There has not yet been a nuclear war between nations on this planet. However, nuclear weapons have been employed: twice and within a short time at the end of World War II. Since that time, and particularly during the Cold War, the further use of nuclear weapons has been avoided primarily because of the absolute fear of the horrible consequences of their use.
Thus was born the dogmatic premise of Mutually Assured Destruction, or MAD, which effectively reined in the imperialistic — economic or otherwise — ambitions of both the then-Soviet Union and the United States. MAD, as a concept, was or has been successful due to two main factors: the acknowledgement of a situation in which no one had absolute superiority, and the stability that acknowledgement brought.
In the 21st century, space superiority and stability are establishing themselves as central issues for their possible effect on space technology and policy.
While the role of space as a center of gravity and its potential for enhancing military power is still being debated, if the trend is towards greater space access internationally, how tenable is a space superiority premise, and is it at cross-purposes with stability?
It is arguable that there are some interesting similarities between MAD-era stability issues and the potential stability that could be fostered by assured access to space capabilities and information.
For instance, d uring the Cold War, it was only when there were supposed ‘gaps’ in nuclear capabilities between the superpowers that there was a feeling of instability. In effect, the assumption of superiority on one side elicited a response from the other in an effort to regain equilibrium.
We observe similar behavior and counter-behavior today. For example, it is arguable that one of the reasons many nonproliferation policies have failed is because developing nations are looking towards nuclear weapons as a means to counterbalance the instability caused by external political pressures. North Korea and Iran are two probable examples. In response, the United States has invested significant resources in missile defense to negate the potential influence of the nuclear weapon and move the country back to a position of superiority (and the instability that brings).
Today, space access, particularly access to space-derived data and capabilities that enhance not only terrestrial military operations but also international situational awareness and economic structures, are of growing importance to many countries. There is no doubt that the United States has superiority in numbers of space assets, their quality and their applications.
The United States also acknowledges that this superiority has become its greatest potential Achilles’ heel. First, since its power is derived from space access, any threat to this access is a direct threat to its power. Further, its space power can be eroded either by overt offensive action to negate American space capabilities , or through benign international competition to develop similar space s ystems that will negate U.S. space superiority .
It has typically been the American view that due to the enormous capability gulf between the United States and its potential enemies, the only recourse of those enemies is to engage in asymmetrical warfare against U.S. space assets, thereby negating the space superiority advantage.
Herein lies the key to stability in the era of Mutually Assured Access (MAA): As nations observe their own dependence upon space systems/capabilities, the loss of this access would prohibit offensive action, resulting in a stable situation. Space weapons would become unnecessary because everyone stands to lose from their application — an analogous situation to MAD.
Unfortunately, we are not currently in a MAA-era. This is because the United States has put the brakes on the ability of many other countries to develop space capabilities via technology controls such as the International Traffic in Arms Regulations .
This de-stabilizing action has now forced other nations to either develop key space technologies themselves or to obtain space-related services elsewhere. Either way, U.S. action, which is ostensibly for security purposes, has only slowed international progress towards greater space access, not stopped it.
In order to provide the needed assurances that all space-based systems — including U.S. systems — are threat-free, there must be increased vigilance.
Recently, the Russians reported the loss of a geostationary communications satellite, possibly due to a collision [Space News, April 3, p. 52 ]. Although another cause may yet be revealed, had the region been under adequate surveillance, at least a collision might have been ruled out.
This signifies that it is time to go beyond the current level of space situational awareness provided mainly by the Space Surveillance Network . For one thing, th e Space Surveillance Network has coverage gaps because it is insufficient to provide global, real-time space surveillance. Secondly, the Space Surveillance Network needs to gain worldwide credibility by becoming more international, and that entails certifying and accepting data from non-U.S. sources.
What the United States can do
First, the United States needs to change its attitude with respect to space control and superiority. It needs to recognize that other nations’ rights to the space regime already are espoused in the Outer Space Treaty of 1967, which guarantees space access. This access will afford strategic and tactical advantages, both economic and military, and it is unrealistic to expect developed and developing nations to not want these same advantages. Any attempt to deny space access, which is denying access to the power of information, will only create an unstable situation.
Second, the United States needs to significantly modify, if not drop, its export controls — something that even U.S. leaders are beginning to advocate. This by no means requires the United States to for go competition; if anything, it encourages it. Nor does it imply the United States simply give its technology away.
By loosening technology controls, the United States stands to gain in two ways: the economic benefits of selling the technology, and the increased assurance from the fact that as more nations espouse and benefit from space technologies, the more dependent they become on them. Therefore, any actions against space assets would be the equivalent of ‘shooting oneself in the foot.’ MAA supports the notion of access to space technologies/capabilities.
Third, the United States should encourage and support the integration of more international space surveillance sensors, both surface- and space-based. There are a number of ground-based telescopes worldwide that could be coordinated to provide more observations. Countries such as Canada are even exploring the possibility of providing a space-based sensor, Sapphire, that would provide such observations to the Space Surveillance Network. Under U.S. leadership, an improved Space Surveillance Network would provide both more coverage that is global and increased international partnership for space control and assured access. With such a global space traffic-control system, it will increasingly be difficult for nations to disguise or hide their space activities. This improved space situational awareness would reduce tensions and thus increase stability — a key goal of MAA.
The era of U.S. leadership in space is not over. Nevertheless, the scope of that leadership, as other nations venture into space, must adapt to emerging realities. For one thing, while space faring nations will continue to observe and in some cases emulate U.S. conduct in space, they will increasingly expect mutual respect and consideration. This will come in part due to their acceptance of the reality that space is a center of gravity, and as such, access to it must be mutually protected. Just as in the Cold War era where the release of a single nuclear weapon had the potential to bring about global destruction, so will the application of space weapons possibly threaten a world incredibly dependent upon space access. This is a chance for the United States to demonstrate true leadership in which it pledges to for go offensive action in space, thereby reducing the anxiety created by its current space control doctrine. It is time to accept, and advocate, that this special region is for the peaceful use by all and as such, is a sanctuary that must be preserved and shared.
Wayne Ellis provides space awareness/integration training for the Canadian military. The above article is based on his opinion and does not necessarily represent the Canadian government’s nor the Canadian military’s views on space control.