The Final Frontier

Our new space strategy boldly goes where no U.S. policy has gone before.

NASA/Hubble Heritage Team/Getty Images
NASA/Hubble Heritage Team/Getty Images

The Department of Defense’s strategic approach to space must change. This is the message of the National Security Space Strategy recently approved by Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and Director of National Intelligence James Clapper.

During the Cold War, space was the private reserve of the United States and Soviet Union. It was the "high frontier," from which we could support national defense and power projection with near impunity. Space capabilities were essential to such strategic tasks as monitoring compliance with arms control treaties and providing early warning of nuclear attack.

Today, space capabilities support a much broader range of domestic and global needs. Space systems benefit the global economy, enhance our national security, strengthen international relationships, advance scientific discovery, and improve our way of life.

Many nations have recognized the benefits derived from space, and the United States increasingly shares the domain with more and more space-faring countries — both close allies, like France and Japan, and potential adversaries. And space is increasingly congested, competitive, and contested – challenges that we refer to as "the three C’s."

U.S. policy must first adapt to increased congestion in space. There are over 1,100 active systems in orbit and an additional 21,000 pieces of debris littering the skies and posing a threat to our satellites. Radio frequency interference is also a concern, with more than 9,000 transponders relaying communications between spacecraft and the ground expected in orbit by 2015. Either radio interference or collision with a piece of debris could render a satellite useless, depriving military forces and national decision-makers of the information it collects and transmits.

Space is also the object of increased competition between nations. When the space age began, only the United States and the Soviet Union had the technology and industrial capacity to develop space capabilities. In recent years, however, growing international interest in space capabilities has spurred space industries in many more nations. The U.S. share of worldwide satellite exports has dropped from nearly two-thirds in 1997 to one-third in 2008. Eleven countries are operating 22 launch sites. More than 60 nations and government consortia currently operate satellites. In sum, the U.S. competitive advantage in space has decreased as market-entry barriers have lowered, and the U.S. technological lead is eroding in several areas as expertise among other nations increases.

America’s assets in space are also increasingly contested by its rivals and adversaries. China demonstrated a direct-ascent anti-satellite capability in 2007 and is developing other capabilities to disrupt and disable satellites. Iran and others have demonstrated the ability to jam satellite signals. Our reliance on space tempts potential adversaries to see it as a vulnerability to be exploited.

Rules of the Road

To confront these challenges, the new National Security Space Strategy begins the process of outlining the rules of the road when it comes to space.

The current body of international space law resides in the 1967 Outer Space Treaty (OST) and its associated conventions. While the OST is a good departure point, a clearer definition of responsible behavior can help minimize the chances for mishaps, misperception, and mistrust in space.

Rules can help the United States minimize the chance of collisions in space, reduce unintentional radio frequency interference, maximize the use of crowded orbits, and discourage destabilizing behavior such as intentional interference with space systems in times of crisis. Rules encourage good conduct but also provide a way to hold accountable those who would engage in malign acts.

As a first step in developing rules, we are working closely with the State Department to evaluate the European Union’s proposed code of conduct for the use of space and are encouraging other space-faring countries, including Russia, China, and India, to do the same. We are considering what further measures of transparency, verification, and confidence-building can enhance the stability of space. And we are working with the State Department to establish and conduct bilateral and multilateral space security dialogues with existing and emerging space-faring nations to encourage increased transparency and confidence building measures.

Rules of the road need to be accompanied by practical measures to support implementation and monitor compliance. U.S. Strategic Command (USSTRATCOM), the military combatant command with responsibility for space, is already doing important work to help other countries avoid collisions by providing Space Situational Awareness (SSA) services. Just as the Air Force through USSTRATCOM is the world’s premier provider of global positioning data, USSTRATCOM is becoming the world’s premier provider of collision warning. Fostering broader sharing of space situational awareness information to avoid collisions is a first step toward shared responsibility for the safety, stability, and security of the space domain.

Acting in Coalition

In the past, space was a domain in which we operated largely alone or only with a few very close allies. But for U.S. space policy to be successful in the 21st century, we increasingly need to think about it as a domain where we operate in coalition.

Coalition operations are already a routine for U.S. forces serving in the air, on land, and at sea. Our airmen, soldiers, and sailors regularly operate with the armed forces of allies and partner nations, whether patrolling for pirates off the coast of Somalia or countering insurgents in Afghanistan.

We need to do the same for space. More of our allies and partners are developing space capabilities, and all of our armed forces are increasingly reliant on assets in space, whether to track adversary forces or to strike them with precision. We need to ensure that, in future coalition operations, we have effective mechanisms to task and utilize the space assets of the countries involved. Importantly, NATO’s new Strategic Concept recognizes space as a domain that merits alliance attention.

We also need to do more to leverage the emerging capabilities of our allies and partners. Incorporating foreign capabilities into our architectures for critical missions like space-based communications, surveillance, or missile warning can augment national capabilities and strengthen our overall space posture. Expanding the constellation of space capabilities by incorporating information and services from allied space capabilities can add resilience to our overall architecture and ensure the delivery of space services and information in times of crisis. Such international partnerships also mean that attacks on these systems would be an attack not only on U.S. interests, but on the interests of all partnered countries, which can encourage potential adversaries to exercise restraint.


We must not assume that attacks in space can be deterred — or should be deterred — by the threat of retaliation in space. Rather, like in other domains from nuclear to cyber warfare, a multi-layered approach has the greatest chance for success.

The first two layers of deterrence can be provided by steps already discussed — creating norms that would need to be broken and building international partnerships that would need to be attacked.

A third layer of deterrence involves reducing the benefit of attacking our space systems. This can be done in two ways — by enhancing the systems’ resiliency, and ensuring that our armed forces can operate effectively even when an adversary seeks to degrade our space-based capabilities. We can expand the set of capabilities upon which we rely to reduce the benefits an adversary would gain from attacking a single one. Instead of launching a single large satellite to meet a variety of mission requirements, we could launch many smaller satellites. Placing some of these payloads on commercial or international satellites would further raise the consequences of an attack by targeting a broader set of nations or commercial firms.

Developing effective land-, air-, or sea-based backups to our space capabilities would also provide alternatives to delivering those services, such as positioning information or communications, which are currently provided by space assets. Our forces also must be trained to "fight through" attempted interference with our space assets, such as attempted jamming of communications satellites.

The threat of retaliation — imposing costs — provides a fourth layer of deterrence. The National Space Policy declares that use of space is vital to U.S. national interests. The National Security Space Strategy directs that the United States will retain the right and capabilities to respond in self-defense should deterrence fail. We will use force in a manner that is consistent with longstanding principles of international law, treaties to which the United States is a party, and the inherent right of self-defense.


We are closely consulting with Congress, industry, and America’s international allies in implementing this new strategy. Within the Pentagon, Secretary Gates has directed that the strategy is fully reflected in Defense Department doctrine and operations. Implementation will be overseen by the newly established Defense Space Council, chaired by Air Force Secretary Michael Donley as the department’s executive agent for space.

Implementation is not just about process and plans. It is also about the way we think. As Deputy Defense Secretary William Lynn said last November at a speech to the Strategic Space Symposium, "succeeding in the new space environment will depend as much on changing mindsets fifty years in the making as it will on altering longstanding institutional practices." We must break the habits of secrecy, forged during the Cold War, to work more collaboratively with other nations. We must change longstanding business practices in how we acquire space capabilities to foster a more competitive space industrial base. And we must expand our thinking about how we deliver space capabilities and services to meet critical national needs. All of this will require innovative approaches and new ways of doing business.

As the space environment changes, so must our strategy. The new National Security Space Strategy is an important step in this critical process, which is so vital in enhancing U.S. national interests.

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