Does the New Air Force Posture Towards Outer Space Portend or Prod a Shift in U.S. National Security Space Policy?

The newly appointed Air Force Secretary, Heather Wilson, made an noteworthy comment the day after her confirmation as Air Force Secretary regarding U.S. Air Force space doctrine. Secretary Wilson made the comment when testifying before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Strategic Forces subcommittee.

Secretary Wilson noted before the subcommittee space is not a “benign” environment to support  warfighters, but a domain of warfighting in of itself.  Specifically, in written testimony co-authored with Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein, Air Force Space Command commander Gen. John Raymond, and Air Force Space and Missiles Systems Center commander Lt. Gen. Samuel Greaves, testified:

Clearly, freedom to operate in space is not guaranteed.  In fact, space is now a warfighting domain, similar to the more familiar air, land, and maritime domains our men and women are fighting in today.”

When queried about the potential and advantage of an international code of conduct, Secretary Wilson responded:

“[T]he Air Force’s role is to be sure the United States can prevail “irrespective of consensus on international norms because there will be players who do not abide by those norms.”

This statement represents a substantial shift from the archetype of national security space adopted in the 2011 National Security Space Strategy (NSSS), which adopted a normative approach through its “layered approach” to deterrence. This normative approach was implemented retroactively into the Department of Defense’s space policy in Directive NUMBER 3100.10 and AFPD 16-6 Space Policy, which relies extensively on the theory of “resilience” and international norms to deter an aggressor from interfering with space assets that belong to the United States.  Interestingly, in testimony before the House Appropriations Committee, subcommittee on Defense on June 21st, Secretary Wilson repeated the policy found in Directive NUMBER 3100.10 by noting U.S. space assets need to be able to “take a punch”. Beyond statements on the new posture on outer space and the mention of “resilience”, Secretary Wilson did not elaborate on changes in policy either for the Department of Defense or National Space Policy. As noted by Christopher Stone, this is a welcome change. The change in doctrine puts the United States on par with the Russian Federation and particular the People’s Republic of China, whose 2015 Defense White Paper identifies outer space as a “commanding height” in international strategic competition and a critical security domain along with the oceans, cyberspace, and its nuclear force.

What is perplexing is Secretary Wilson’s reference to resilience in “being able to take a punch” without a follow-on policy that would enable the ability to “punch back”, which is incongruent to the posture of identifying space as a war-fighter’s domain. That Secretary Wilson did not follow back with a “punch back” analogy suggests she was not authorized to do so. This begs the question: why brandish a new posture for outer space without an official policy? There are two possibilities. First, it is possible a shift in policy is in the works within the Trump Administration that has not filtered down to DoD or has percolated but has yet to be enacted. In this case, the Secretary’s comments may be meant to presage an impending policy shift that would change the Air Force posture towards outer space to include the ability to “punch back” at adversaries threatening or attacking U.S. space assets.

The other possibility may be the Secretary is well aware the new posture does indeed require the ability to “punch back” and by promoting the new posture to Congress may be prodding both the Administration to shift policy via an interim executive order to allow the DoD and the Air Force to amend both Directive NUMBER 3100.10 and AFPD 16-6 to shift space doctrine to that of a warfighter’s domain to include “punching back” as opposed to passive deterrence as enunciated in the NSSS. If this is the case, this would be a bold move by a newly-minted Secretary but would be consistent with the bold defense posture taken thus far by the Trump Administration.

Whether the Secretary’s comments are a prognostication or a prompting is unknown, but what is clear is Air Force posturing towards outer space security appears to be moving from a flock of  lambs hoping the wolves will stay at bay because of their numbers to that of a lion who will defend its pride because of the presence of its strength and resolve.



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