Fifty years ago when Sputnik was launched, if there was one thing that all the realists of that era firmly believed it was that a nuclear war of one kind or another was just about certain to erupt in the next half century. If not the big one between the United States and the USSR, then it would be one between the United States and Red China due to proliferation. After all it was only four years before, in 1953, that Eisenhower had forced the Communist side in Korea to accept a cease fire on U.S. terms by threatening them with the bomb.
Russia’s 1957 triumph was closely related to the U.S.-USSR nuclear arms race. The inescapable message of Sputnik was that the Soviets could hit America with their hydrogen bomb-equipped ICBMs. Their loudly proclaimed superiority in the missile arena may have been partly based on an illusion: After all, Korolev’s R-7 rocket was a far better space launch vehicle than a weapon, but at the time almost no one in the West was able to confirm this.
Today no serious student of military affairs believes that another 50 years can pass without some sort of war in outer space taking place. The number of spacefaring nations is increasing rapidly. Civil and military systems of all types now rely on satellites and their associated ground control centers. Their destruction or degradation can be measured on a “ladder of disaster” analogous in some ways to the Cold War era’s “ladder of escalation.” This ladder spans from the mild inconvenience that would occur if one or two commercial communications satellites were destroyed or the flea bite that we experienced in January when the Chinese created a moderate sized debris cloud with their anti-satellite (A-Sat) test, up to the full-scale global breakdown that would take place if someone were to explode one or two electromagnetic pulse weapons in the vicinity of our planet.
Nuclear war, even limited nuclear war, inevitably leads to hundreds of thousands of dead and many more seriously hurt. The extremely ugly facts of nuclear war are true, even if, thanks to the West’s victory in the Cold War, they have been partly forgotten. Space war – no matter how destructive it might be – will result in few, if any human casualties. The collapse of worldwide telecommunications and banking services, no matter how bad for the world economy, cannot be compared with the effects of one or two hydrogen bombs on major cities or even on military targets and their nearby civilian populations.
The complex taboos that surround nuclear weapons have so far remained powerful enough to dissuade anyone from using them. That they have held since 1945 may owe more to luck or to providence than to any fundamental human wisdom, which is as always in short supply. Space weapons arouse none of the fundamental fears that nuclear ones arouse. Used with the right political and military timing, against the right targets, they could cripple an enemy.
Preventing or countering such an attack is going to be something that
the United States and its allies are going to have plan and prepare for. U.S. space forces are neither trained, equipped or organized to fight a defensive, let alone an offensive campaign outside Earth’s atmosphere.
Just as the oceans are the global commons of world trade in material goods, space is the public highway of the information age. Our world’s civilization depends on space not just for navigation and communications, but for financial transfers, farming, environmental monitoring and dozens of other elements of our daily lives. This is not only true for rich nations but for poor ones as well. Imagine the devastating impact on Africa if they lost the GPS signals, their cell phones would fail and the already shaky air traffic control system would collapse.
America and its friends and allies have a responsibility to protect the space lines of communications, just as the U.S. Navy and its allies in the new “1,000 ship navy” are committed to defending global ocean commerce. In the 20th century Germany and the Soviet Union both saw the sea lanes as a critical Western vulnerability and using mainly submarines made attacking it a centerpiece of their strategic policy. In the 21st century any power that wants to overthrow the global order will have to plan and prepare for a campaign against the space assets of the United States and other western powers.
Finally, sometime in the next 20 to 30 years, the question of access to and ownership of the energy and mineral resources of the Moon and other “Celestial Bodies,” to use the phrase from the 1967 Outer Space Treaty(OST), will arise. Few people in the United States and even fewer elsewhere are taking this issue seriously. When it does arise the supporters of the OST will find that it not only has been undermined by technology, but the essential international good will needed to make it a suitable instrument for the 21st century will have disappeared.
Humanity’s exploration and exploitation of the solar system is going to become one of the central facets of 21st century economics and politics. Today’s, politicians all over the world, are as unprepared for this development as were the ones in 1957. Some things never seem to change.
Taylor Dinerman writes a weekly column for www.spacereview.com