No nation relies on space for its security more than the United States — none is even close. Both economically and militarily, loss of space capabilities would prove disastrous. America’s economy, and along with it the world’s, would collapse. Its military would hunker down in defensive crouch while it prepared to withdraw from dozens of then-untenable foreign deployments.
For these reasons, the United States Air Force is charged with ensuring reliable space access and capabilities in peace, and in defending space assets and operations in conflict. As a martial organization, it looks to military means for achievement of its assigned ends. And so it should.
To date the Air Force has been hamstrung in its pursuit of weapons in space by a combination of policy angst over the possible impact on foreign relations, Cold War legal entanglements, and the misapplied logic of nuclear deterrence. Moreover, a sense that the realm of space should somehow be kept pure, free of atavistic human contamination, pervades the opposition.
All of these arguments are easily countered and have been refuted at numerous forums. But the core arguments for weapons in space are — or ought to be — centered on two themes. First, the United States is the world’s hegemon, like it or not, and as such it is expected to provide leadership in the world community, provide a globally more-beneficial economy along with reduced incidences and intensity of conflict and war, and to maintain its relative power.
Second, the old American way of war, in which problems overseas are ignored until they spill over into direct conflict with its interests, requiring a massive and overwhelming intervention, is gone. The 21st century American military instead relies on high-tech intelligence, global presence, stealth, and precise and deadly engagements that limit collateral damage and casualties. Such is the new reality. Transformation of the armed services has crossed a threshold of no return. Without guaranteed access to space, and the capacity in war for space dominance, the new American way of war is not viable.
Consider this analogy. Imagine assigning the U.S. Navy the mission of protecting the nation’s interests at sea — indeed, to ensure that access to the high seas is unhindered, and that those who might contest American access to traditionally and legally open waters are denied the ability to do so — but to accomplish this mission without any capacity to apply violence to, in or from the sea. The notion is ludicrous, despite the fact that no state today has the capacity to challenge the American Navy at sea, and no nation is developing such a capacity.
While there are numerous diplomatic, economic and informational means to accomplish such a task — and all should be pursued — these are not within the Navy’s area of expertise, and so it should not receive the mission. The point is simple. The arguments against space weapons should not be centered on the correctness of the Air Force’s desire to pursue technologies that lead to weaponization, but on the propriety of the assignment.
It should also be recognized that during the modern era’s most auspicious periods of peace and prosperity, the international community was led by a liberal hegemon, whose military power was globally dominant on the oceans and locally dominant on the ground where it chose to fight. Air and space power — heavily used by today’s Navy — are the prevailing globally dominating military capabilities, enabling local ground power superiority at the time and place of America’s choosing.
In preparation for an eventual transformation to a space-heavy military force structure, it is prudent to ask what would such a force look like, and what would be the political ramifications of its deployment? Broadly imagined, any transition to a military that included significant space-based weapons, capable of engaging assets in space and a limited number of high-value, fleetingor heavily protected targets would come at a stiff price. Any envisioned space weapons system would be very, very expensive.
The cost would come not from social or educational budgets, but from existing defense allocations. In other words: fewer performance aircraft, fewer naval surface combatants, and fewer troops and armored vehicles — a lot fewer. These conventional systems would still carry the bulk of violence projected abroad for the foreseeable future, but should space weapons be properly designed and judiciously employed to pre-emptively and preventively constrain violent opposition to U.S. security concerns, the need for conventional forces around the globe will be considerably reduced.
As such, a space-heavy force structure, while adding to the deadly concentration of power that is implicit in the transformation model, will not be a threat to the security interests of other states in the same manner that an increased conventional force might.
The United States will retain the capacity to intervene with violence anywhere in the world, at a moment’s notice, but it will have atrophied its capacity to invade and hold territory. A direct threat to the sovereignty of foreign states will have abated, but not the capacity to retaliate against or punish those states that oppose U.S. interests.
For example, the second war in Iraq was won quickly, brilliantly in fact, by a transformed American military with far fewer personnel than could have been imagined just a few years ago. The occupation and democratization of Iraq has not gone well, or at least not as well as anticipated. The smaller, deadlier force that swept through Iraq and toppled a government is poorly constructed to pacify territory, and so clarion calls for more troops are heard daily.
But what is more threatening to the many states of this world: a U.S. military force designed to push violence forward quickly, but that cannot sustain long-term, broad-area application of violence, or one that is slower, less-accurate, more broadly devastating, and designed to take and hold territory?
If space weapons are used capriciously or arbitrarily, then certainly they will be part of an expensive military build-up that hastens the demise of the United States. But if they are the military foundation of an effort to ensure commercial and peaceful access to space for all nations, as is the current U.S. military dominance on the seas and in the air, then space weaponization may come to be seen as a global public good.
Once again, strategy matters. The vision that America has for itself and the world cannot be achieved without dominance in space. Without the capacity to research, develop, test and then, if necessary and efficient, deploy weapons that operate to, in and from space, the lynchpin of military transformation may be lost.
Everett Dolman is an associate professor of comparative military studies at the School of Advanced Air and Space Studies at Maxwell Air Force Base, Montgomery, Ala. Dr. Dolman also is the author of Astropolitik: Classical Geopolitics in the Space Age (Frank Cass, 2002) and The Warrior State: How Military Organization Structures Politics (Palgrave-Macmillan, 2005).