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Smart Bombs: Military, Defense and National Security

Does a Space War Mean a Nuclear War?

Nuclear Weapons
Russian Mobile ICBM. Image Credit: Creative Commons.

China, Russia, and the United States should settle on some rules of the road with respect to space warfare, and they should do it sooner rather than later.

The recent Russian anti-satellite test didn’t tell the world anything new, but it did reaffirm the peril posed by warfare in space. Debris from explosions could make some earth orbits remarkably risky to use for both civilian and military purposes. But the test also highlighted a less visible danger; attacks on nuclear command and control satellites could rapidly produce an extremely dangerous escalatory situation in a war between nuclear powers. James Acton and Thomas Macdonald drew attention to this problem in a recent article at Inside Defense. As Acton and MacDonald point out, nuclear command and control satellites are the connective tissue of nuclear deterrence, assuring countries that they’re not being attacked and that they’ll be able to respond quickly if they are.

For a long time, these strategic early-warning satellites were akin to a center of gravity in ICBM warfare. Nuclear deterrence requires awareness that an attack is underway. Attacks on the monitoring system could easily be read as an attempt to blind an opponent in preparation for general war, and could themselves incur nuclear retaliation. Thus, the nuclear command and control satellites are critical to the maintenance of nuclear deterrence. They make it possible to distribute an order from the chief of government to the nuclear delivery systems themselves. Consequently, their destruction might lead to hesitation or delay in performing a nuclear launch order.

It was only later that the relevance of satellites for conventional warfare became clear. Satellites could reconnoiter enemy positions and, more importantly, provide communications for friendly forces. Indeed, the expansion of the role of satellites in conventional warfare has complicated the prospect of space warfare. States have a clear reason for targeting enemy satellites which support conventional warfare, as those satellites enable the most lethal part of the kill chain, the communications and recon networks that link targets with shooters. Thus, we now have a situation in which space military assets have both nuclear and conventional roles. In a conflict confusion and misperception could rapidly become lethal.  If one combatant views an attack against nuclear command and control as a prelude to a general nuclear attack, it might choose to pre-empt.

Nuclear powers have dealt with problems in this general category for a good long while; would a conventional attack against tactical nuclear staging areas represent an escalation, for example?  Would the use of ballistic missiles that can carry either conventional or nuclear weapons trigger a nuclear response? Do attacks against air defense networks that have both strategic and tactical responsibilities run the risk of triggering a nuclear response?   There’s also the danger that damage to communications networks designated for conventional combat could force traffic onto the nuclear control systems, further confusing the issue.

No one has ever fought a nuclear war, and no two nuclear powers have engaged in a prolonged, high-intensity conventional conflict. Now that conventional systems have become implicated in space technologies for reconnaissance, targeting, and communications, leaders will have to make very difficult, very careful decisions on what enemy capabilities they want to disrupt. Acton and MacDonald propose a straightforward ban on attacks against nuclear satellite infrastructure, which would also require agreement to keep nuclear and conventional communications networks separate. This is the little ask; countries should plan to fight more carefully. The big ask is for a multilateral ban to prevent future anti-satellite weapons tests in space. This would reduce the danger that debris could close off, temporarily or permanently, human access to certain locations in earth orbit. But given that countries use satellites for the conduct of conventional military operations, it’s a lot to ask for warfighters to consider critical military infrastructure off-limits in any particular conflict.

In any case, every combatant who has decided to entertain the idea of space war should approach the escalation problem with extreme care.

Now a 1945 Contributing Editor, Dr. Robert Farley is a Senior Lecturer at the Patterson School at the University of Kentucky. Dr. Farley is the author of Grounded: The Case for Abolishing the United States Air Force (University Press of Kentucky, 2014), the Battleship Book (Wildside, 2016), and Patents for Power: Intellectual Property Law and the Diffusion of Military Technology (University of Chicago, 2020).

Written By

Dr. Robert Farley has taught security and diplomacy courses at the Patterson School since 2005. He received his BS from the University of Oregon in 1997, and his Ph.D. from the University of Washington in 2004. Dr. Farley is the author of Grounded: The Case for Abolishing the United States Air Force (University Press of Kentucky, 2014), the Battleship Book (Wildside, 2016), and Patents for Power: Intellectual Property Law and the Diffusion of Military Technology (University of Chicago, 2020). He has contributed extensively to a number of journals and magazines, including the National Interest, the Diplomat: APAC, World Politics Review, and the American Prospect. Dr. Farley is also a founder and senior editor of Lawyers, Guns and Money.