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(Op-ed) SpaceNews: Space Domain Awareness as a Strategic Deterrent to Russian Aggression in Space

Updated: Jul 10

Originally published: SpaceNews 

By: Philip Hover-Smoot and Stuart Pettis February 22, 2024

As the first Russian columns rolled across the border toward Chernihiv, Ukraine, on the morning of Feb. 24, 2022, millions of people across the planet watched the invasion unfold. They were able to do so thanks to a steady stream of satellite imagery beamed down not by governments but by commercial space companies operating out of downtown San Francisco, suburban Denver and coastal Santa Barbara. 

That steady stream of Earth observation data quickly became a critical intelligence source for Ukraine and its allies. Never before had the impact and importance of the new space economy been felt more viscerally. The availability of commercial intelligence of a quality and at a scale previously only available to a few countries’ spy agencies undeniably influenced both how those preparing for the conflict and those following the buildup viewed the engagement. For the first time in modern warfare, independent, near-real-time unclassified commercial data from space shaped the world’s understanding of an emergent conflict.

Today, almost exactly two years later, America and its allies find themselves facing a new and yet analogous challenge from Russia.

On Feb. 14, 2024, Rep. Mike Turner (R-Ohio) disclosed the existence of an emerging and serious space-based “national security threat,” a threat quickly reported as being Russian in origin. As the international community reacts to this latest Russian provocation — this time facing the prospect of one or more Russian nuclear anti-satellite weapons placed on orbit, likely as part of a broader anti-access/area-denial (A2/AD) strategy — we are about to see another direct illustration of the geopolitical value of the new space economy. But this time, the commercial space-based capabilities necessary to understand and monitor this new threat are not as developed nor as capable as the Earth observation constellations were in 2022. 

It is reported that Russia has not yet fielded and is unlikely to soon deploy such a capability. However, should Russia launch such a weapon, there are limited resources available today to provide meaningful insight into what that system is doing and the risk it presents. This potential information asymmetry increases the risk of miscalculation, and places American decisionmakers at an unnecessary disadvantage.

Despite the United States and allied nations operating various dual-use Space Domain Awareness (SDA) assets both on orbit and terrestrially, they maintain only a handful of dedicated, exquisite space-based capabilities. To date, however, levels of U.S. government investment in non-Earth imaging capabilities have fallen prey to competing DoD priorities such as proliferated LEO data relay and next-generation missile warning/missile tracking systems. And with each launch, the challenge of maintaining custody of Earth-orbiting and now lunar-orbiting objects only increases as the complexity of the orbital environment grows. 

Commercial entities are also moving fast to field a proliferated architecture capable of providing effective targeting, collection and exploitation of data regarding the orbital environment. But like government investment in SDA capabilities, private investment in non-Earth imaging capabilities has trailed behind that of Earth observation companies. As a result, today, while commercial space domain awareness capabilities are maturing rapidly, there are no commercial constellations of non-Earth imaging sensors capable of providing effective tracking and custody of such a weapon, if and when Russia deploys it. 

The U.S. Space Force is working to develop capabilities in support of competitive endurance on orbit, including a substantial SDA capability seen as foundational to America’s ability to perform sustained operations on orbit. But such capabilities do not yet exist and will not for years to come. Without these systems, America will have fewer tools with which to deter this new Russian threat. In retrospect, what the last two years failed to teach American and allied lawmakers is that today’s commercial providers of traditionally government-produced orbital intelligence are bringing to bear a critical secondary source of unclassified, actionable intelligence — and that that source is only viable with prioritized investment. It is because of the historically slow investment in non-Earth imaging that America and its allies are left with limited options.

Commercial SDA capabilities are a clear solution to the Space Force’s challenge. Commercial capabilities can be unclassified, allowing for broad distribution and thereby increasing their strategic signaling value. Commercial SDA sensors can also be contractor-operated, reducing DoD personnel costs, and freeing up resources for other national security priorities. Finally, industry players have demonstrated, as they did in Ukraine, that new space companies can rapidly field effective and taskable intelligence solutions. Still, to date, both private and government funding for commercial SDA capabilities has remained modest.

Despite the clamor of pundits citing the clear violation of the Outer Space Treaty a Russian nuke in space would represent, we should not forget that Russia has demonstrated a willingness to disrupt the global order when it serves its purposes. America and its allies should assume Russia will not hesitate to break their obligations under international law if doing so would help Russia achieve its goals on orbit, on Earth or both.

The question then becomes: What should America and its allies be doing today to provide a meaningful deterrent to Russia or its accomplices, who intend to put strategic space assets at risk?

Ultimately, there is no unified solution to the complex problem of maintaining effective SDA. What is clear is that the diversification and proliferation of space-based sensors is the only effective path to providing comprehensive SDA, and thereby enabling a meaningful strategic deterrent to Russia. 

To this end, America and its allies should do three things. First, they should rapidly provide more resources to commercial SDA operators to support the development of proliferated architectures of space based non-Earth imaging capabilities. Increased investment in capabilities will result in accelerated development and deployment, providing both a clear signal to Russia and a meaningful mitigation of their new weapon. Second, lawmakers should begin mandating the use of sensing capabilities on any new satellite over 50 kilograms. Such a shift in spacecraft licensing would quickly force a foundational proliferation of onboard sensors, while also contributing to the safety of space operations. Finally, U.S. and allied nations should continue to share SDA data, and seek to fuse SDA information across domestic and foreign governments as well as commercial sources. By increasing available resources, mandating vision systems on certain spacecraft and increasing international and industry collaboration, lawmakers can leverage existing commercial investment in space domain awareness technologies to quickly field a distributed capability of critical importance. 

Whether or not Russia chooses to field a nuclear A2/AD capability or not, it is clear that the Kremlin is seeking to negotiate the space agenda on distinctly Russian terms. It is only through a reinvigorated American and allied focus on a distributed orbital sensing infrastructure that we can maintain a safe and transparent orbital environment — and thereby push back on Russia’s saber rattling in a strategically critical and increasingly commercialized warfighting domain.

Philip Hover-Smoot is an aerospace and defense executive, industry attorney, and the CEO of Scout Space Inc., an in-space observation service provider focused on space security and comprehensive Space Domain Awareness.

Retired U.S. Air Force Col. Stuart Pettis is the director of STEM Programs for the Air & Space Forces Association. He served 29 years as a space operator in the U.S. Air Force, and also serves as Scout Space Inc.’s DoD adviser.



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