Towards a Better U.S. Space Strategy: Addressing the Strategy Mismatch

Everything is very simple in war, but the simplest thing is difficult.
Carl von Clausewitz

The United States has no shortage of strategies providing higher guidance for conducting deterrence efforts and military operations. These include the National Security Strategy, National Defense Strategy, and National Space Strategy. On the whole, these strategies as they relate to space are adequate—if the United States plans to fight itself. To develop a fulsome space strategy, U.S. strategists need to acknowledge that their counterparts in other countries, especially within China, do not necessarily think about deterrence and conflict in the same way. To address the problem, a viable space strategy should address Chinese long-term strategy, and in particular, U.S. space strategy should emphasize deterrence by denial, while addressing provocative actions that seek to erode U.S. strategic advantage.

Thinking others share the same worldview and outlook as oneself is called mirroring, In U.S. national security circles, mirroring may manifest itself when deciding upon so-called most likely enemy courses of actions following strategy’s cost imposition. During strategy development, an underlying assumption is often that a potential adversary will think, decide through cost-benefit analysis, or acquiesce to coercive efforts according to one’s own mental framework. This thinking is dangerous. Those in other countries may have theoretical and mental frameworks that can result in the most basic decisions being starkly different than one’s own. In particular, China and the United States have important differences when considering deterrence and the conditions for application of military force. This has resulted in a mismatch, or misalignment when applying U.S. space strategy.[1]

While the focus here is on space strategy, it is worth underscoring that many of the misalignments noted within U.S. space strategy are also reflected in overall U.S. national strategy. Indeed, this is understandable because space strategy is merely a subset of overall strategy. Consequently, strategists may also consider these space-centric recommendations when formulating overall national and military strategies to address the return of great power competition.

Strategy Mismatches

The underlying basis of Western deterrence theory is that the threat of credible and overwhelming retaliatory action against any would-be adversary is sufficient to deter most potential aggressors from conducting hostile actions. This approach is known as deterrence by punishment. When the idea is to convey to an adversary to cease some current action—requiring the adversary to respond—this is more the role of compellence. Thomas Schelling described compellence as a direct action that persuades an opponent to give up something they desire. In contrast, deterrence by denial refers to the capability to deny the other party any gains from the behavior that is to be deterred.


The Chinese view of deterrence fundamentally differs from American and Western thinking. For example, the Chinese idea of deterrence (weishe) includes more emphasis on compellence and coercion, when compared to the commonly held U.S. framework. Therefore, Chinese deterrence goals may include actions seeking to intimidate an opponent through economic, diplomatic, or military coercion in a way that “directly affect[s] an opponent’s interests in order to compel him to submit to Beijing’s will.” Additionally, China does not appear interested in deterring an adversary from acting in the space domain or acting against space assets. Deterrence is thought of holistically and not isolated to each domain of potential conflict. Instead, China’s strategists are focused on “deterrence through space,” integrating space activities with conventional, cyber, and nuclear to influence an adversary.

Additionally, the phases of crisis and conflict differ between the United States and China. Chinese writings consistently identify a continuum of conflict with a series of stages progressing from least to greatest levels of hostility. These stages across the continuum are: crisis, military crisis, armed conflict, local war, and total war. In contrast, the U.S. joint doctrine describes the range of military operations as three primary categories: military engagement, security cooperation, and deterrence; crisis response and limited contingency operations; and large-scale combat operations.

Notional Operations Across the Conflict Continuum (U.S. Joint Publication 3-0, Operations)

The middle part of China’s continuum, where military activities are taking place but the objectives are less clear, is the most dangerous state on the continuum of conflict because of potential misunderstanding as to intent. This state includes military crisis and/or armed conflict, in which militaries are involved but war has not yet broken out. Military operations in the state of “quasi-war” have dual objectives. The first is to resolve the crisis and prevent the onset of war, and the second is to prepare to win a war should one break out. Several People’s Liberation Army texts argue that countries may take limited military action to “clarify the situation” or persuade the other side to de-escalate during a state of pre-war “armed conflict.” The texts further describe how military activities in this stage may resemble combat operations, even if the countries involved do not consider themselves to be at war. Of concern is that People’s Liberation Army writings do not provide any clear indications of how an outside observer would discern the differing intentions of these military operations, and an adversary may misconstrue actions as conflict escalation, when that was not the action’s intent.

United States

A Western view of the inherent right of self-defense underpins much of U.S. strategy. Article 51 of the United Nations Charter states, “Nothing…shall impair the inherent right of individual or collective self-defense if an armed attack occurs….” Many within the U.S. national security community believe this mindset could give a first mover advantage to a potential adversary, especially China. This advantage occurs because national leadership frequently views military action as being legitimate and practical after attack occurs. Based upon its view of deterrence and the phases of conflict, China does not necessarily view being attacked first as a requisite for using military force. Mirroring a Western view of the inherent right of self-defense on others results in the United States being pressed into a reactionary position during the opening stages of any conflict.

Could the United States act first in practice? While not all agree, the answer is “yes” under anticipatory self-defense. Secretary of State Daniel Webster’s case writings in 1842 regarding the Caroline diplomatic crisis and Roberto Ago’s legal writings in 1980 conclude anticipatory self-defense is a legitimate action under the conditions of necessity, proportionality, and immediacy. Some legal experts, however, take a restrictive interpretation of Article 51 of the U.N. Charter, stating that the language “armed attack occurs” connotes self-defense only after an attack has begun or happened. Accordingly, anticipatory action might be illegitimate under the Charter.

U.S. Strategy for Fighting in Space (Politico/Getty)

Ultimately, a strategy embracing anticipatory self-defense—including one for space—will be frustrated by the difficulty of knowing intent. Just because a potential adversary’s space system or asset can do something in space, does not mean it will or that is its intent. Even with improved space situational awareness, operational ambiguity and uncertainty in space will likely remain; therefore, establishing the conditions of military necessity and immediacy will prove difficult.

A Better U.S. Space Strategy

To address a perceived first mover advantage, there should be an increased focus on deterrence by denial, or what others have called dissuasion. Often, dissuasion is used when describing actions “that should be taken against those identified as posing a threat to American interests prior to such potential adversaries having the actual capability to pose a danger.” To be effective, dissuasion activities must occur before a threat manifests itself. Dissuasion includes “shaping activities,” which can be nonmilitary in scope and are conducted during peacetime. A shaping example includes growing the number of allies and partners who demonstrate resolve in preserving the peaceful and unfettered access to space.

A strategy incorporating dissuasion seeks to convey the futility of conducting a hostile act, thereby causing a potential adversary’s leadership not to pursue a military confrontation in the first place. Potential adversaries may be dissuaded if they conclude that an attack in space will be ineffectual in achieving the desired effect. In the parlance of today’s U.S. space professionals, this is the realm of space mission assurance. Space mission assurance may include cross-domain or alternative governmental, commercial, or international capabilities that result in a potential adversary not seeking a military confrontation. Therefore, mission assurance measures—including the internally focused resiliency characteristics of disaggregation, distribution, diversification, deception, protection, and proliferation—are all appropriate for promoting dissuasion in space. To be clear, deterrence by punishment should still have a part in U.S. space strategy, but there is a demonstrated need to focus more on dissuasion efforts. Suitable space dissuasion efforts include fielding multi-mode ground terminals that utilize a variety of satellite communication frequency bands, ensuring multiple launch vehicle options and dispersed geographic spaceport locations, and contracting with several commercial Earth imaging and geolocation service providers.

Next, U.S. space strategy should address China’s cumulative strategy, which is evident in the South China Sea. A cumulative strategy uses the “minute accumulation of little items piling on top of the other” until the mass of accumulated actions becomes critical. China is displaying elements of a long-term cumulative strategy in space. Examples include reported dazzling, or blinding, of U.S. imagery satellites; placing military GPS jamming equipment on the Mischief Reef—part of the disputed Spratly Islands in the South China Sea; testing high-altitude, direct-ascent antisatellite systems that could reach satellites as high as geosynchronous orbit; and future plans for a permanent base on the lunar South Pole.

Long-term, cumulative strategies must be met with a response, or there is the risk of the cumulative strategy achieving its desired strategic effect. Suitable responses include seeking financial compensation for satellite laser damage or loss of service, along with condemnation of harmful behavior outside of the international legal regime. When addressing deliberate harm to military mission essential space systems or services, reversible or irreversible responses are appropriate, if conducted in accordance with the applicable rules of engagement.


Emphasis on dissuasion and deterrence by denial is needed within U.S. space strategy to help convey the futility of potential actions against the United States, its allies, and its interests. Doing so requires day-to-day sharing of space situational awareness with the international community and defining coalition operational relationships. A step in the right direction is the recently expanded Operation Olympic Defender, which involves a U.S.-led coalition aimed at bolstering combined space defenses and deterring hostile actions in space. Those allies participating can share information on what missions they are most suited.

Illustration of China’s proposed space station. (CNSA)

Against operations in space that are part of a long-term cumulative strategy, the United States should again work with its allies, partners, and commercial industry to demonstrate resolve in addressing purposeful interference, threatening actions, or other actions deemed outside standards of normative behavior. This is because cumulative strategies should be countered, or else seemingly insignificant actions can eventual achieve strategic objectives. Another benefit gained by responding to pernicious behavior as it occurs is that a country’s leadership can demonstrate the political will for action, which can directly strengthen deterrence by punishment measures.

While the two-part strategy described here is simple in concept, it may be difficult to implement, as Clausewitz’s epigraph at the beginning suggests. Because deterrence strategies attempt to affect the decision making of potential adversaries, any mission assurance measures meant to convey the futility of military competition must be widely publicized and credible to be effective. The United States, the international community, and commercial industry will need to have demonstrated a history of action and response to bad behavior in space to dissuade others. This includes responding to intentional lasing, jamming, or other interference of satellites or their services. This will also require consistent strategic messaging—along with revising applicable space strategies and operations plans—to help show why long-term military competition or an armed attack against the United States is futile for achieving desired strategic objectives. Difficult does not mean impossible, and the time and energy to ensure future peace and stability in space is definitely worth the cost.

John J. Klein is a Senior Fellow and Strategist at Falcon Research, Inc., and Adjunct Professor at George Washington University’s Space Policy Institute. He is the author of the recently published book Understanding Space Strategy: The Art of War in Space. The views expressed in this article are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Falcon Research, George Washington University, or the U.S. Government.

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Header Image: Notional illustration of military action from space (Express/Getty)


[1] John J. Klein, Understanding Space Strategy: The Art of War in Space (Abingdon: Routledge, 2019), 83.