The best defense is a good offense — or is it? The answer to this question, along with an understanding of the stronger form of warfare, is the single most important consideration in U.S. space strategy and funding major space programs.
Satellites and other spacecraft have always been vulnerable targets for America’s adversaries. Today, attacking U.S. on-orbit capabilities offers the potential to cripple U.S. conventional power projection and impose significant costs, whether in dollars, lives or political capital.
Many strategists and policymakers have concluded that because space-based systems are seen as exposed to attack — with little way to defend them — that the offense is the stronger form of warfare in space. This conclusion is incorrect and has led to an underdeveloped U.S. space strategy.
Time-tested theory and principles of war underscore that the defense is the stronger form of warfare in space.
Offense vs. defense
Carl von Clausewitz’s book On War is the seminal work regarding the stronger form of warfare. His theory of war offers a broad framework for reasoning through violent conflict to reach timeless strategic conclusions.
In his work, the Prussian military strategist described the rational reasons for war, noting its place as an extension of policy by another means. Furthermore, he described a variety of key concepts including the notion that objectives of war are either limited or unlimited, war’s limiting factors and the need to balance violence, chance and reason.
Clausewitz outlined general principles useful to enact both an active and passive defense. It is these examinations of the defense and its relative strength compared to the offense that are best for formulating today’s space strategy.
In Clausewitz’s strategic framework, offensive strategy is aimed at wrestling something from the enemy. He noted that the destruction of the enemy’s forces always offers the highest probability of victory.
A weaker power is unlikely to overpower an adversary through violent conflict. Accordingly, an offensive strategy is the preferred instrument for the stronger power.
Offensive actions can further magnify the aggressor’s advantages through the strength and energy that comes from initiating an attack. Clausewitz acknowledged that initiative will initially favor the attacker because an aggressor determines the time and place of initiating conflict.
Nonetheless, the great Prussian advised that the offensive should not be confused with initiative itself. It is possible to gain the initiative during a counterattack, which is one of the central purposes of the defense.
In contrast, the objective of a defensive strategy is to retain something or to prevent and preserve one’s forces and assets. Clausewitz asserted the superior strength of the defense, despite the considerable advantages the attacker might enjoy during the opening phases of hostilities.
“So in order to state the relationship precisely, we must say that the defensive form of warfare is intrinsically stronger than the offensive,” he contended in On War.
At the operational and tactical level of warfare, the famed strategist observes that the advantages of defense include benefits from waiting and positioning. He concludes that forces should take defensive strategy when they are weaker than the adversary, but troops should take offensive actions as soon as practicable.
“Part of strategic success lies in timely preparations for tactical victory,” Clausewitz stated, describing how to implement a sound defensive strategy. “The rest of strategic success lies in the exploitation of victory won.”
“Defense is nothing more than a means by which to attack the enemy most advantageously, in a terrain chosen in advance, where we have drawn up our troops and have arranged things to our advantage,” Clausewitz added in the separate Principles of War.
Consequently, a defensive strategy includes preparatory actions ahead of hostilities, to exploit any advantages gained during the course of war. What does this mean for space warfare and strategy?
It means a defensive strategy is the stronger form of warfare in space, but assuming a defensive posture requires making adequate preparations.
Defensive preparations for war connote several actions taken before hostilities begin, such as knowing the adversary’s forces and disposition, indications of initial hostilities and when and under what conditions a counterattack will be most successful. These preparations require a significant intelligence collection capability, awareness of one’s objectives and understanding of the expected threat.
Today’s space situational awareness — or SSA — capabilities provide an understanding of where space objects are presently. Unfortunately, in the absence of active traffic management, they offer little, if any, insight into where objects are going or what they intend to do.
Clausewitz’s outlined several actions to take before and during a conflict to execute a defensive strategy — or tenets for defensive action. This guidance focused on having forces available for a counterattack and establishing a position of advantage from which to deploy them.
For space strategy, these defensive preparations should comprise measures taken to minimize the effectiveness of a hostile attack. Such actions include, but are not limited to, self-protection countermeasures, hardening spacecraft, capability redundancy, satellite maneuverability, domain awareness and multi-domain combat solutions.
Using the lexicon of space professionals, this is mostly within the scope of space resilience. According to a 2015 Office of the Secretary of Defense white paper, space resilience efforts include the characteristics of disaggregation, distribution, diversification, protection, proliferation and deception.
In the end, the term or definition we use to convey the idea is less important than actually implementing a defensive strategy that includes preparations to withstand an attack and then respond effectively and efficiently afterward.
“The offense may appear to be the stronger form of warfare in space, given the absence of terrain obstacles, the relative paucity of capital assets — and targets — and the global consequences of military success or failure,” Colin Gray argued in Weapons Don’t Make War.
Given the current state of technology and how the Pentagon employs space-based technologies, it is easy to see how Gray reached such a conclusion. Space-based systems certainly appear to be vulnerable targets, because satellites in orbit follow mostly predictable paths with few places to hide or methods to defend themselves.
Nonetheless, this view is a mischaracterization of defensive strategy as defined by Clausewitz. Clausewitz described a defensive strategy as one that “awaits the blow,” and does so from a position of advantage.
For centuries, academics and others have acknowledged the value of high ground in land campaigns. In space, altitude offers similar advantages. The space strategist Everett Dolman described the positional advantage relative to other space objects as being higher in the “gravity well.”
This term describes the force an object such as a planet exerts on others in space. Dolman argued an object higher in the well had an advantage over a lower object. Military forces could use orbits like hills to offer similar advantages in space.
Besides the high ground, Clausewitz elucidated that defensive strength also derived from preparations taken prior to conflict. For space strategy, these preparatory measures should include those areas we discussed previously regarding space resiliency.
Failing to recognize the importance of these preparations by placing space-based systems in unprotected, highly vulnerable locations — without thought to preparations before a conflict or positional advantage — is an invitation for attack. Such actions negate the inherent advantages of a stronger defensive strategy.
Another frequent counterargument is that even if the defense is a stronger form of warfare, great space powers — such as the United States, Russia, and China — should embrace an offensive strategy grounded in obtaining space control. Advocates of space control contend that achieving one’s objectives, whether on Earth or in space, are predicated on achieving control of the domain while denying the same to an adversary.
Clausewitz described a strategy intended to achieve a positive object — to take something — as offensive in nature. Furthermore, he ascribes an offensive strategy to the stronger power. Therefore, some might argued a strong space power should seek to employ an offensive strategy, under the frequently misapplied adage the “best defense is a good offense.”
A distinctive problem with employing an offensive strategy, or singularly space control focused approach, is the increased potential to upend the current international system. Strategist B.H. Liddell-Hart examined these problems best in his writings.
Liddell-Hart noted the purpose of war was to attain a better peace. The current framework for space is built on the premise that the domain is the free purview of all states.
If a conflict were to occur on-orbit, any state attempting to seize space control or embrace a purely offensive strategy would likely shatter the current international regime. Accordingly, the sum of the parties still benefiting from the current international regime would counter an aggressor.
The aggression would stir these states’ passions. “The moral is to the physical as three to one,” Napoleon once said.
Consequently, it is doubtful that an overly offensive or space control approach will result in a better peace at conflict’s conclusion. With that strategy, countries could discard the antebellum status quo and the result would be a potentially more adversarial international space environment.
Toward a better space strategy
Despite the defense being the stronger form of warfare in space, the United States and other space powers are not implementing an appropriate strategy. As a result, its actions do not incorporate the requisite preparations needed for success.
To remedy this strategic misalignment, three broad changes are needed in how the United States prepares for a conflict that could extend to space. These include a revision to intelligence collection, on-orbit space systems, and the development of space professionals.
First, the U.S. national security space community needs to value the intelligence on what is happening on-orbit, not just the value of the information provided by the space assets looking down at Earth. Today, the United States’ defense community defines SSA as “cognizance of the requisite current and predictive knowledge of the space environment and the operational environment upon which space operations depend.”
The increasing complexity in the space operational environment has impacted the needed situational awareness, exemplified by a resurgence in space-mindedness. This led to a new generation of explorers and investors to push the boundaries of what can be done in, through and from space.
Implementing a sound defensive strategy necessitates that SSA provide details on an adversary’s intent, disposition and timing. Such information will facilitate the preparatory measures needed to pit one’s strengths against a potential adversary’s weakness.
Moreover, a capable SSA arrangement should include a comprehensive space forensics capability — including data collection and analysis — to gain details following an attack on space systems to support the attribution process.
Second, engineers and other specialists should design protection systems to “await the blow” and then support the counterattack. Such actions are within the context of space resilience.
Among the many active measures available to incorporate resilience are self-protection countermeasures, satellite maneuverability and multi-domain combat solutions. In addition, passive measures could also strengthen a space capability’s ability to operate through and after an attack.
These measures include deception, hardening, disaggregation, distribution, domain awareness and proliferation. Having these defensive capabilities to deter and counteract aggression in space is not only consistent with longstanding principles of international law and treaties to which the United States is a party, but underscores the inherent right of self-defense.
Third, a community-wide discussion among space professionals is needed to debate the merits of an offensive versus defensive strategy, along with the resulting implications and requisite preparatory actions. While Clausewitz’s theory provides a springboard for pursuing a defensive strategy, other theorists have important contributions to make when developing a future space strategy.
Moreover, this community discussion should include the applicability of the inherent right of self-defense, the law of armed conflict, and the Pentagon’s standing rules-of-engagement. Furthermore, we need a dialog regarding norms of behavior in space to delineate acceptable and unacceptable non-conformities.
Just like anyone can take a firearm and engage an adversary’s military forces or rob bank, not all non-standard actions in space will be considered a hostile act or armed attack. Many may be a matter for law enforcement.
An international discussion, with a follow-on multinational agreement, on what actions are acceptable in space is a critical first step in discerning the intentions behind the nefarious activity.
Defense is the stronger form of warfare in space, even if the United States and other space powers are not taking full advantage of it. The lamentable situation is that harnessing the power of the defense cannot be done with the systems on orbit today.
Despite the current bleak situation, this strategic misalignment can be remedied by making preparations now, before hostilities. The United States needs to make space-related investments in both time and money to improve its ability to gather intelligence and situational awareness, mitigate and protect against attacks, and better inform space professionals on defensive strategy.
By taking preparatory action now, the United States can incorporate the strength of the defense and better protect national interests in space.
About the Authors
Edward Ferguson is an active duty U.S. Air Force lieutenant colonel. He is a space professional, with expertise in developmental test and evaluation, acquisitions, missile operations, and strategy and policy. Lt. Col. Ferguson holds a Master of Arts in National Security and Strategic Studies from the U.S. Naval War College, along with a Master of Philosophy in Military Strategy from the School of Advanced Air and Space Studies.
John Klein is a Senior Fellow at Falcon Research in northern Virginia. He holds a Ph.D. in politics, with a strategic studies focus, from the University of Reading. Dr. Klein is the author of Space Warfare: Strategy, Principles and Policy and he writes frequently on national security, military strategy and the implications of the Law of Armed Conflict.