There has long been speculation that the US has systems in space capable of jamming, interfering with or outright destroying the space assets of other nations, and for just as long, Pentagon leaders have been careful to dance around the issue.
US presidential administrations have spent years walking a thin line between making clear their determination to protect national security interests in space and being perceived as provoking conflict in the heavens. The Defense Department has a history of using the phrase “offensive capabilities” or other euphemisms, even to the point where officials will object to reporters if paraphrased as actually talking about weaponry. Words, after all, matter in Washington.
Which is why it was a surprise to see the term “offensive weapons” — right next to pictures of missile warning and communications satellites at the top of a capabilities chart shown to reporters at a March 10 Department of the Air Force fiscal 2024 budget briefing. And yet, printed copies provided to reporters today instead once again reflect the term “offensive space” as opposed to “offensive weapons” — a reminder that the Pentagon is always on guard to stay on-message when it comes to space capabilities.
During the Friday briefing, Kristyn Jones, who is performing the duties of the Air Force undersecretary, stuck to the phrase “offensive capabilities,” noting that space is the first of the seven “operational imperatives” set last year for the Air and Space Forces by Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall.
“The first operational imperative is to define and field the space architecture we need for offensive and defensive space and counterspace capabilities,” she said.
But when asked directly by Breaking Defense about the budget request for offensive space weapons as written on the chart, Kendall did not knock down the use of the term “weapons,” even as he noted that he needed to be careful answering so as not to get sideways of secrecy classification.
“There are some things I can talk about and some things I can’t, and I’m not sure where the line is exactly,” he said. “There are hard kill and soft kill capabilities, if you will, that we’re funding. But I’m not sure I can go very far beyond that,” he said, demurring to Maj. Gen. Michael Greiner, the budget guru for the Department of the Air Force on the numbers issue.
Grenier, in turn, said that he couldn’t reveal the total budget request, or confirm whether it includes any new offensive space programs — without actually saying the word “weapons” either.
Kendall, however, did stress that his department is not planning for anything that would create harmful debris in space.
“We are abiding by the policy of not creating debris in space, okay?” he said. “Whatever we’re doing is consistent with the policy of the [Biden] administration.”
Vice President Kamala Harris last April pledged the United States would refrain from testing debris-creating direct ascent anti-satellite (ASAT) missiles, and the US is seeking support from other nations for such a ban in ongoing discussions at the United Nations on development of norms of behavior to dampen risks of conflict in space.
In 2021, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin signed off on a first-ever memo outlining five tenets of responsible behavior in space, which included a pledge to limit the creation of “long-lived” space debris. On March 3, Space Command announced that Austin had okayed the command’s memo mapping those tenets out.
Defining An Offensive Space Weapon: Not So Easy
While it is clear offensive weapons/capabilities in space are a focus of funding for the youngest military service, it continues to remain a bit of a mystery as to what exactly is meant by the term “offensive” weaponry for space. Does that term refer to weapons actually based in space? And if so, would such weapons target only other spacecraft, or terrestrial targets too? What about terrestrially based weapons targeting adversary space systems, or long-range missiles targeting space launch facilities on the ground? Do those count as “offensive” space weapons?
The Space Force does not yet have a clear body of doctrine spelling out its missions, and the capabilities required to achieve them. The only service-specific doctrinal publication, signed by former Space Force chief Gen. Jay Raymond in 2020, is the “Space Capstone Publication,” which he defined as “a first articulation of an independent theory of spacepower.”
That document [PDF] describes “offensive operations” in the space domain as follows:
“Offensive operations target an adversary’s space and counterspace capabilities, reducing the effectiveness and lethality of adversary forces across all domains. Offensive operations seek to gain the initiative and may neutralize adversary space missions before they can be employed against friendly forces. Offensive operations are not limited to adversary counterspace systems and can also target the full spectrum of an adversary’s ability to exploit the space domain, which includes targets in the terrestrial and cyber domains.”
While not representing formal Space Force guidance, a “Space Doctrine Note [PDF]” published in January 2022 as a discussion paper defines “offensive space operations” as those that “target an adversary’s space capabilities using a variety of reversible and nonreversible means.”
The note further explains: “These may include actions to deceive, disrupt, deny, degrade, or destroy the adversary’s military space capabilities. …Offensive operations may occur in all domains and may result in a variety of negation measures all intended to neutralize adversary assets and their ability to interfere with DOD, ally, or partner operations.”
Joint force doctrine for space, as explained by the Joint Staff in “Joint Publication 3-14, Space Operations” [PDF] last updated in 2020, instead uses the term “space control” and defines that as a mission that has offensive and defensive aspects. It reads:
“Space control includes offensive space control and defensive space control operations to ensure freedom of action in space and, when directed, defeat efforts to interfere with or attack US or allied space systems. Space control uses a broad range of response options to provide continued, sustainable use of space. Space control contributes to space deterrence by employing a variety of measures to assure the use of space; attributing enemy attacks; and being consistent with the right to self-defense, target threat space capabilities.”
But none of those definitions explain whether or how “offensive” weapons/capabilities for space are different from counterspace capabilities — the term of art Space Force officials and experts usually use to signify operations targeting adversary spacecraft that might be used to harm US satellite networks, or to help an adversary target US terrestrial forces.
Air Force doctrine includes a specific publication dedicated to explaining counterspace. Air Force Doctrine Annex 3-14, Counterspace Operations, last updated in January 2021 [PDF], states:
“Counterspace is a mission, like counterair, that integrates offensive and defensive operations to attain and maintain the desired control and protection in and through space. These operations may be conducted across the tactical, operational and strategic levels in all domains (air, space, land, maritime and cyberspace).”
Up to now, DoD has admitted in public to only one “counterspace weapon,” the ground-based Counter Communications System, for jamming enemy communications satellites.
As noted earlier, words matter. The Space Force still has a long way to go in clearly articulating its warfighting plans to US and allied publics, as well as to potential adversaries.