For more than fifty years since the first space satellites were orbited the world engaged in activity in outer space for military scientific, and commercial purposes, but without placing weapons there or engaging in serious efforts to target objects in space. Working effectively during the Cold War, since then the space arena has witnessed the entry of many more actors and a much broader array of vested interests than during the U.S./Soviet rivalry.
In this increasingly crowded environment with so many actors the United States remains the dominant player and wants to ensure that it does so indefinitely, hence the desire to protect national assets. As one policy analyst put it: “Given the U.S. reliance on its space systems for national security, would the United States (as some have argued) face a future ‘space Pearl Harbor’ if it did not first acquire the means to protect its space systems from deliberate harm?” The answer to ensuring U.S. hegemony in space rests in no small part with the protection of the nation’s satellites and other space-based capabilities while denying that same capability to potential adversaries. There may be a range ways in which that might be accomplished, but one of the most popular is the placement of systems in space to protect against attack. Depending on how one interprets these assets, it may represent the weoponization of space, thereby overturning a fifty-something year old decision not to do so.
Debate over this issue has been marked by two extreme positions, neither of which are representative of the majority of those debating the subject. The first is the “sanctuary” concept, which asserts that space “should not be used for military purposes,” as analyst Malcolm Mowthorp has written:
The intrinsic value space provides for national security is that satellites can be used to examine within the boundaries of states, since there is no prohibited over flight for satellites as there is for aircraft. This enables arms limitation treaties to be verified by satellites in space serving as a national technical means of treaty verification. Early warning satellites serve to strengthen strategic stability since they provide surveillance of missile launches which increases the survivability of retaliatory strategic forces. The sanctuary school sees the importance with which space systems provides these functions that space must be kept free from weapons, and antisatellite weapons must be prohibited, since they would threaten the space systems providing these capabilities.
Sanctuary advocates have argued that space weaponization by the United States would ensure an arms race in space in which all would ultimately lose. They have opposed it on moral grounds, but more importantly because of longstanding predispositions in favor of arms control, conflict resolution, and global collective stability. Any move beyond limited national security operations such as satellite reconnaissance, arms control verification, early warning, and communications represents for them a “slippery slope” to an arms race in space.
This sanctuary doctrine draws sometimes snide rejoinders that the military has relied on space assets from the beginning of the space age and to suggest otherwise is naïve. As international law professor Robert F. Turner opined about those opposing weaponization of space:
As a policy matter, particularly in light of the tremendous dependence of U.S. military forces today on space-based systems, anyone arguing that the United States should agree to a new legal regime that would leave our defensive assets at the mercy of hostile actions by any of a number of known or unknown potential adversaries—while giving us little of obvious value in return—must bear the burden of explaining why this is in America’s interest. Unfortunately, a campaign is now underway to pressure our government to acquiesce in just such a regime—driven at least in part by countries and groups that perceive “unchecked American military power” as the greatest threat to world peace in the foreseeable future.
Few anti-weaponizers, however, assert an absolute sanctuary in space; virtually everyone recognizes the legitimacy of military assets in space for non-lethal purposes. Turner’s critique, therefore, presents a caricature of those opposed to the placement of weapons in space.
Indeed, the misrepresentation of each side of the debate by the other may be one of the most interesting and unfortunate attributes of this policy arena, and another place for historians to trace the evolution of the policy.
The most radical conception on the other side, “star wars,” essentially seeks to ensure American hegemonic status in space. It is a retreading of the “high ground” argument but one carried to its logical conclusion through weaponizing space and using the region as an American “lake” while denying others its use for military purposes. The Commission to Assess United States National Security Space Management and Organization in 2001 concluded: “We know that every medium—air, land and sea—has seen conflict. Reality indicates that space will be no different. Given this virtual certainty, the United States must develop the means both to deter and to defend against hostile acts in and from space.”
Advocates of space weaponization, sometimes derogatorily referred to as “Star Warriors,” note that new capabilities, broader uses, and greater efficiencies have made the U.S. military far more dependent on space systems than even since the 1991 Persian Gulf war, to the extent that their loss might mean the difference between victory and defeat in a major war. USAF Gen. Lance Lord spoke for many when he wrote: “Space Superiority is the future of warfare. We cannot win a war without controlling the high ground, and the high ground is space.”
The 2006 U.S. space policy provided evidence of a shift in this policy arena. It drew sharp criticism from a wide range of observers for opening the Pandora’s box of weapons in space and the belligerence of their use against American rivals. Former Vice President Al Gore even weighed in on it, declaring on October 19, 2006, that this new space policy
has the potential, down the road, to create the [same] kind of fuzzy thinking and chaos in our efforts to exploit the space resource as the fuzzy thinking and chaos the Iraq policy has created in Iraq. It is a very serious mistake, in my opinion. We in the United States of America may claim that we alone can determine who goes into space and who doesn’t, what it’s used for and what it’s not used for, and we may claim it effectively as our own dominion to the exclusion, when we wish to exclude others, of all others. That’s hubristic.
In reality, there is little new in the 2006 U.S. space policy, just as their was in the Obama space policy released in 2010 which walked back some of the more aggressive rhetoric.
Despite recent developments, most of the space weaponization debate has confined itself to the middle part of the policy spectrum, but it has been both strident and sometimes uncharitable. Of course, it represents a fascinating subject for future study in the history of space policy, one that could occupy several researchers for a considerable period just sorting out the various perspectives. The simplistic “either/or” discussion of popular media fails to unpack the nuances of the debate and tends to obscure the truly important differences.
So what are the priorities for national security space and issues for the development of space policy? Although nearly twenty years old now, a Rand study of 1998 laid out benchmarks that still make fundamental sense:
- Preserving freedom of, access to, and use of space.
- Maintaining the U.S. economic, political, military, and technological position.
- Deterring/defeating threats to U.S. interests.
- Preventing the spread of weapons of mass destruction to space.
- Enhancing global partnerships with other space-faring nations.
Few would disagree either with those priorities or with the need to develop a policy that ensures them. Few would also disagree with the fact that this is where the current state of affairs rests, and that begs the question, how do we best continue this situation? This becomes a core agenda for any discussion of the subject.