3 October 2004
USAF Counterspace Operation Doctrine: Questions Answered, Questioned Raised
Theresa Hitchens
Vice President, Center for Defense Information
1779 Massachusetts Ave., NW
Washington, DC 20036
Tel: 202-797-5269; Fax: 202-462-4559


The U.S. Air Force, for the first time ever, has developed and approved a new doctrine document outlining the service’s approach to warfare in space. Called Counterspace Operations (AFDD 2-2.1) and dated Aug. 2, 2004 [1], the doctrine details the planning and execution of operations against space systems and satellites, both for defensive and offensive purposes.

In effect, the new document establishes as fact U.S. Air Force intentions not only to weaponize space, but also conduct anti-satellite operations, possibly preemptively, against enemy military satellites as well as those with primarily civilian functions and satellites owned and/or operated by third-parties (whether governments or commercial entities).

While, as an Air Force publication, the document’s precepts are subordinate to higher-level doctrine (both internal Air Force and at the Joint Chiefs level) and DoD policies, the new doctrine is important for a number of different reasons.

It sets a precedent in that it represents the first time the Air Force has officially articulated counterspace as a part of the Air Force’s overarching mission. It states, “This publication codifies United States Air Force beliefs and practices on the use of counterspace operations in planning and executing military operations.” [2]

It further seeks to establish “space superiority,” with counterspace as the “ways and means” to that end, as a first-order strategic and tactical priority for all military operations, on a par with achieving air superiority. “U.S. Air Force counterspace operations are the ways and means by which the Air Force achieves and maintains space superiority. Space superiority provides freedom to attack as well as freedom from attack (AFDD 1). ...Space and air superiority are crucial first steps in any military operation.” [3]

It also represents an assumption by the Air Force leadership that the conduct of space warfare has been approved at the highest levels of the U.S. government. While the administration of President George W. Bush has, for more than a year, been reviewing current National Space Policy, promulgated by President Bill Clinton in 1996 [4], no official update has been released. The current policy, while vague and somewhat self-contradicting, was widely interpreted during the Clinton administration (including by the Air Force itself) as eschewing (if not prohibiting in some cases) the deployment of ASATs and on-orbit weapons [5]. That said, it is not the first Air Force or DoD document to make that assumption – several other higher-order documents also have put forth visions of “space control” that include concepts for operations against enemy space systems either to protect U.S. assets or as means of degrading an enemy’s capabilities on the ground. This has been accomplished, in large part, by what might be seen as a reinterpretation of the Clinton policy by the Pentagon in anticipation of stronger support from a new Bush administration document.

A close reading of the Counterspace Operations Doctrine document further makes clear that offensive operations against space systems (in some cases, preemptively) is as much a priority for the service’s future combat operations as is defense of U.S. space assets. Up until now, when discussing space operations, U.S. Air Force officials widely have emphasized the need for counterspace systems for protective purposes, although previous documents (including Joint Doctrine) have laid out the basic concept of offensive counterspace operations as part of “space control.” Gen. John Jumper, Air Force chief of staff, in the Foreword to the document, asserts that: “Counterspace operations are critical to success in modern warfare....Counterspace operations have defensive and offensive elements... . These operations may be utilized throughout the spectrum of conflict and may achieve a variety of effects from temporary denial to complete destruction of the adversary's space capabilities.” [6] The Counterspace Operations document further states:

“Potential adversaries have access to a range of space systems and services that could threaten our forces and national interests. Even an adversary without indigenous space assets may use space through U.S., allied, commercial or consortium space services. These services include precision navigation, high-resolution imagery, environmental monitoring, and satellite communications. Denying adversary access to space capability and protecting U.S. and friendly space capability may require taking the initiative to preempt or otherwise impeded an adversary.” [7]

Finally, the document’s language can also be interpreted as supporting the use of kinetic energy (or perhaps even explosive) antisatellite (ASAT) technologies – weapon systems U.S. officials have denied pursuing. The document articulates air-launched missiles, direct-ascent ASATs, and on-orbit ASATs as potential systems for destroying satellites. While it does not elaborate on the nature of the missiles or ASATs, it is obvious that a missile can either use kinetic energy or explosives as a means of destruction (a missile could also be nuclear tipped, but it is inconceivable that the Air Force would be postulating nuclear attacks in space due to the harmful repercussions on its own systems). While direct-ascent or co-orbital ASATs could be equipped with directed energy methods of destruction, a separate section of the paper discusses directed-energy attacks, leading to the conclusion that the document is referring to either kinetic energy or explosive means. Further, there are direct references to kinetic-energy ASATs in the section of the document that details types of targets and means of attacking them: “[Offensive Counterspace] operations [against on-orbit satellites] may target the mission sensor or the satellite bus. For example, a laser may deny, disrupt, degrade or destroy certain types of sensors. Kinetic antisatellite weapons on the other hand, usually target the satellite bus for physical destruction.” [8] Further, it should be noted that the use of kinetic-energy ASAT systems was also postulated in the U.S. Air Force Transformation Flight Plan released in November 2003. [9]

Such weaponry, along with directed energy weapons that would destroy satellites on-orbit, are controversial because of the fact that their testing and usage would create space debris, which is universally recognized as a danger to satellites and spacecraft. Even tiny pieces of debris can damage or destroy on-orbit assets because of the high speeds at which objects travel in orbit (some 10 km per second in Low Earth Orbit), and the international community – with NASA a leading player – is seeking to develop a set of globally accepted measures for mitigating the creation of debris in order to avoid further polluting usable orbits. [10]

While the Counterspace Operations doctrine itself makes no mention of the dangers of space debris or the need to ensure against unintentional damage caused by its creation (including that of fratricide of U.S. space assets), this is an example of an area where other doctrine and policy documents may take precedence. For example, both National Space Policy and DoD Space Policy [11] both make debris mitigation a priority. Joint Publication 3-14: Joint Doctrine for Space Operations (Aug. 9, 2002), also notes: “Space combat operations may impact friendly forces. For example, the creation of space debris or jamming actions may impact friendly systems.” [12]

Likewise, the Counterspace Operations document does not articulate a policy of first relying on “temporary and reversible” means to counter or attack enemy space systems before resulting to debris-creating measures -- a policy Air Force officials repeatedly have stressed in public. For example, Lt. Col. Andy Roake, a spokesman for Air Force Space Command, was quoted by Wired.com on Oct. 1 as saying, “We're concentrating on effects that are reversible. … [I]f you blow something up in space, you create lots and lots of bitty pieces that threaten your own assets.” [13]

It is unclear, however, whether this policy has been codified – as direct instruction to make destructive methods a “last resort” option is not evident in either policy or doctrinal documents to this date. The only direct reference in the Counterspace Operations doctrine on this issue states, "Planners must decide on the desired effect - deception, disruption, denial, degradation and destruction -- when targeting an adversary's space capability. There may be times when temporary, reversible counterspace operations prove more appropriate than operations that permanently degrade or destroy space capabilities.” [14]

Definitions and Operations

The Counterspace Operations document details both Defensive Counterspace Operations (DCS) and Offensive Counterspace Operations (OCS).

DCS are defined as providing “the means to deter and defend against attacks and to continue operations by limiting the effectives of hostile action against U.S. space assets and forces. DCS operations include deterrence of attacks against our space system, defense of our space systems as they come under attack, and where necessary, recovery of our space forces and assets.” [15] Types of DCS include passive protection measures (such as hardening against electromagnetic pulse), attack detection and characterization, and “active measures” such as maneuvering, but also what might be termed shoot-back capabilities. The latter types of actions, dubbed “Suppression of Adversary Counterspace Capabilities (SACC), include “attacks against adversary antisatellite weapons (before, during or after employment), intercept of antisatellite systems, and destruction of [radio-frequency] jammers or laser blinders.” [16] Recovery operations are also included in this category.

OCS are defined as those that “preclude an adversary from exploiting space to their advantage. OCS operations may target an adversary’s space capability (space system, forces, information links, or third-party space capability), using a variety of permanent and/or reversible means.” [17] As in previous documents, the types of OCS are designated the “5 D’s”: deception, disruption, denial, degradation and destruction. The OCS section also designates specific target sets: on-orbit satellites, communications links, ground stations; launch facilities; command, control, communication, computer, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (C4ISR) systems, and “third-party providers.” [18] As for the latter set, the document explains, “An adversary may gain significant space capabilities by using third-party space systems.” [19]

Later in the document, under the section instructing how to go about targeting, weather satellites and satellite navigation systems are cited as specific potential targets. [20]

The document further identifies resources and forces for both DCS and OCS. Possible offensive counterspace forces the U.S. Air Force might use are identified as: aircraft, missiles (including for ASAT attack), special operations forces, dedicated offensive counterspace systems (such as the Counter Satellite Communications System), and ASATs (defined as including “direct ascent and co-orbital systems that employ various mechanisms to affect or destroy an on-orbit spacecraft”), directed energy weapons (including destructive lasers), network warfare operations, electronic warfare weapons, C4ISR systems, and surface forces. [21]

Unintended Consequences

Interestingly, the document admits that counterspace operations could have "unintended consequences," both on “blue forces (i.e. U.S. forces)” and on neutral or not-so-neutral third parties (foreign governments and/or commercial providers). This admission is significant, although the document does not explain how Air Force planners should address such possible consequences. This is not a trivial subject, as one of the potentially fatal flaws in the logic of space warfare is the complexity of using space weapons because of the potential for political, economic or strategic backlash – in military terms, there are problems with the concept of operations. After all, the Air Force is postulating the possibility of destroying third-party assets being used by an enemy, whether with the knowledge of the third party or not; weather satellites that provide civilian authorities with essential data especially in times of weather crises; and commercial communications satellites that are relied on by nations and their publics for everything from emergency communications to wireless bank transfers. Doing so would obviously have consequences not just for the "third party" that owns or operates those assets, but also for potentially millions of non-combatants in neutral or even friendly nations.

The Counterspace Operations Doctrine, indeed, is in some ways quite clear about the potential for complications. Some examples:

  • On page 22: “Deconfliction is just as important in counterspace operations as it is in other military operations. Electromagnetic spectrum and physical deconfliction must be accomplished to avoid 'blue on blue' impacts and unintentional interference with other parties.”

  • On page 29: “Counterspace operations can create effects at the tactical, operational, and strategic level of war. Denying an adversary's access to space can carry many intended and unintended consequences transcending military operations, potentially impacting a nation's economy and diplomatic position. Due to the potential for wide-ranging effects, when planning counterspace actions, airmen ensure the tactical action supports the operational and strategic level objectives and strategies.”

  • On page 39: The document first asserts that counterspace operations are legal under the UN Charter (an assertion that some legal scholars may well challenge, particularly when neutral third-party assets are involved), but nonetheless notes, “In all cases, a judge advocate should be involved when considering specific counterspace operations to ensure compliance with domestic and international law and applicable rules of engagement.”

  • On page 40: “Many communications satellites are owned and controlled by third party providers, to include governments, commercial interests and multinational consortia. Multiple transponders allow providers to service the communications requirements of many users, including some who may be adversarial and others who may be friendly or neutral. Therefore, planned action against space communications assets must be carefully deconflicted to avoid unintended consequences.”

  • On page 41: “When planning operations against an adversary's space-based weather capabilities, consider potential collateral impacts on friendly or neutral nations' assets or information.”

  • On page 41: “Counterspace operations must be deconflicted with other friendly operations to minimize unintended effects. ...Deconflictions of counterspace and information operations may be required given that counterspace operations can result in substantial losses in exploitable intelligence.”

  • On page 42: “Certain counterspace operations may carry greater consequences than others. For example, operations against on-orbit systems may have greater consequences than others. Likewise, counterspace operations against adversaries using third-party space capabilities may have economic, diplomatic, and political implications.”

However, while the possibility of unintended and negative consequences is raised, the document does not provide instructions about how to judge when those potential consequences are deemed to outweigh an operation. This seems to be a critical lack. At a minimum, it fails to provide Air Force planners with methods to judge the efficacy and desirability of a planned counterspace operation. Perhaps worse, it could give planners the impression that rather than being serious issues requiring in-depth analysis, such possible consequences are, of course, to be minimized if possible, but by and large represent the eggs that must be broken to make the omelet.

Potential for Mistaken Attack

Just as worrisome as the question of “collateral damage” is the other major concept of operations problem with regard to counterspace operations – the potential for space accidents to be misperceived as attacks. The very real possibility of the United States mistaking an accident in space for an attack is compounded by the fact that a response might be taken against a doubly-innocent third-party’s space system. Again, the doctrine document touches on this issue: “Operators must be able to differentiate between natural phenomena interference and an intentional attack on a space system in order to formulate an appropriate response.” [22] The document later states: “The ability to quickly and accurately distinguish between hostile, unintentional, and natural events is critical to the ability to detect attacks on space systems. Without such confirmation, operations in retaliation should not be undertaken. Given today's capabilities, attack detection involves the support of multiple organizations.” [23]

While the latter statement seems to place a burden of proof on a commander calling for a counterspace strike, the doctrine paper does not identify exactly what criteria might constitute establishing such certainty or how a commander can establish it. A serious problem is simply that as of today, the U.S. military does not have the capability to do this. There are not systems or technologies now (or in the near-term) available for always being able to accurately diagnose the causes of an on-orbit satellite’s malfunction nor to inspect satellites for damage.

A further problem is that the reality in operations is likely to be that commanders would react with “worse case scenario” in mind, that is, assuming an attack rather than an accident. This mindset would be exacerbated in a world where space weapons were owned not only the United States but by other nations as well. The reason is that by virtue of the high value of space assets, particularly any on-orbit weapons, they foster a “use ‘em or lose ‘em,” mentality, similar to the “hair-trigger” dynamic of nuclear confrontation.

This potential for mistaken response is also exacerbated by the doctrinal document’s instructions on how rapidly a counterspace mission should be put together. It states that planning and executing a counterspace attack should take no more than four days -- 72 hours for planning, 24 hours for execution -- but that the cycle could be lengthened or shortened “to meet battle rhythm.” This is despite the complexity of determining if something was an attack and having to ensure against unintended consequences against either “blue forces,” allied forces or non-combatants.


The new Counterspace Operations Doctrine is the latest in a string of recent DoD and U.S. Air Force policy and doctrinal publications to assert the necessity to conduct warfare in space, represented in the concept of space control. It is also the latest in a string of U.S. Air Force publications asserting that the service’s space control mission not only includes, but necessitates, offensive, first-strike means. Finally, while less direct in its language than other Air Force planning documents (particularly the November 2003 Transformation Flight Plan), the Counterspace Operations Doctrine confirms that the service has not ruled out the use of kinetic-energy and other debris-producing ASAT weapons.

While the document answers a number of questions about Air Force intentions, it also raises a number of issues that should be subject to wider review by other U.S. governmental agencies, Congress and the public. First of all, there is absolutely no evidence that Congress and the U.S. public have accepted the idea of the United States being the first nation to arm the heavens. Just the opposite: public opinion polls show a great resistance to space weapons. In the absence of an overarching policy debate (or even a new policy), the current DoD and Air Force course is not justified.

In particular, the fact that achieving space control through a heavily offensive counterspace strategy (rather than, for example, a combination of diplomatic means and protective measures) requires the United States to contemplate attacks upon and possible destruction of the satellites and space systems of allies, friendly nations, neutral nations and third-party commercial providers ought to be the subject of a wider policy debate. At a minimum, such a strategy ought to be vetted and coordinated through the Departments of State, Commerce and Justice to review possible political, economic and legal consequences.

That said, the Counterspace Operations Doctrine document is a lower-level doctrinal paper, which must be considered by Air Force officials and outside analysts alike as subordinate to higher-order doctrinal and policy documents. It is conceivable that evolutions to Joint Doctrine and DoD/National Space Policy may clarify some of the issues raised in this analysis and resolve some of the more troubling issues with the Counterspace Doctrine itself. It would be helpful, in the meantime, if Air Force officials were to further explain to the Congress, as well as the U.S. and international public, how the myriad pieces of the emerging U.S. space superiority strategy fit together. Unfortunately, the three critical questions about this strategy remain yet unresolved:

  1. Will the United States be the first to deploy ASAT and on-orbit weapons, and what will be the consequences?

  2. How will allies and the rest of the world react to a strategy that deliberately targets their space capabilities and assets?

  3. Will such a strategy make the United States, and our critical space assets, safer, or rather, more insecure?


  1. Counterspace Operations, Air Force Doctrine Document 2-2.1, Aug. 2, 2004, http://www.dtic.mil/doctrine/jel/service_pubs/afdd2_2_1.pdf
  2. Counterspace Operations, Foreword by Gen. John P. Jumper, Air Force chief of staff.
  3. Ibid, p. 1.
  4. White House Fact Sheet on National Space Policy, http://www.ostp.gov/NSTC.html/fs/fs-5.html
  5. Theresa Hitchens, “National Space Policy: Has the U.S. Air Force Moved the Goal Posts?” May 24, 2004, Center for Defense Information web site, http://www.cdi.org/program/document.cfm?...
  6. Counterspace Operations, Foreword.
  7. Ibid., p. 31.
  8.  Ibid, p. 32.
  9. U.S. Air Force Transformation Flight Plan, November 2003, Appendix D, p. D3, http://www.af.mil/library/posture/ AF_TRANS_FLIGHT_PLAN-2003.pdf
  10. Theresa Hitchens, “Space Debris: Next Steps,” April 1, 2004, Center for Defense Information web site, http://www.cdi.org/program/issue/index.cfm?...
  11. DoD Directive 3100.10, Space Policy, July 9, 1999, www.au.af.mil/au/awc/awcgate/dod-spc/dodspcpolicy99.pdf
  12. Joint Publication 3-14: Joint Doctrine for Space Operations, Aug. 9, 2002, p. IV3, http://www.dtic.mil/doctrine/jel/new_pubs/jp3_14.pdf
  13. Noah Shactman, “All’s Fair in Space War,” Wired.com, Oct. 1, 2004, http://www.wired.com/news/space/...
  14. Counterspace Operations, p. 40.
  15. Ibid, p. 26.
  16. Ibid, p. 27.
  17. Ibid, p. 31.
  18. Ibid, pp. 32-33.
  19. Ibid, p. 33.
  20. Ibid, p. 41.
  21. Ibid, pp. 33-34.
  22. Ibid, p. 22.
  23. Ibid, p. 26.

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