This blog article is written following an indepth interview with Paul S. Szymanski who has a 49 year experience conducting military operations research analyses for the United States Air Force and Space Force, Navy, Army and Marines. These include outer space program analysis, management, and development of space warfare theory, policy, doctrine, strategies, tactics and techniques. He has worked with the Air Staff at the Pentagon (Secretary of the Air Force), the Space and Missiles Systems Center (Now SSC) in Los Angeles, and the Air Force Research Labs (AFRL) in Albuquerque, New Mexico, along with experience in operational field testing of missile systems at China Lake, California. He is the author of several publications. This blog article in the first in a three-part series of content extracted from an interview with Mr. Szymanski.
Interviewed and Edited By: Danilo delle Fave.
Space superiority debate borrows from postulates of sea (maritime) and air superiority but vastness, obscurity, and complexity of space making it near impossible for any country to achieve space supremacy.
The vastness of space could be understood by a simple thought-experiment: imagine taking a basketball and hiding it somewhere on Earth, and then challenging someone to find it. To further elaborate, Earth’s oceans contain 329 million cubic miles of water, both on and below the surface, the volume of space between the Earth and the Moon is 4.81097E+16 cubic miles. Therefore, to achieve space supremacy, a country has to “control” 146,230,091 times the volume of the Earth’s oceans; a near impossible task for this century.
Similarly, the notion that since there is no geographic feature in space, satellites cannot hide from Earth or space-based sensor networks is false. Satellites are “lost” all the time; often space objects are classified as ‘analyst objects’, simply because their characteristics and ownership is not known. This is a challenge when identifying targets for space weapons systems. How can a country be sure it has identified the correct asset? How can certainty that a potential satellite is really a threat be achieved?
Lastly, space is complex with multitude of space systems of interest to military targeteers. This adds to the complexity because possible adversarial attacks could be terrestrial-based, space-based, cyber or physical attacks, etc. and must be accounted for.
Beyond the basic characteristics of space that may create obstacles for outer space warfare, are other more complex issues of lawfare and defence. Whilst treaties exist to limit outer space weapons, the vastness and obscurity of space makes implementation of these treaties very difficult. This is because very few countries have space surveillance sensors – which fall short of the ability to adequately identify satellites, their capabilities and make up in an environment where they are rapidly moving and spinning. Furthermore, to verify a space treaty the United Nations would have to possess an extensive world-wide network of sensors, which would be very expensive to build and maintain, and would ultimately be imperfect anyway.
Outer space wars are likely to be very rapid and could conclude in 24-48 hours before a country can realise who attacked, for what intent and how to best defend. Any actual "fighting" can only occur with assets in the immediate area, because the ability to make large manoeuvres in space takes a lot of fuel and a lot of time. More than likely, an ally's space assets will be in places around the Earth that are far removed from the immediate conflict. Also, Rules of Engagement will be different, due to differing value systems. In Europe, causing human deaths to preserve equipment is not allowed, whereas in the US, it is different. For examples would Europeans allow bombs on a manned Earth station controlling an adversary space weapon?
In conclusion, perhaps space supremacy might be achievable in in a specific orbital regime and a specific, limited time. However, hypervelocity attacks can come from any other orbit in a rapid manner and upset this ‘superiority’. But it is important to consider this: Satellites are worthless if they cannot communicate back to Earth to receive controlling instructions or download their data. If a country can cut off most, if not all, communications to a country’s space systems, then maybe they have achieved space supremacy. This denial of space communications would not only have to be effective within the country’s boundaries, but for other satellite control sites around the world that this country may employ, or for friendly satellite tracking ships on the world’s oceans.