In Other Words

Arms Race in Space

• Astropolitics: The International Journal of Space Power and Policy, Vol. 1, No. 1, Summer 2003, London Eight days before Operation Iraqi Freedom began, Maj. Gen. Franklin J. Blaisdell, the U.S. Air Force director of space operations and integration, offered a blunt warning: "We are so dominant in space that I pity a country that ...

• Astropolitics: The International Journal of Space Power and Policy,
Vol. 1, No. 1, Summer 2003, London

Eight days before Operation Iraqi Freedom began, Maj. Gen. Franklin J. Blaisdell, the U.S. Air Force director of space operations and integration, offered a blunt warning: "We are so dominant in space that I pity a country that would come up against us."

In the five weeks that followed, more than 5,500 Joint Direct Attack Munitions pummeled Iraq, guided to within 3 meters of their targets by orbiting Global Positioning System satellites. High-resolution radar satellites peered through clouds and sandstorms, allowing coalition aircraft to pick off former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein’s Republican Guard.

But despite such military prowess, the U.S. defense establishment is worried. Two years ago, a commission formerly chaired by U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld warned that growing dependence on commercial and military satellites left the United States vulnerable to a possible "space Pearl Harbor." More recently, national security agencies have been circulating proposals to develop a flotilla of military spacecraft that would deny U.S. enemies (and possibly even U.S. allies) access to Earth’s orbit without U.S. permission.

Predictably, these plans to expand the Monroe Doctrine above the ozone layer do not sit well with the rest of the world. Closer to home, critics warn that the United States risks triggering a self-defeating arms race. Given that the United States owns 90 percent of all military satellites and 60 percent of all commercial ones, arms-control advocate John Pike argues that starting a shooting match in space makes about as much sense as holding "rock-throwing contests" in a glass house.

The inaugural issue of Astropolitics, published by Frank Cass in London, attempts to bring this dispute down to Earth. According to the editors, the journal was founded on the belief that "the international space policy community, with its attendant academic inquisitors, lacks a rigorous and scholarly forum." (Note to would-be contributors: All political views are welcome, but don’t send articles on the existence of extraterrestrial life "until proven otherwise.") The lead article, "Totem and Taboo: Depolarizing the Space Weaponization Debate," by Karl P. Mueller, a political scientist at rand, strives to inject nuance into the debate over the weaponization of space by giving a detailed political taxonomy of its key players. U.S. proponents of space weaponization, he says, fall into three categories: "space racers," who argue the United States must be first to develop space weapons when rival nations appear poised to do the same; "space controllers," who see space weapons as a valuable military asset that should be built as soon as the United States deems them necessary; and "space hegemonists," who favor intense development of space weapons to safeguard U.S. political and military dominance in the 21st century.

These three views share the belief that the weaponization of space is inevitable. Mueller disagrees. A "space Pearl Harbor" is possible, but crippling or destroying an object whipping around the Earth at 17,000 miles per hour is a bit more challenging than doing "comparable damage" to buildings, electrical grids, and computer networks. Moreover, adversaries can develop comparatively low-cost terrestrial options for disrupting U.S. space assets, such as ground-based lasers and electronic jamming.

Mueller also smacks down historical analogies that compare the weaponization of space with the weaponization of the skies. He acknowledges some compelling similarities: In World War I, aircraft originally were tools for observation but fast became platforms for bombs and guns as each side sought competitive advantage. Only 12 years passed between the Wright brothers’ first flight and the first dogfight, but Mueller points out that expansion into space has not been nearly as fast as was predicted following the race to the moon. Indeed, throughout the Cold War, various weaponization programs, such as anti-satellite weapons, were abandoned.

Although Mueller directs most of his rhetorical ammunition against the space weapons proponents, he says that opponents, too, need to be more clear-eyed. In particular, they should abandon their knee-jerk rejection of any military presence in space, since to do otherwise risks "squandering opportunities to establish potentially worthwhile restraints on space weapons development." Conversely, space-power advocates must recognize that many defensive measures available to safeguard space assets don’t require the weaponization of Earth’s orbit.

Whether space-power proponents and opponents will heed Mueller’s advice is far from certain. In the vacuum of space, there is precious little common ground.

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