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NSRC 2020

 
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The United States is the preeminent power in space, but other countries have their own ways to exercise space power and to counteract the US. (credit: Lockheed Martin)

Space power, now and in the future

It now looks like the National Security Space Office’s Space Power Theory study being done under the auspices of the National Defense University’s Institute for National Security Studies will not be published until some time later this year. Until then a number of elements of the study are being released. An example is the Stimson Center’s contribution urging a so-called “rules of the road” agreement.

The study itself was designed with limited goals in mind. They were not looking for a definitive work to stand alongside Clausewitz and Mahan’s works on war and on sea power, but were instead looking for indications of how ideas about space power may develop over the next half century. That’s a less ambitious goal, but a difficult one nevertheless.

While the arguments over possible theories of space power continue, in practice space power is being exercised by all of the world’s major powers every day. The US, while remaining essentially unarmed in space, is nevertheless the preeminent space power due to its remarkable collection of civil, commercial, and military space systems. It is the US that maintains unrivaled, if imperfect, space situational awareness and the ability to use space to prepare and operate on battlefields anywhere on Earth.

The US, while remaining essentially unarmed in space, is nevertheless the preeminent space power due to its remarkable collection of civil, commercial, and military space systems.

When a retired French diplomat claimed recently that only China and the US are “animated by real strategic visions,” he was exaggerating, but not by much. Other nations, including France, have their own strategic vision, but must face political and economic limitations. Israel, for example, in spite of the recently successful launch of the Ofeq 7 reconnaissance satellite, faces a serious shortage of funds for its space programs. European dual-use space programs are either national ones with some participation by partners—France’s Helios spy satellites being a good example—or pan-European projects such as Galileo, which have their own well-known difficulties. The most successful European space power programs are those such as Ariane or Envisat, whose military utility is exceptionally well disguised.

The weaknesses of US military space power are well known: no defensive systems on any US satellites; little if any ability to shift orbital planes, i.e. to maneuver; few on-orbit spares; equally few spares on the ground; unresponsive launch capability; and vulnerable ground control sites. It must be noted that these weaknesses are shared by all other space powers. The only difference is that China, and perhaps Russia, have the capability to destroy satellites in low Earth orbit, while the US has a limited capacity to jam communications links.

From a military standpoint a clear definition of the strategic goal of space power can be found in the US National Space Policy that the administration published in the fall of 2006. The United States shall “Support and enable defense and intelligence requirements and operations during times of peace, crisis, and through all levels of conflict.” The Secretary of Defense is directed to “Develop capabilities, plans, and options to ensure freedom of action in space, and, if directed, deny such freedom of action to adversaries.”

One of the greatest difficulties in bringing the goals of the National Space Policy into line with the practices inside the Defense Department and the National Reconnaissance Office is that if the policy was taken seriously it would require a whole new attitude towards the design, manufacture, and operation of military space systems. To begin with, all new satellites would have to be built with a lot more shielding against laser, kinetic, and electromagnetic pulse attack and will need to carry both more fuel and more powerful on-orbit thrusters. This would drive up both the weight and the cost of all future satellites, something that planners and budget officials inside the Executive Branch and the Congress do not want to hear.

Instead, they seem to believe that the US can either ignore the threat or negotiate a meaningless international agreement that would leave us defenseless while allowing almost everyone else to build and deploy all the space weapons they want as long as they don’t actually test them. Even if, say, Russia were to test a new anti-satellite weapon under these new “rules of the road”, as long as there was minimum level of deniability, the arms control community would fight hard to prevent America from recognizing or doing anything about the violation. After all, it’s not like we didn’t see the same phenomena in the 1970s and 1980s.

As long as we live in a world without an all-out major war, the most dangerous form of space power is non-military. The mullahs of Iran and, before them, the Afghan Taliban banned satellite dishes, for good reason. Commercial Western television is a subversive force of unmatched power. While pro-jihadi television such as al-Jazeera and al-Manar continues to have an immediate impact, the forces of western commercial culture, as well as dissident broadcasts relayed via satellite to the Middle East, are at least as destabilizing. At some point people get tired of ideology and long to be normal. It will probably take decades for this to have a decisive effect, but as long as the West maintains a steady stream of entertainment products flowing into the minds of young potential jihadis the outcome is predictable.

This is why Iran’s 2003 Cuba-based jamming of broadcasts from Persian exiles based in Southern California is so significant. They went after the Telstar 12 satellite in geosynchronous orbit because it was feeding the people of Iran with alternative ideas that originated from people whose basic culture and religion were identical to their own. Satellite television allows people who speak the same language and share the same culture to stay in touch and to maintain their identity even when living thousands of kilometers apart. For good or ill this is an inescapable aspect of what may be termed “soft” space power.

There is, in fact, no real near-term possibility of a useful overarching space power theory comparable to the ideas and concepts of Clausewitz or Mahan. The study of space power theory is useful largely because it allows us to speculate about what the future holds, but nothing definitive is going to emerge for many years to come.

China has an excellent understanding of the utility of this aspect of space power. In 2003, when they became the third nation to launch their own people into orbit using their own systems, it was a huge boost for their national prestige. Their plans for lunar exploration show that they have a sophisticated understanding of the way that such missions will add to both their hard and soft national power. The Beijing government also tries to maintain the “Great Firewall of China” to keep out unsuitable ideas. Yet, they allow satellite broadcasts that indirectly subvert their hold on power.

In the US, there are elements within the government that also understand this but they have difficulty articulating this truth due to the separation of civil and military space operations. Since only the White House has the power to integrate all aspects of US space power into a coherent strategy, and since space is a small part of overall government activities, this problem will persist, even if the next President chooses to revive the “Space Council” concept.

There is, in fact, no real near-term possibility of a useful overarching space power theory comparable to the ideas and concepts of Clausewitz or Mahan. They each had decades of personal experience of land and sea operations to draw on and had studied centuries of military and naval history. There has not yet been any active warfare in space and the history of large-scale space-enabled warfare is limited to the years since 1991. The study of space power theory is useful largely because it allows us to speculate about what the future holds, but nothing definitive is going to emerge for many years to come.

For Great Britain the most important thing that sea power did was to allow them to turn their backs on continental Europe and build a global empire that was, for a long time, a source of wealth and power. By the mid-21st century space power may permit those states that possess it to ignore the rest of the world and to pursue prosperity throughout the solar system. Once they become accessible at a reasonable cost, the resources of the asteroids and similar stores of minerals and energy will become the objects of a “scramble for space” similar to the late 19th century “scramble for Africa”.


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