In 1898, Horatio Kitchener led 26,000 Egyptian and British troops into the Sudanese desert against an army twice its size. ‘s soldiers were armed with artillery, magazine-fed repeating rifles and Maxim guns. His opponents were armed with spears, swords and outdated, ill-maintained firearms and cannon.

At , the Sudanese Dervishes famously charged the English-Egyptian lines and were mowed down, suffering some 64 percent casualties to just under 2 percent for their adversaries. It was a testament to the technological advantage of modern weapons and led to the popular rhyme, “Whatever happens we have got, the Maxim gun and they have not.”

No doubt the Sudanese would have preferred a fairer fight. Had the possibility existed, they might have sought some form of legal agreement that precluded any party from using the air as a medium for delivering such destructive ballistic weapons as bullets. Who knows, the British, fearing that artillery in the hands of an enemy guerrilla army could easily upset the fragile railway they had built into the desert, seeking to preserve the military advantages they derived from it, believing that their superior discipline and training would enable them to prevail in a massive melee despite being outnumbered two-to-one, willing to accept the massive casualties that they would sustain in such a “fair” battle, and convinced that the Sudanese would not violate a ban on firearms when it came time for battle, might have agreed.

Then again, perhaps not. But, you certainly could not blame the Sudanese for trying.

Fast forward a century and the United States finds itself in the position of Great Britain, possessing an immense military advantage over most potential adversaries that derives from its extensive space capabilities.

Decisive Military Advantage

Imaging satellites perform reconnaissance and surveillance duties in areas otherwise inaccessible. Communications satellites enable commanders to coordinate units on a global scale and provide tactical commanders with options and reach-back capabilities that once belonged in the realm of science fiction. Global Positioning System spacecraft provide timing and navigation data that improves the maneuver capabilities of military units and is increasingly critical to the precise and effective employment of firepower.

It is no wonder that potential adversaries seek to offset this military advantage. Thus, successfully tested an antisatellite capability in January 2007. presumably continues to possess capabilities demonstrated by the Soviet Union decades ago. Both have proposed legal restraints on the development of additional space capabilities, namely space weapons, conveniently excluding their own terrestrially based systems. Moreover, they have launched a propaganda campaign to accuse the United States of threatening an arms race in orbit where none currently exists, capitalizing on the sentiments of some in the West who confuse space with heaven or believe that combat can be excluded from some geographical areas, despite thousands of years of human history to the contrary.

Maintaining the advantage

The question for the United States is how to deal with those realities and maintain its relative military advantages. should be under no illusions that states who view themselves as potential adversaries will give up their counterspace capabilities, even should they promise to do so. They simply cannot allow the United States to exploit its space advantages in a conflict and will not play the Sudanese to an American Kitchener. Thus, in the event of a war with any capable space power, there will be armed conflict in space, treaty, code of conduct or norms to the contrary notwithstanding.

To expect otherwise and pursue at the negotiating table what we cannot currently achieve on the battlefield (i.e., protection of our space assets) is to risk fighting a war on an adversary’s terms, the cost of which is ultimately counted in American lives.

This does not mean that there is no place for international discussions of rules of the road for space operations. Indeed, they may prove quite valuable.

In peacetime, accepted technical standards for common problems such as orbital debris, increased transparency of activities and confidence- building measures can help reduce the possibility of engaging in conflict by mistake.

To the degree that they complicate the task of developing counterspace capabilities or increase the diplomatic penalties for engaging in reckless orbital behavior, they may affect decisions states make about how aggressively to pursue counterspace capabilities.

Understanding consequences

By definition, combat in orbit is global and the collateral damage of debris will affect the entire world for decades. In that kind of environment, it is critical for all countries capable of waging warfare in space to understand the full consequences of their actions. In that vein, it is vital that any state contemplating attacks on U.S. space systems understand the potential U.S. response – and that the United States possess a range of abilities to respond and the will to use them.

There is evidence that some Chinese strategists may believe they can attack space capabilities without significant consequence. Indeed, some U.S. analysts have concluded that China does not subscribe to the principles of free flight in space and the noninterference with National Technical Means (spy satellites) enshrined respectively in the Outer Space Treaty and the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaties (SALT).

In that context, it is too easy, and highly frightening, to anticipate Chinese antisatellite, or A-Sat, attacks on the command, control, communications, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance systems upon which U.S. military forces rely.

Sustained discussions between the United States and are necessary to disabuse of the notion that it can blind strategic forces without significant risk of disastrous consequences.

At the end of the day, however, space advantages must be secured. Quite simply, that demands that space assets become more robust, that architectures be designed for rapid replenishment and that the possess the ability to deny adversarial use of counterspace systems. By building such capabilities, we may ultimately dissuade anyone from the arms race they threaten and deter them from the attacks that we currently invite.

Eric R. Sterner held senior staff positions on the House Armed Services and Science committees, served in the office of the secretary of defense and as associate deputy administrator for policy and planning at NASA.