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A policy intended to deter hostile acts in space, like antisatellite weapons tests, may not have had the desired effect. (credit: ESA)

A review of space strategy worldviews (part 1): 2011 National Security Space Strategy

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In 2011, the National Security Space Strategy (NSSS) was released. Its objective, in response to the destructive testing of kinetic energy anti-satellite interceptors by China in 2007, was to “deter the development, testing, and employment of counterspace” weapons by any potential adversary seeking to degrade or destroy American freedom of access and use of space.[1] This document, like other strategies developed by US policymakers since the 1990s, was grounded in a perception of the international political environment. This perception is found within a combined international relations theory of a liberal, constructivist, utopian worldview. This specific worldview believes that rule-making, norm-building, and international institutions are what shapes, preserves, and propagates security and peace within the international system. While this document has been superseded by the 2020 Defense Space Strategy, the undercurrents of the original ideas and worldviews are still active and influential in national security space debates. This paper argues that the NSSS’s view of the international environment, with China as the case study, does not fully explain the international politics surrounding Chinese spacepower development and ultimately meant the NSSS failed to deter China and others from development, testing, and employment of counterspace systems.

This idea of the international system of state activities in space being secured by the legitimacy of the rules being “self-reinforcing,” i.e., rather than outside punishment or enforcement, is an important piece of the international relations worldview behind the NSSS.

As a strategy of utopian vision, the NSSS assumes that all states involved in the international system are invested in the idea that security is constructed and sustained by “rules and institutions” and not through the threat and, if needed, use of force.[2] This school of international relations thinking believes that rules and institutions provide the lead state with instruments of political control and, as a result, these rules and institutions aid in the construction and maintenance of a favorable international environment both terrestrially and in the space medium.[3] Proponents of this international relations framework, such as G. John Ikenberry, argue that “if a state wants to wield its power legitimately” it must do so within a self-reinforcing world system of rules and institutions.[4]

This idea of the international system of state activities in space being secured by the legitimacy of the rules being “self-reinforcing,” i.e., rather than outside punishment or enforcement, is an important piece of the international relations worldview behind the NSSS.[5] The idea is based not on national interests and preservation of advantage in space, but on the idea that as states join this order of rules and institutions, “those values and interests that unite the human race are… displacing those factors that historically have divided it and have been the underlying causes of wars” in other mediums such as land, sea, and air.[6] Therefore, as a result of the advancement of this liberal, rules-based order being applied to the space medium, “the emergence of a uniform world culture [has become] a reality” and because of this development in international politics a “transformation in human consciousness is occurring that… provide[s] escape from the irrational struggle for national advantage” in orbital and cislunar space that would require the need to develop, test, and employ counterspace weapons systems.[7] Thus, the NSSS sought to make the goal of a utopian aspiration more likely within the shaping of a stable space environment of perceived sanctuary from conflict and competition. The NSSS concepts of liberal utopian thought shaped political theory into a norm to which all states ought to conform, at least in terms of political practice.[8] Below are some examples of the idea that security and deterrence come about by rules, institutions, and the emergence of a more rational, unified world order within the NSSS.

First, is the “deterrent through norms concept” within the NSSS that played “down [the] anarchic character” of the international system and argues, with some constructivist thought, that “interaction among states… helps to generate shared values, and produces... international society” within the global commons of space.[9] The constructivism fused into the liberalism construct of the NSSS is “interested in… how norms become insinuated into the attitudes and behavior of actors on the international stage.”[10] Once a norm has been agreed upon by spacefaring states within the international system, these norms of responsible behavior “have been internalized” and will be “followed because they seem right,” not because there is any threat of punishment or enforcement of the rules.[11] It is thus the legitimacy of the norms, rather than the threat of punishment, that is the key to deterring aggression against American space infrastructure, according to this worldview.[12] The authors of the NSSS believed that through norms, the United States would foster “greater transparency and information sharing” and through “words and deeds” (not including force or threats of force) this focus on norms would “reassure our allies and the world at large of our intent to act peacefully and responsibly in space.”[13] This reassurance would require the interdependence of allied and partner states joining in this rules-based order, to add a layer of deterrence per the liberal, institutionalist utopian vision of security through vulnerability.

Second, an actor would be deterred from attacking the US critical space infrastructure as the result of a posture of “deterrence through entanglement,” consisting of a mutually vulnerable, interdependent space system. This view holds that spacefaring states within the NSSS’s constructed order find that “multilateralism is self-reinforcing” and will perpetuate the “promulgation of additional multi-lateral rules and institutions.”[14] Therefore, any irresponsible space actor would be isolated by the liberal, international order following any attack upon the US and allied critical space infrastructure. Through “transparency and confidence building measures in space” the US, as lead state of the rules-based order, would dissuade and “impose international costs” on aggressive behavior.[15] There are no details in the document on what responsive action the US or other members of the rules-based order would take to enforce the norms of responsible behavior, other than the phrase “impose international costs.” Some of this is related to the third layer of the liberal view behind the NSSS, which would deny benefit through resiliency, not overt enforcement.

If the liberal, utopian view underpinning the NSSS is an accurate assessment of what motivates China to develop, test, and employ counterspace systems within their strategic plans and doctrines, then China would be deterred and give up on their counterspace weapons testing and deployments. The fact is they have not.

In the third example, the NSSS argues for a deterrence through resilience. Resilience means the ability to absorb a hit and continue to provide most of the products and services generated through the use of space support infrastructures for either economic or terrestrial military operations.[16] Due to the norms of responsible behavior which have been constructed within the unified liberal, rules-based order, and the incentives for mutual economic and political gain, deviating from the norms would be unthinkable and would lead to isolation, rather than continued access to the space environment and the gains that come from the utilization of space systems. The multilateral capability to deny benefits to the adversary is thought to enforce the norms. Threats of force, defensive postures, and other means of collective security are considered by many to be destabilizing and unhelpful to the preservation of the rules-based order articulated within the NSSS’s international relations theory. Is there a response other than political isolation for a state that deviates from the norms and rules for the space medium? In answer, there is a concept known as deterrence through response.

The final example is “deterrence through response.” If a kinetic attack or proof of a violation of the norms against development, testing, and use of counterspace systems is brought before the world, the United States, as lead state, would reserve the right to respond. It does not mean that a post-attack response will be in kind, i.e. from space, but it will be “consistent with longstanding principles of international law.”[17] The response would be beneficial to the multilateral, self-reinforcing liberal order and the sustainment of the norms of behavior such as freedom of access and overflight. Did this international relations theory aid in the development of an effective deterrent strategy against an emergent military space power such as China, also a member of the rules-based order?

While the liberal utopians believe that the world is now a “unified world”, this “has been a creation of the West, which has sought to impose its values and way of life on a recalcitrant set of diverse cultures” like China.[18] If the liberal, utopian view underpinning the NSSS is an accurate assessment of what motivates China to develop, test, and employ counterspace systems within their strategic plans and doctrines, then China would be deterred and give up on their counterspace weapons testing and deployments. The fact is they have not. The Department of Defense’s Report to Congress on Chinese Military Developments states that from 2015 through 2020 they continue to observe Chinese tests of low earth orbit (LEO) interceptors, as well as additional tests that highlight a geostationary earth orbit (GEO) interceptor capable of reaching at least 36,000 kilometers.[19] In addition, recent open-source intelligence indicates that China has now deployed LEO interceptor units and doctrines. How can this be explained if the strategy based upon the liberal, utopian view appears to have failed to dissuade the Chinese? An analysis of Chinese strategic culture appears to point toward a Chinese worldview of offensive realism as one alternative explanation for why the Chinese are developing, testing, and in some cases using, counterspace capability.

Chinese strategic writings and their continued advancement and deployment of kinetic energy anti-satellite programs highlight the value of the offensive realist perspective as a predictor and assessor of Chinese cost–benefit calculus regarding their counterspace program. People’s Liberation Army (PLA) strategists Li Hechun and Chen Youong stated, “Anti-satellite weapons can be developed at low cost and that can strike at the enemy’s enormously expensive yet vulnerable space systems will become an important option… to deter… powerful enemies.”[20] Chinese strategists have also written that they view the vulnerability of the US critical space infrastructure as “soft ribs” that provide a low threshold option to utilize in crisis or war to shape events to their advantage.[21]

The Chinese believe in a threat-based active defense and active deterrence program. China also has a different view toward deterrence in space.

One example of this with respect to a perceived norm of behavior in the space medium is regarding freedom of overflight. While the current international space legal regimes such as the Outer Space Treaty have been ratified by the Chinese government, the Chinese Communist Party has frequently stated that there is no legally defined demarcation line that would prevent the Chinese from extending their sovereignty into space.[22] There is an increasing number of government-sponsored publications by influential authors advancing the principle that China’s sovereign territorial airspace extends to all orbital space above their territory and therefore they reserve the right to engage any target overflying their nation.[23] Recently, China has sought to exert sovereignty over ever-expanding terrestrial land and ocean claims in the Pacific region, such as the South China Sea and East China Sea, by establishing Exclusive Economic Zones and Air Defense Identification Zones. Some experts have concerns that the buildup of Chinese counterspace capabilities, despite the NSSS being in force since 2011, and their very different worldview could lead to legal assertions that the Exclusive Economic Zones and Continental Shelf Act provide a legal basis for any attacks on foreign spacecraft overflying Chinese territory.[24] As PLA Maj. Gen. Cai Fengzhen and his co-authors make clear, “The area above ground, airspace, and outer space are inseparable and integrated.”[25]

In addition, the Chinese international negotiation tactics within the rules-based international order also appear to support the offensive realist view that “great powers do not work together to promote world order for its own sake. Instead, each seeks to maximize its own share of world power.”[26] Chinese negotiators in business and government are trained in the 35 stratagems and Sun Tzu’s Art of War. As such, their negotiating style is rooted in the duality of the Confucian/Taoist teaching of cooperation with competitiveness.[27] When counterpart negotiators are seen as adversaries and their interests are perceived to be in conflict, such as impositions of Western values and norms that negatively affect sovereignty and territorial integrity, they use the “mobile warfare” style. This style’s primary objectives are to “exhaust, destabilize, and weaken the adversary by various means, including concealment, deception, and espionage.” A mobile-warfare negotiator in space codes and treaties within the liberal, rules-based, mutually beneficial order, “will not hesitate to disseminate false information and misrepresent facts in order to mislead. Chinese negotiators often increase their bargaining edge by stimulating open competition” between negotiators with the goal to “weaken the adversary.”[28] If the goal is not mutual gain within the rules-based system, how is deterrence defined in Chinese strategic thought?

The Chinese believe in a threat-based active defense and active deterrence program. China also has a different view toward deterrence in space. The liberal, utopian view sees norms, entanglement, and resiliency as deterrence and dissuasion, but the PLA’s writings on these topics show that “real capabilities” for space attack and counterattack are considered an “integral part of battle planning” by the PLA in “any future conflict,” including “periods of tension.”[29] Also, in the Chinese language, the definition of deterrence is different than that of the Western world. While the United States views deterrence as the prevention of war through cost-benefit calculation and attempts to control misperception in the minds of the adversary, the Chinese word for deterrence, weishe, is a combination of coercive “punishment” strikes and deterrence.[30]

According to a Chinese strategic culture-offensive realist view, the NSSS concept of deterrence has failed because it did not recognize that “great powers do not work together to promote world order for its own sake... Which is likely to clash with the goal of creating and sustaining stable international orders,” even those that extend to space.[31] This apparent lack of understanding could be explained by the fact that, “the utopian inhabits a dream world…remote from the world of reality.”[32] One of those realities is that where liberal utopians view “mutual restraint” as means of security, the Chinese perceive an opportunity to exploit this restraint as a vulnerability as a counter-intervention and active deterrent towards the United States, maximizing their relative power and position within the system to assure their security.

This assumption about security through norms without defensive or enforcement mechanisms leads to vulnerability and exploitation by the very states it intended to deter.

Offensive realists “believe that status quo powers are rarely found in world politics because the international system creates powerful incentives for states to look for opportunities to gain power at the expense of rivals and to take advantage of those situations when the benefits outweigh the costs.”[33] Unlike the liberals or constructivists who believe that security can be found within rules and institutions, offensive realists believe that “the international system forces great powers to maximize their relative power because that is the optimal way to maximize their security.”[34]

In conclusion, the NSSS appears to have used a liberal institutionalist international relations theory to highlight the type of space environment desired by the Department of Defense, without acknowledging the concerns of the offensive realist school of thought that appears to more accurately reflect Chinese concerns and intentions, both terrestrially and in space. This assumption about security through norms without defensive or enforcement mechanisms leads to vulnerability and exploitation by the very states it intended to deter. For future strategists and policymakers in the incoming administration, it must be understood that the utility of international relations theory as a baseline of strategic development applies both to the policymakers for which they work as well as the adversary the strategy is designed to challenge or influence in some way. If both areas are not included in the development of strategy, the implications of that malpractice could lead to, at best, a failure to meet its objectives, or at worst, a defeat of the highest magnitude for the United States and its allies.


  1. 2011 National Security Space Strategy, 10
  2. G. John Ikenberry, Liberal Leviathan: The Origins, Crisis, and Transformation of the American World Order, Princeton Univ Press, 2012, 102
  3. Ikenberry, 102
  4. Ikenberry, 31
  5. Ikenberry, 103
  6. Robert Gilpin, War and Change in World Politics, Cambridge Univ Press, 2008, 223
  7. Gilpin, 223
  8. E. H. Carr, The Twenty Years’ Crisis, 1919-1939, Palgrave MacMillan, 2016 edition, 13
  9. Lawrence Friedman, Deterrence, Polity Press, 2004, 69
  10. Friedman, 69
  11. Friedman, 72
  12. Freidman, 72
  13. NSSS, 13
  14. Ikenberry, 103
  15. NSSS, 13
  16. Space Domain Mission Assurance: A Resilience Taxonomy, Department of Defense, 2015,3
  17. NSSS, 10
  18. Gilpin, 225
  19. 2015 DoD Report to Congress on Chinese Military Developments, 14
  20. Hechun, Li and Youong, Chen, “Sky War – A New form of War That Might Erupt in the Future,” Liberation Army Daily (online), 17 January 2001.
  21. Tellis, Ashley, Punching the U.S. Military’s “Soft Ribs”: China’s Antisatellite Weapons in Strategic Perspective, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Policy Brief 51, July 2007, 3
  22. Nayebi, Nima, “The Geosynchronous Orbit and the Limits of Westphalian Sovereignty,” Hastings Science and Technology Law Journal, vol. 3, no. 2 (May 2010): 491.
  23. Meek, Philip, “Testimony before the U.S.–China Economic and Security Review Commission Hearing: China’s View of Sovereignty and Methods of Access Control,” February 27, 2008, 4.
  24. Ibid.
  25. Wortzel, Larry M., The Chinese People’s Liberation Army and Space Warfare (Washington, DC: American Enterprise Institute, October 17, 2001), 5.
  26. John Mersheimer, The Tragedy of Great Power Politics, W.W. Norton, 2014, 49
  27. Benoliel, M., “Negotiating Successfully in Asia,” Eurasian Journal of Social Sciences, vol. 1, no. 1 (2013): 1–18
  28. Benoliel, “Negotiating Successfully in Asia,” 7.
  29. Sun Zhaoli, Science of Strategy. Academy of Military Science, Military Strategy Studies Dept. (Beijing: Military Science Press, December, 2013) 238.
  30. Cheng, Dean, “Chinese View of Deterrence,” Joint Forces Quarterly, no. 60, Fourth Quarter, 2011: 92.
  31. Mearsheimer,49
  32. Carr, 13
  33. Mearsheimer, 21
  34. Mearsheimer, 21

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