Achieving space security

Review of

Twilight War: The Folly of U.S. Space Dominance

Oakland, CA: The Independent Institute, 2008, 416 pp.

The Politics of Space Security: Strategic Restraint and the Pursuit of National Interests

Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press, 2008, 384 pp.

These two books, although very different in intent and style, converge on a fundamental conclusion: If the United States wants to continue to enjoy the benefits of space security, defined by James Clay Moltz as “the ability to place and operate assets outside the Earth’s atmosphere without external interference, damage, or destruction,” there is a “compelling logic to the exercise of military restraint.” Indeed, he suggests, all nations active in space should exercise such restraint “because of their shared national interest in maintaining safe access to critical regions of space.” For example, it is in the common interest to avoid actions that create space debris and threaten the environment of outer space, such as the January 2007 Chinese test of an antisatellite device or the February 2008 U.S. destruction of a reentering National Reconnaissance Office satellite. Both books suggest that the space environment is, as Moltz puts it, “too valuable to be used for war.”

Mike Moore is the former editor of The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, a periodical with a strong arms control perspective, and thus it is not surprising that Twilight War is an extended tract arguing against the desirability of U.S. space dominance. This concept is defined as an overwhelming advantage in space capability that would allow the United States to control who has access to outer space and what is done there, and, if it so chooses, to use space as an arena for the projection of U.S. military power. Moore suggests that a coherent group of “space warriors” in the Department of Defense, the Air Force, various think tanks, Congress, the aerospace industry, and, at least during its first term, the Bush administration, believes that the capability to dominate space should be a top-priority U.S. goal. Moore writes that this view “is uniquely in tune with twenty-first century American triumphalism,” defined as the belief that “America’s values, perhaps divinely inspired, ought to be the world’s values.” Indeed, throughout the book he suggests that such exceptionalism, not geostrategic security considerations, is the underlying motivation behind the U.S. rhetoric regarding space dominance, thus giving the United States the right to define for the rest of the world, not just itself, what is acceptable behavior beyond Earth’s atmosphere.

Twilight War puts forward two well-articulated lines of argument against this point of view. The first is that achieving U.S. space control is technologically and fiscally extremely unlikely, given the increasing space capabilities of other countries, not only Russia but also China, India, Japan, and the nation-states of Europe. The second is that rather than being consistent with U.S. values, “building and deploying the capability to unilaterally control space and place weapons in space would not square with America’s historic reverence for liberty and the rule of law.” As a self-described “liberal internationalist,” Moore suggests that U.S. interests might be best served if this country “took the lead in developing a new, tougher, and more comprehensive space treaty that would decisively prevent any nation from developing the capability to militarily dominate space.”

Moving toward such a treaty is currently a very unlikely prospect. The most recent U.S. national space policy, approved by President Bush on August 31, 2006, strongly rejects such a treaty-based approach to space security, saying that “the United States will oppose the development of new legal regimes or other restrictions that seek to prohibit or limit U.S. access to or use of space” and that “proposed arms control agreements or restrictions must not impair the rights of the United States to conduct research, development, testing, and operations or other activities in space for U.S. national interests.” The U.S. opposition to binding space arms control treaties has been relatively consistent through the past four presidential administrations. One crucial space policy issue for the next occupant of the White House will be whether to maintain this unilateralist approach to ensuring U.S. freedom of action in space.

Moore marshals various examples of “overheated warrior rhetoric” to make his case that space dominance is indeed the motivating force behind the development of many U.S. national security space capabilities, but he is honest in acknowledging that reality has not matched that rhetoric and that in recent years actual spending on space-dominance capabilities has been relatively modest. Even so, suggests Moore, space warriors, although opposed to creating weapons that would lead to space debris, remain “interested in developing more sophisticated systems that could temporarily disable, damage, or destroy satellites in any orbit, without creating debris.”

Moore’s book is sometimes wordy and rambling. Still, Twilight War is a very useful addition to the growing body of thinking and writing that opposes moves to weaponize space and that advocates multilateral approaches to space security.

In The Politics of Space Security, Moltz, an associate professor in the Department of National Security Affairs at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, CA, notes that his book is intended for a scholarly audience, but he also hopes that the policymaking community, the media, and the general public will find it of interest. Although the author draws from the academic literature in setting up his framework for analysis, most of the well-written study is blessedly free from jargon. This is a particularly valuable contribution to the space security debate, given both the wide range of the historical dimensions of the study and the incisive quality of its analysis.

The Politics of Space Security is actually two books in one. The first and last sections of the book contain a thoughtful analysis of various perspectives for understanding the concept of space security and their application to understanding the current situation and future prospects. Moltz’s first two chapters look at how other analysts have understood space security and set forth an alternative explanation that stresses a growing awareness of the environmental consequences of actions such as the testing of nuclear weapons in outer space in the early 1960s, which created electromagnetic effects that interfered with satellite operations in both the short and potentially the longer term, and the kinetic destruction caused by antisatellite weapons, which could create long-lived debris in heavily used orbits. Moltz writes as his “main conceptual argument” that “environmental factors have played an influential role in space security over time and provide a useful context for considering its future [emphasis in original].”

The middle chapters of the study contain a detailed history of U.S.-Soviet interactions in space, particularly in the national security arena, from the origins of the two countries’ space programs early in the 20th century to the end of the Clinton administration. This historical account is worthwhile on its own terms, because there has been nothing comparable in the past 20-plus years, since Paul Stares’ 1987 study Space and National Security. Moltz sees U.S.–Soviet/Russian interactions in space between 1958 and 2000 as alternating between “military-first” phases, during which the emphasis in both countries was on developing military space capabilities, and “diplomacy-first” phases, during which the emphasis was on creating bilateral and multilateral agreements on good behavior in space, including a number of space-related treaties. He characterizes the fundamental relationship as one of “strategic restraint.” Moltz concludes, supporting his emphasis on environmental security, that over this 40-plus–year period “the two sides gradually accepted mutual constraints on deployable weapons in return for safe access to the space environment for military reconnaissance, weather forecasting, tracking, early warning, and a range of civilian uses.”

The final part of The Politics of Space Security returns to the questions raised at the start of the study regarding alternate paths to space security. Moltz argues, echoing the main argument of Twilight War, that the early years of the Bush administration saw a rejection of strategic restraint in space and a move toward a unilateral approach to space security, one that, in the words of the 2006 National Space Policy, gave the United States the right to “deny, if necessary, adversaries the use of space capabilities hostile to U. S. national interests.”

This most recent military-first approach to space security has produced a number of reactions in the United States and around the world. They include the rise of a vocal community opposed to recent U.S. space policy, particularly because it is seen as leading to the weaponization of space. Moore’s book is just one example. They include the possibility that some states, most notably but perhaps not only China, deem it increasingly necessary to develop their own ways of countering U.S. moves toward space control; some interpret the development of a kinetic-kill antisatellite weapon by China in this context. Even though it was China that carried out an antisatellite test, the United States has increasingly become seen around the world as the primary opponent of any limitations on space weaponization.

Like Moore, Moltz argues that the actions of the Bush administration have not matched its rhetoric, although Moltz (also like Moore) notes the continued development of counterspace capabilities that can operate without lasting harm to the space environment. He points out an important new development in recent years. Whereas previously the space security debate within the U.S. government was limited to the national security space community, there has been an increasing engagement of commercial interests, who after all have their own strong interests in a secure operating environment. He concludes that a new discussion about space security, involving new actors, is beginning.

With a new president taking office in January 2009, the direction that such a new discussion might take and its outcome cannot be forecast with any certainty. In the space sector, it is clearly the most important emerging issue. Moltz believes that the stage has been set for another phase of diplomacy-first activity, and Moore would certainly hope that he is correct. In recent years, the center of gravity in the space security debate has shifted from attempts to negotiate a comprehensive treaty-based regime banning space weapons to a more bottom-up approach that emphasizes limited concrete actions to enhance space security for all. These include the adoption by the United Nations of guidelines regarding minimizing space debris, discussions of some form of multilateral cooperation in improving space situational awareness, increasing acceptance of the concept of a code of conduct setting out best practices for spacefaring states, and perhaps moves toward space traffic management as more users become active in space.

Moltz writes that “the future course of international relations in space remains unwritten.” It is his hope that the combination of collective learning about the consequences of conflictual behavior in space and the involvement of more national and commercial actors in the space security debate will see a return to the kind of mutual restraint that characterized U.S. and Soviet behavior, but this time on a global scale involving the newly emergent space powers. He points out, however, that this outcome is still contingent on “human initiative” and a willingness on the part of key states to support multilateral cooperation, neither of which can be taken for granted.

In his book, Moore lays out a somewhat overstated version of the perspectives that have guided U.S. national security space policy during the past eight years. Moltz reminds us that these perspectives are not in any way immutable, and his analysis gives hope that it is possible for leaders, informed by experience and desiring to maintain space as an environment in which all can carry out beneficial activities, to find a path to achieve that goal. Both these books are reminders that the ability to operate in space free from threats of disruption is essential to the modern world, and both provide an ultimately optimistic assessment that it is possible to get to such a state of affairs.

Cite this Article

Logsdon, John M. “Achieving space security.” Issues in Science and Technology 24, no. 4 (Summer 2008).

Vol. XXIV, No. 4, Summer 2008