The weaponization of space, recently dubbed the “question long neglected in most discussions about U.S. defense policy,” is moving to the forefront. Prompted by a recent meeting of the U.N. Conference on Disarmament in Geneva, proposed doctrinal revisions by the Air Force, calls for a White House national security directive, congressional hearings and press reports, the opportunity for a reasoned and open discussion of the importance of space systems to the United States and the requirements to ensure the security of space assets is clearly upon us.

The time is right to consider also whether those systems are sufficiently well protected, which is a concern particularly appropriate for an era of asymmetric strategies. Space systems serve human welfare, enable global commerce and are platforms for scientific advancement. They are also ever more central to U.S. national security. The protection of these assets in the future is a critical national interest.

What are the precautionary security measures that the United States should consider to safeguard these systems? Even the most causal observer can see the positive influence of space on our economy and national security. These contributions, already significant, will only increase in importance and criticality over time. This is underscored not only by the increased popularity of DirecTV and satellite radio, but also by the growing reliance on space assets by our military forces.

Space assets are an essential force multiplier for the U.S. military, providing a tremendous advantage on the battlefield. The statistics speak for themselves: the amount of bandwidth utilized for military operations increased by 42 times from Operation Desert Storm in 1991, to Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003.

What the casual observer may not know is that space has already been thoroughly militarized via military space assets such as the GPS, imagery and communications satellites, and that these military space systems as well as their commercial counterparts are virtually undefended. That, combined with their growing significance to our economic and military power, makes them attractive targets for those who would wish us harm. As our reliance on space assets increases, this present vulnerability also means we have the most to lose.

Thankfully, the challenges of getting to and operating in space minimize the number of countries that can pose threats today, but that will change for the worse. Other nations are looking at space for military purposes now, and more will certainly follow.

The pivotal question facing the United States now is whether it will take the steps necessary to preserve and protect its position in outer space. While the number of nations capable of reaching space today is relatively few, the number of spacefaring nations is growing, and not all of them are peace-loving friends of the United States. As such, it is crucial that in protecting and preserving our space assets, we adopt a proactive rather than reactive approach. In any matter of national security, we cannot and should not be caught flat-footed against potential enemies.

Thus, we must work to preserve the peace while simultaneously preparing to defend our position. This means specifically:

  • Continued development and refinement of doctrine and planning so decision makers know how to react to events in space;
  • Continued investment in research, development and refinement of those technologies, which provide the capability to maintain peace and security in outer space; and,
  • Educating the American people about the vulnerabilities of our systems in space and why those vulnerabilities may prove tempting to others.

Russia and China clearly see a role for an international framework to govern space. Arms control advocates are using the renewed interest in space issues to repeat the mantra that the United States is hell-bent on deploying weapons, that such actions are dangerous and unnecessary and that only a treaty can restrain our aggressive tendencies. Fortunately, all these claims are flat wrong. Too many of the arguments demanding that our country pre-emptively and unilaterally disarm itself in space sound very much like old Cold War ideologies recycled for the target du jour.

It has long been a favorite tactic to thoroughly radicalize the very doctrine of the Armed Forces designed to protect our country. Caution is somehow transformed into reckless abandon; preparedness into aggressive posturing.

Lastly, the United States should resist calls for a new international treaty prohibiting the deployment of weapons in space, as Russia and China demand. Such a treaty is unenforceable and compliance to its strictures virtually unverifiable.

The ignominious record of enforcing and verifying treaties prohibiting activities on Earth is proof enough to give pause to any conversation about a treaty governing activities in space. A treaty also would fail to address the chief reason an adversary would seek access to space in the first place – namely, the potential for inflicting a crippling blow against U.S. military and economic might by decapitating our surveillance and communications abilities.

Instead, a treaty would eliminate the U.S.’s ability to defend against or deter such threats by precluding the necessary development of space systems and doctrine.

Treaty proponents and arms controllers contend that the technological sophistication of the United States would allow for quick reaction against any other nation deploying weapons to space. While the United States has few peers today in space operations, the ease of putting systems into space is greatly overestimated by this view.

Space is a challenging environment, and the design and production of new systems is complicated, expensive and subject to frequent reversals. To think that we can simply have assets ready to deploy quicker and better is a gross simplification. And even if it were true, this course still leaves U.S. assets in space completely vulnerable, opening the possibility of blackmail, coercion or worse.

Much like the world’s oceans, outer space can be preserved and balanced with the protection of the parochial interests of states to ensure free passage and access for all. The unique position of the United States today affords it the opportunity to take steps to ensure the defense of our interests.

Such actions are not incompatible with the preservation of peace and stability. Indeed, our history shows that to be the first order preference of U.S. policy.

Unfortunately, history also shows that others do not share that view. The inevitability of increased access to space creates new challenges for U.S. policy; challenges that must be confronted in a manner consistent with and supportive of our national interests.

Jeff Kueter is president of the George C. Marshall Institute, a Washington-based nonprofit organization that specializes in national security and environmental issues. Andrew Plieninger is an executive research analyst at the institute.