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2020 Space Strategy: Essential, Informative, But Not a Strategy

To compete in space with America's adversaries, the Defense Department needs more than a statement of intent.

The Department of Defense (DoD), on June 17, released the June 2020 Defense Space Strategy (DSS) Summary. Developed to provide “guidance to DoD for achieving desired conditions in space for the next 10 years” and fortify President Trump’s vision for a US Space Force. Fundamental to the DSS is that it is consistent with the 2018 National Strategy for Space and the National Defense Strategy, but fails as a real “strategy.” The DSS is broken into three areas of emphasis describing:

  • “Desired Conditions” the DSS is supposed to achieve;
  • “Strategic Context” or the “strategic environment” where great power competition takes place; and
  • “Strategic Approach” describing the transformation of the US DoD approach to space from a support function to a “warfighting domain.”

The DSS’s problem is that though it dances around a clear statement of strategy with a scattering of relevant words, it does not provide a straightforward declaration of a strategy. Instead, the DSS is a compilation of desired outcomes supported by a list of “to-dos.” The authors of the DSS have provided a taxonomy of things that the DoD should be considering and doing. The activities are organized under the three emphasis areas listed above.

For example, under the heading “Desired Conditions,” the DSS enumerates three conditions that the report’s framers desire to achieve. The US must 1) Maintain Space Superiority, 2) Provide Space Support to National, Joint [with one or all of the other Military Services], and Combined [with other countries] Operations, and 3) Ensure Space Stability.

The first two conditions entail what the words would lead you to believe. The US should retain and maintain its lead and prominence in space. Second, the US Space Force in a “Strategic Context” should

be able to provide “advanced capabilities” that leverage existing “comprehensive space advantages,” including the commercial space industry. The third condition conveys a more abstract, vague meaning of the words. “Ensuring Space Stability,” one would think, should mean that the use of space is organized and that participation domestically and internationally in space is disciplined and structured. If you thought that, you would be wrong.  Ensuring Space Stability means – from the perspective of the creators of the DSS – the following:

“In cooperation with allies and partners, DoD will maintain persistent presence in space in order to: deter aggression in space; provide for safe transit in, to, and through space; uphold internationally accepted standards of responsible behavior as a good steward of space; and support US leadership in space traffic management and the long-term sustainability of outer space activities.”

Remember that this desired condition is “ensuring space stability,” not working to achieve, not creating a higher probability of deterring aggression in space, but actually ensuring. A realist would question this strategy condition based on the assurance of the desired outcome is not possible and questionable even as a goal.  A better, more realistic statement would have been: “Along with its allies and partners, this DSS will support the US Space Force in its responsibility to train, organize and equip appropriate forces and USSPACECOM to deter aggression in space; provide for safe…etc.” This statement is actionable; the words support the US Space Force mission as a military service to “train, organize, and equip,” and, more critical, establishes an achievable objective.

Having provided this modest critique of the DSS, the first emphasis area, “Desired Conditions,” does have buried in the text two sentences that, when combined, make a pretty good statement of Defense

Space Strategy. The sentences are found in the paragraphs with headings, “Maintaining Space Superiority” and “Provide Space Support to National, Joint, and Combined Operations.”

The sentences are: “DoD will establish, maintain, and preserve US freedom of operations in the space domain,” and “DoD space forces will deliver advance space capabilities and effects to enable national, joint, and combined operations in any domain through sustained, comprehensive space military advantages.”

A more meaningful strategy statement would combine these two sentences: “DoD will establish, maintain, and preserve US freedom of operations in the space domain including support for delivering advanced capabilities and effects to enable national, joint, and combined operations in any domain through sustained, comprehensive space military advantages.” The strategy statement is not perfect but is actionable and addresses the DSS list of things to do.

In addition to the major emphasis areas to achieve what DoD wants to accomplish in space, the DSS identifies four lines of effort (LOEs). US Space Force will pursue:

  1. Build a comprehensive military advantage in space.
  2. Integrate military space power into national, joint, and combined operations.
  3. Shape the strategic environment.
  4. Cooperate with allies, partners, industry, and other US Government departments and agencies.

These LOEs also fit nicely within the rubric of the recommended strategy statement above. They support what DoD wants to do.

There is significant value to the DSS as a useful adjunct to the other national strategy documents. The DSS identifies and describes real challenges facing the Defense Department and the nation in space. Those challenges include the threats posed by both China and Russia, as well as to a lesser extent Iran and North Korea. To address these threats, the DSS explains in the “Strategic Approach” section that the US must transform space operations from being in support of to a posture where, as Secretary of Defense Mark Esper explains in the online publication C4ISRNET,

“We desire a secure, stable, and accessible space domain that underpins our nation’s security, prosperity, and scientific achievement. However, our adversaries have made space a warfighting domain, and we have to implement enterprise-wide changes to policies, strategies, operations, investments, capabilities, and expertise for this new strategic environment.”

In the same article, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Space Policy Steve Kitay, during a June 17 press conference, talked more about the threat, saying: “China and Russia have weaponized space and turned it into a warfighting domain. Their actions pose the greatest strategic threat with ongoing development, testing, and deployment of counter-space systems and the associated military doctrine designed to hold allied and US space systems at risk.” The US now has guidelines for addressing that risk.

If not a strategy in classic terms, the DSS is nonetheless essential as a first foray into establishing the US position in exploiting and operating effectively in space. The speed with which DoD has established the US Space Force, the warfighting command USSPACECOM, and created a management and leadership structure, is a credit to those in the DoD charged with the task of forming that structure as well as the Congress that passed the enabling legislation.

The views expressed are those of the author and not of any other affiliation.


Read more from Dave Patterson.

Read More From Dave Patterson

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