Just Say Wait to Space Power

Pressure is building for greater military use of space, but no action should be taken without a broad public discussion.

The concept of space power has been receiving increased attention recently. For example, the Center for National Security Policy, a conservative advocacy group, has suggested that there is a need for “fresh thinking on the part of the new Bush-Cheney administration about the need for space power” and “an urgent, reorganized, disciplined, and far more energetic effort to obtain and exercise it.” According to a recent report from the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, a mainstream defense policy think tank, “the shift of near-Earth space into an area of overt military competition or actual conflict is both conceivable and possible.”

Some definitions may be useful here. The most general concept–space power–can be defined as using the space medium and assets located in space to enhance and project U.S. military power. Space militarization describes a situation in which the military makes use of space in carrying out its missions. There is no question that space has been militarized; U.S. armed forces would have great difficulty carrying out a military mission today if denied access to its guidance, reconnaissance, and communications satellites. But to date, military systems in space are used exclusively as “force enhancers,” making air, sea, and land force projection more effective. The issue now is whether to go beyond these military uses of space to space weaponization: the stationing in space of systems that can attack a target located on Earth, in the air, or in space itself. Arguably, space is already partially weaponized. The use of signals from Global Positioning System (GPS) satellites to guide precision weapons to their targets is akin to the role played by a rifle’s gunsight. But there are not yet space equivalents of bullets to actually destroy or damage a target.

What is in question now and in coming years is the wisdom of making space, like the land, sea, and air before it, a theater for the full range of military activities, including the presence there of weapons. The 1967 Outer Space Treaty forbids the stationing of weapons of mass destruction in space, and the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty prohibits the testing in space of elements of a ballistic missile defense system. To date, countries active in space have informally agreed not to deploy antisatellite weapons, whether ground-, air-, or space-based, and the United States and Russia have agreed not to interfere with one another’s reconnaissance satellites. But there is no blanket international proscription on placing weapons in space or on conducting space-based force application operations, as long as they do not involve the use of nuclear weapons or other weapons of mass destruction.

For the new Bush administration, U.S. national security strategy will be based on two pillars: information dominance as key to global power projection, and protection of the U.S. homeland and troops overseas through defense against ballistic missile attack. Space capabilities are essential to achieving success in the first of these undertakings. Intelligence, surveillance, and communication satellites and satellites for navigation, positioning, and timing are key to information dominance. Space-based early warning sensors are also essential to an effective ballistic missile defense system that includes the capability to intercept missiles during their vulnerable boost phase; such a system appears to be under consideration. Using space systems in these ways would not involve space weaponization. However, under some missile defense scenarios, kinetic energy weapons could be based in space; they could thus become the first space weapons and open the door to stationing additional types of weapons in space in coming decades.

Worth particular attention as a likely indication of the administration’s stance on space power issues is a report released on January 11, 2001, on how best to ensure that U.S. space capabilities can be used in support of national security objectives. The report (www.space.gov) was prepared by the congressionally chartered Commission to Assess United States National Security Space Management and Organization, which was chaired by Donald Rumsfeld, now the secretary of defense. It was created at the behest of Senator Robert Smith (R-N.H.), a strong supporter of military space power who has suggested in the past the need for a U.S. Space Force as a fourth military service. The conclusions and recommendations of the report deserve careful scrutiny and discussion; they sketch an image of the future role of space systems that implies a significant upgrading of their contributions to U.S. national security, including the eventual development of space weapons.

There is a common theme running through this and other recent space policy studies. In the words of the commission report, “the security and economic well being of the United States and its allies and friends depends on the nation’s ability to operate successfully in space.” This is clearly a valid conclusion, but one that has seemingly not yet made much of an impression on the public’s consciousness. The availability of the many services dependent on space systems appears to be taken for granted by the public. However, if space capabilities were denied to the U.S. military, it would be impossible to carry out a modern military operation, particularly one distant from the United States. The civilian sector is equally dependent on space. Communication satellites carry voice, video, and data to all corners of Earth and are integral to the functioning of the global economy. The commission noted that failure of a single satellite in May 1998 disabled 80 percent of the pagers in the United States, as well as video feeds for cable and broadcast transmission, credit card authorization networks, and corporate communication systems. If the U.S. GPS system were to experience a major failure, it would disrupt fire, ambulance, and police operations around the world; cripple the global financial and banking system; interrupt electric power distribution; and in the future could threaten air traffic control.

A space Pearl Harbor?

With dependency comes vulnerability. The U.S. military is certainly more dependent on the use of space than is any potential adversary. The question is how to react to this situation. The commission notes that the substantial political, economic, and military value of U.S. space systems, and the combination of dependency and vulnerability associated with them, “makes them attractive targets for state and nonstate actors hostile to the United States and its interests.” Indeed, it concluded, the United States is an attractive candidate for a space Pearl Harbor: a surprise attack on U.S. space assets aimed at crippling U.S. war-fighting or other capabilities. The United States currently has only limited ability to prevent such an attack. Given this situation, the report said, enhancing and protecting U.S. national security space interests should be recognized as a top national security priority.

Rumsfeld’s appointment as defense secretary makes it likely that this recommendation will at a minimum be taken seriously. Yet there is a curious lack of balanced discussion of its implications. Although the increasing importance of space capabilities has received attention from those closely linked to the military and national security communities, it has not yet been a focus of informed discussion and debate by the broader community of those interested in international affairs, foreign policy, and arms control. Of the 13 commission members, 7 were retired senior military officers, and the other members had long experience in military affairs. In preparing the commission report, only those with similar backgrounds were consulted. Without broader consideration of how enhancing space power might affect the multiple roles played by space systems today, as well as the reactions of allies and adversaries to a buildup in military space capabilities, there is a possibility that the United States could follow, without challenge, a predominantly military path in its space activities.

The call for dominant U.S. space control must be balanced with ensuring the right of all to use space for peaceful purposes.

What is proposed as a means of reducing U.S. space vulnerabilities while enhancing the contribution of space assets to U.S. military power is “space control.” This concept is defined by the U.S Space Command, the military organization responsible for operating U.S. military space systems, as “the ability to ensure uninterrupted access to space for U.S. forces and our allies, freedom of operation within the space medium, and an ability to deny others the use of space, if required.” (The Space Command’s Long Range Plan is available at www.spacecom.af.mil/usspace.) In a world in which many countries are developing at least rudimentary space capabilities or have access to such capabilities in the commercial marketplace, achieving total U.S. space control is not likely. More probable is a future in which the United States has a significant advantage in space power capabilities but not their exclusive possession. This implies a need to be able to defend U.S. space assets, either by active defenses or by deterrent threats.

One suggestion for how to defend U.S. space assets is to deploy a space-based laser to destroy hostile satellites. Such a capability, or some other means of protecting U.S. space systems and of denying the use of space to our adversaries or punishing them if they interfere with U.S. systems, is seen as necessary for full U.S. space control. Also contemplated is some form of military space plane that could be launched into orbit within a few hours and carry out a variety of missions ranging from replacing damaged satellites to carrying out “precision engagement and negation”; in other words, attacking an adversary’s space system. Developing such systems would mean decisively crossing the threshold of space weaponization, whether or not the United States deploys a missile defense system that includes space-based interceptors. Indeed, space-based lasers could also have a missile defense role.

Capabilities such as these are not short-term prospects. Tests of a space-based laser are not scheduled in the next 10 years. The Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments study (available through www.csbaonline.org) judges it “unlikely” that an operational space-based laser will be deployed before 2025. The current Defense Department budget does not include funds for a military space plane. Thus, the issue is not immediate deployment of space weapons but whether moving in the direction of developing them is a good idea.

The commission took a measured position on the desirability of U.S. development of space weapons; it noted “the sensitivity that surrounds the notion of weapons in space for offensive or defensive purposes,” but also noted that ignoring the issue would be a “disservice to the nation.” It recommended that the United States “should vigorously pursue the capabilities . . . to ensure that the president will have the option to deploy weapons in space to deter threats to and, if necessary, defend against attacks on U.S. interests.” To test U.S. capabilities for negating threats from hostile satellites, the commission recommends live-fire tests of those capabilities, including the development of test ranges in space.

What is needed now, before the country goes down the slippery path of taking steps toward achieving space control by developing space weapons, is a broadly based discussion, both within this country and internationally, of the implications of such a choice. The commission recommends that “the United States must participate actively in shaping the [international] legal and regulatory environment” for space activities, and “should review existing arms control agreements in light of a growing need to extend deterrent capabilities to space,” making sure to “protect the rights of nations to defend their interests in and from space.” These carefully worded suggestions could lead to the United States taking the lead in arguing for a more permissive international regime; one sanctioning a broader use of space for military operations than has heretofore been the case.

That should not happen without full consideration of its implications for the conduct of scientific and commercial space activities. There appears to be no demand from the operators of commercial communication satellites for defense of their multibillion-dollar assets. If there were to be active military operations in space, it would be difficult not to interfere with the functioning of civilian space systems. To date, space has been seen as a global commons, open to all. The call for dominant U.S. space control needs to be balanced with ensuring the right of all to use space for peaceful purposes. The impact on strategic stability and global political relationships if the United States were to obtain a decisive military advantage through its space capabilities also needs to be assessed.

It may well be that the time has come to accept the reality that the situation of the past half century, during which outer space has been seen not only as a global commons but also as a sanctuary free from armed conflict, is coming to an end. Some form of “star war” is more likely than not to occur in the next 50 years. But decisions about how the United States should proceed to develop its space power capabilities and under what political and legal conditions are of such importance that they should be made only after the full range of concerned interests have engaged in thoughtful analysis and discussion. That process has not yet begun.

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Cite this Article

Logsdon, John M. “Just Say Wait to Space Power.” Issues in Science and Technology 17, no. 3 (Spring 2001).

Vol. XVII, No. 3, Spring 2001