force design with coalition partners in mind from the beginning. Once we get that force design built, where there’s areas to partner … we would welcome that opportunity.”
Military officials envision an interconnected web of military and commercial space systems that allows troops across the globe to talk, track moving objects, share intelligence products, and wield offensive capabilities like signal jammers, when needed.
Americans want to plug into space ops facilities in places like France and Germany, while thinking about which countries might be best suited to host U.S. assets in orbit and on the ground. Ideally, they want a fast-moving global network with backup options if certain parts fail: the GPS constellation goes down, for instance, or imagery payloads can’t send pictures to Earth.
In one example, Canadian satellite communications programs piggyback on U.S. assets like the Advanced Extremely High Frequency constellation, while offering their own data through the Tactical Narrowband Satellite Communications (SATCOM) systems in geosynchronous orbit.
But the budding coalition still isn’t where some officials want it to be.
“Do we let [Japan, the United Kingdom, and Australia] operate any American weapon systems in other domains? … We will let them operate, in unison with us, the F-35, which I would say is more advanced in many capabilities than almost any space system that we operate today,” Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. John E. Hyten said at a Jan. 22 National Security Space Association event. “Space, though, is still special, so we won’t.”
The U.S. will never let other countries take over total responsibility for whole mission areas in space, Hyten said. But, he argues, American allies should be allowed to share more of the load.
Foreign troops are expected to take part in a broader range of U.S. space operations as those partnerships unfold. Burt said it depends where allies think they would be most useful: at SPACECOM headquarters, at missile warning units or radar sites, or perhaps embedded with Space Force Guardians around the world.
That spread also depends on how many people a nation needs at home to build its own space enterprise, versus sending them abroad to help and learn from the U.S. “Ultimately, it will be a benefit of ours, as well,” Burt said.
She suggested there may be a burgeoning foreign military sales market for space, just as U.S.-made fighter jets have spread to more than a dozen countries. Using the same systems offers an easier path to interoperability than getting disparate technologies to communicate, too.
“We sell F-35s to quite a few people, right? Why wouldn’t we share and sell space capabilities, working with each other on common capabilities that we as a coalition are going to need?” she said. “Those dialogues are happening.”
Look to ridesharing, where U.S. payloads hitch a ride on a foreign rocket launch, as one option that could become more popular, Burt said. Multiple countries are also pursuing more universal SATCOM options, she noted, as well as a global navigation approach that ties together the U.S. GPS, Russian GLONASS, and European Galileo constellations for seamless directions.
She suggested countries may also discuss “higher-end” technologies tailored to their particular concerns and nearby threats.
Experts believe other countries could shoulder more of the burden when it comes to military space resources to monitor and communicate in the Arctic. Space-based synthetic aperture radar imagery, used to create two- and three-dimensional renderings of an area, may also be something the U.S. could outsource.
“Trying to take advantage of a geographic location, whether it’s sharing data or taking on Earth observations or sharing radar capabilities—I think that’d be something that would be helpful as well,” Samson said.
Balancing international investment in military space assets will be a fine line for nations to walk, she added.
Countries typically look to what the U.S. is doing when deciding what systems to build, and there is a sense of prestige associated with having domestic launch and counter-space capabilities, she said. The cost of launches and space products are dropping, leading countries that haven’t traditionally pursued those programs to get in the game.
Space technology with dual civilian and military uses may be attractive to any country looking to get more bang for its buck, rather than spend more money on multiple specialized capabilities.
Atkinson noted there’s an added layer of security for countries in knowing they have the means to call out bad behavior without relying on the U.S., which could keep some investments in-house.
The ongoing global pandemic may change the foreign calculus about how large countries can afford to grow their space programs.
“We’re living in a COVID world where there’s tremendous drain,” Samson said. “I think it’s going to be harder to make the argument for a huge investment that’s basically replicating stuff you can get from a so-called trusted ally, such as the United States, when you have all these other demands on your national resources.”
They could opt to share the cost of developing new systems, such as Australia’s payments toward the Wideband Global SATCOM program. As space data begins to flow more freely between a growing number of allies, those nations may think twice about spending money on their own assets as well.
Even if a government opts not to build its own spacecraft from scratch, it might have just as much interest in keeping commercial products safe.
“As countries put more satellites and more of their economic and national security dependency on space, they’re going to want to make sure it’s protected,” Samson said, noting that several leading nations talk about that resilience in the same way as the U.S.
Burt argues other countries should be concerned about Russian and Chinese aggression on orbit and weapon tests that send dangerous trash flying. Thousands of commercial satellites like SpaceX’s Starlink network also promise to crowd space and could result in more collisions with national assets.
“Even if you’re a country that’s brand-new to the business, you do care about those things,” she said. “If you’re going to put a lot of money into this brand-new capability, and it could be quickly taken out by something on orbit, that’s not something you want to see happen.”
Some allies, like the U.K., are willing to publicly call out bad actors alongside the U.S. Others opt for more discreet, diplomatic routes to encourage compliance with international norms.
Yet the United States is opening the door to broader development of the same weapons for the sake of deterrence—and to keep its options open if war does erupt. Wargames can show where countries could move forward together.
“If we’re building jammers or capabilities or [other] things, and we find that we are looking at technologies similarly to how they are … why wouldn’t I say, ‘There’s an opportunity here for one of us to build this, and the other to invest?’” Burt said.
Conversations about whether and how to respond to aggression on orbit are still evolving, but Burt believes they’ve grown more promising. Participants who would have walked away from the table on divisive issues before are now hearing out the U.S., she said.
“For many countries, a human has to die for that to be determined as a hostile act,” she said as an example. “If you shoot down a machine, no one died in that instance. But … we now will have second- and third-order effects of more casualties in a given engagement.”
Samson cautioned that militarization of space doesn’t happen in a vacuum—tensions on the defense side can spill over into civil space, where NASA is also trying to forge a multinational coalition for a new era in space exploration. Tensions may be most noticeable for countries that can’t afford separate civil and military space agencies, making it harder to compartmentalize “if there’s any rancor … bleeding over into the civil space cooperation,” she said.
National security space matters are also being hashed out in international venues like the U.N., where fresh treaties and accords can shape the coalition’s work for decades to come.
Everyone is heading into uncharted territory together, including the Pentagon. The Defense Department still has much to do to flesh out how it will organize and use American space forces, let alone work with others.
“Until the U.S. figures out its role and its mission for its Space Force and how it wants Space Command to use those forces, … it’ll affect our cooperation,” Samson said. “I think we need to get our house in order.”