According to Robert Zubrin, the United States needs “domination” in space lest 12,000 Russian tanks come rumbling across Poland, Germany and France [“U.S. Space Supremacy Now Critical,” Commentary, Jan. 19, page 19]. It’s enough to gladden the heart of an old Cold Warrior like me. I’m nostalgic for those 12,000 rumbling tanks, which never crossed the inner German border back in the Cold War but did launch many a bureaucratic career — including my own. And now they’re back, and just as menacing as ever.

To summarize the Zubrin argument: The Russians have 12,000 tanks, and the West has only 1,000. One might add that if history is any guide, only 600 or so of those will be running at any one time. That leaves Western defenses reliant on nuclear weapons. But the United States will never use nuclear weapons to defend Europe. (I wish I were as confident as the author on this point.) The result: disaster.

There’s trouble at sea as well. We depend on large, slow aircraft carriers that are painfully visible to a new generation of surveillance satellites, not to mention defenseless against land- and sea-based anti-ship ballistic missiles targeted by those satellites. Accordingly, all that stands between the Russian army and the English channel, or China and Hawaii, is U.S. domination of space. And it has to be domination. No more Mr. Nice Guy, no more truckling to feckless allies. Only domination will provide all the benefits of space-derived targeting, communication and intelligence to us, and deny those things to the Russians, Chinese and anyone else we choose.

It isn’t quite as simple as that, of course. Zubrin has left some things out, notably the British and French nuclear arsenals. He imagines that tanks will decide the land battle, as they did at Kursk 70 years ago, although a trusted agent with a thumb drive is probably more threatening now than all those tank armies were then. Nor has he explained how our marvelous intelligence advantage would translate into victory on the battlefield, as it has failed to do in our recent wars. It’s one thing to know where all those tanks are, and quite another to do something about it.

But let’s stipulate to all that, and concede that without domination of space, we will one day soon be living under Russian capitalism, a slightly more rapacious form than our own.

That leaves one question, but the only important one: How will we dominate space? On this point, Zubrin is silent. The George W. Bush administration talked endlessly about space control. In this as in many areas of Bush policy, the wish was often mistaken for the deed. In reality, there were more and better space competitors at the end of that administration than there had been at the beginning.

In space, as in golf, you can’t prevent the other guy from improving his game.

Still, the idea of space control — jingoistic, exceptionalist, triumphalist — remained politically well entrenched, and that meant the U.S. Air Force faced a future of misallocating scarce resources to an illusory goal. All seemed dark until a subtle strategic mind appeared to cast some light on the stony path ahead. It came from the least likely source, an Air Force general officer.

U.S. Air Force Gen. Robert Kehler. Credit: SpaceNews/Tom Kimmell

When Gen. Robert Kehler took over Air Force Space Command in 2010, he began almost immediately warning darkly of “congested, competitive and contested space.” Everyone knew what congested space was; we’d been warning about space debris and crowded orbits for 20 years. Competitive space, too, was a reality and causing the heritage companies to pick up their game. But what, the bureaucracy asked, was contested space? Kehler would say only that — whatever it was — it was growing ever more imminent.

So, with no time to spare, the bureaucracy organized a committee and arrived at a definition. If memory serves, it was some combination of intention and capability, but mostly it was beside the point. The point was this: Whatever contested was, it wasn’t space control. In fact, it was the opposite of space control. Kehler had single-handedly changed the narrative. Space control had been an article of faith; a frontal assault on such an essential element of the dogma would have been futile, not to mention “surrenderist” and unpatriotic. Contested space, on the other hand, sounded muscular and aggressive. Even better, it exposed the fuzzy-headed liberal internationalism that has always lain at the core of space control — the idea that we would control space for the benefit of all peace-loving nations, the remnant of the “one giant step for mankind” ethic of the Apollo era. Since we could not dominated “contested” space, we would have to fight our corner. Mankind would have to look out for itself.

Soon, no one was talking about space control. The new mantra was, and remains, the three C’s.

And that brings us back to the present. If contested space trumps space control, then how about space domination? You can’t get more robust or exceptionalist than that. Except that the whole concept remains a technological fantasy. The means are not available to deny access to space or prevent operations in orbit — two things we need if we’re going to dominate the domain. Nor can we defend those large, single-point-of-failure satellites that will form the core of national security space for decades to some.

If some technological breakthrough makes these things possible, and we’re lucky enough to get there first, competitors will soon have the same ability and we’ll be back where we started, albeit a few hundred billion dollars poorer for the effort. If advocates have some magic bullet to address these problems, please tell the rest of us poor taxpayers. Otherwise, let’s all get on the bus for “contested” space, which will be — as Kehler has always said — challenge enough and more.

That will also let us think about the real question we should be asking ourselves — the one all the talk about space domination avoids: how to deploy our forces on land and sea in an era when there are few places to hide and our enemies have achieved the capability of destroying whatever they can find.

Roger G. Harrison is a former director of the Eisenhower Center for Space and Defense Studies.