Reconsidering the Rules for Space Security

Competing Conceptions of Military Use

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Nancy W. Gallagher and John David Steinbruner
Reconsidering the Rules of Space

Within the U.S. military planning system, which sets policy directing space investment, reactions to the expansion of space utilization in the 1990s were mixed. Some saw it as an opportunity, others as a threat. William Owens,who served as vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) during the boom in commercial expectation, believed the projected expansion of space- based information capabilities would allow the United States to increase its security with lower budgets, fewer troops, and less risk. Speaking in his official capacity, Owens proposed building future U.S. military capabilities around an integrated “system of systems” in three domains with close links to space—intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR); command, control, communications, computers, and intelligence; and precision-guided munitions.56 The tactical value of space information had been demonstrated during the 1991 Persian Gulf War, when U.S. troops used handheld GPS receivers—including 15,000 commercial devices—to coordinate troop movements over large areas of featureless desert, enabling a surprise flanking maneuver around Iraqi forces in Kuwait.57 Owens anticipated that advances in digitization and computer processing would allow satellite imagery to be delivered directly to users in the field rather than having lengthy delays while satellites were tasked and images downloaded to ground stations, then transferred via film or fax to analysts and decision makers. That emerging capability would provide superior “situational awareness” across a wide range of security contingencies from humanitarian assistance, through peace operations, to high-intensity conflict.

In “The Emerging System of Systems,” Owens urged the United States to match its military capabilities to political objectives for reshaping the security environment. After retiring from the military, Owens elaborated his strategic concept in an article with Joseph Nye, a civilian architect of the Clinton administration’s defense policy.58 They argued that the United States currently had an advantage in information collection, processing, and dissemination capabilities, partly due to Cold War investments and partly to the vibrancy of the commercial information technology sector in an open society. Because information technologies were dispersed throughout the global economy, other countries might try to match or challenge U.S. superiority in space-based military support systems unless these capabilities were used for political purposes that had broad international support. Owens and Nye argued, though, that nobody else would spend enough money to engage in competitive development of military space technology if the United States shared its situational awareness for mutual benefit and avoided using its information edge in ways that threatened others.59 They also urged the United States to use its information advantage not only to deter or defeat traditional military threats but as a “force multiplier” for diplomatic responses to emerging security problems. They concluded that “if a state can make its power legitimate in the perception of others and establish international institutions that encourage them to channel or limit their activities, it may not need to expend as many of its costly traditional economic or military resources.”60 In Joint Vision 2010, a collective planning document issued in 1996, the U.S. military services accepted the idea of leveraging information technology to reduce the “fog and friction of war” so that U.S. and allied troops could achieve results with “less need to mass forces physically than in the past.” That document did not mention the broader cooperative security concept that Owens and Nye had advanced, but it did keep space-based military assets in a supporting role for ground, air, and maritime forces, with only one oblique reference to “space forces” and another to “battlespace control operations to guarantee the air, sea, space, and information superiority that is needed to gain the degree of control to accomplish the assigned tasks.”61

Six months after Joint Vision 2010 was released, however, the U.S. Space Command (SPACECOM) issued its own Vision for 2020, depicting the global expansion of space utilization as a threat rather than an opportunity and advancing a stark conception of national military space power.62 Gone was any idea of sharing space-based information for mutual protection or using U.S. dominance in information technology to promote U.S. interests through cooperation rather than coercion. Instead, SPACECOM claimed that a competitive “gold rush” was occurring in space, with the number of satellites likely to double or triple over the next five years, and depicted space as a lawless frontier like the nineteenth-century American Wild West.63 SPACECOM also asserted that war in space was inevitable because the “space ‘playing field’ is leveling rapidly” and satellites are vulnerable, high-value targets;64 it urged the U.S. military to utilize space not merely to support deterrence but also to enhance terrestrial war-fighting missions and to develop the capacity for combat in space itself.

Vision for 2020 argued that the United States could maintain “full spectrum dominance” only if it had offensive and defensive “control of space”—that is, the ability to access and use space freely for its own purposes, to protect its own space assets, and to deny the use of space to others when necessary. Vision for 2020 advocated a unilateral form of “global engagement” that combined space-based observation with the ability to apply “precision force from, to, and through space,” and it promoted the concept of “full force integration,” envisaging the “same level of joint operations between space and the other mediums of war-fighting as land, sea, and air currently enjoy today.” Vision for 2020 and the subsequent Long-range Plan Implementing USSPACE-COM Vision for 2020 are the foundational documents for the current effort to achieve decisive U.S. military space dominance, a program that would over- turn the historical legacy of strategic accommodation and legal regulation and that would indefinitely subordinate commercial development to the exercise of military power in space. The term SPACECOM can thus serve as a shorthand for the community of people within and outside the U.S. military who believe that the United States should try to maximize its military power in space and who emphasize preparations for space warfare over legal and diplomatic efforts to protect space assets. Within this community exist important variations—for example, in one early typology that still remains useful, David Lupton contrasted what he called the “space sanctuary” doctrine with three other military space doctrines: “survivability” (anti-satellite weapons needed to deter attacks on vulnerable satellites), “space control” (ensure that the United States can freely use space to support terrestrial operations but hostile militaries cannot), and “high ground” (space will be the decisive theater of combat because of its utility for missile defense and/or global strike weapons).65 Yet, neither the Vision for 2020 nor subsequent doctrine, planning, and policy documents indicate which version of space power doctrine is being endorsed, so the term SPACECOM should be understood as a general analytical device rather than a reference to a specific document, theory, or organizational entity.66


56. Adm. William A. Owens, "The Emerging System of Systems," Military Review 75, no. 3 (May/June 1995): 15–19.

57. Watts, Military Uses of Space, 41–42.

58. Joseph S. Nye and William A. Owens, "America's Information Edge," Foreign Affairs, March/April 1996, 20–36.

59. France and Israel had recently deployed the world's first nonsuperpower reconnaissance satellites in large part because they could not count on receiving imagery from the United States and felt that access to information had been used to manipulate their security policies. France had disliked having the United States be the sole source for imagery used by the allies during the Persian Gulf War. Indeed, President Chirac remarked that without indigenous satellite capabilities, Europe would be little more than a "vassal" of the United States. Israel's decision had been made earlier, after the United States would not or could not provide imagery to Israel before the 1973 Yom Kippur War, and then fluctuated between denying and supplying subsequent imagery requests. Israel's first reconnaissance satellite was launched in 1995. Since then, several other space-faring countries, including Japan, India, and Pakistan, have decided to launch their own reconnaissance satellites for similar reasons. See Jeffrey T. Richelson, "The Whole World Is Watching," Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists 62, no. 1 (January/February 2006): 26–35.

60. Nye and Owens, "America's Information Edge," 36.

61. John M. Shalikashvili, Joint Vision 2010 (Washington, DC: Joint Staff, 1996), 13, 18, 20,

62. United States Space Command, Vision for 2020 (1997),

63. Theresa Foley, "Space: 20 Years Out," Air Force Magazine Online 83, no. 2 (February 2000): 2, Foley quotes SPACECOM Commander General Richard B. Meyers.

64. United States Space Command, Long Range Plan Implementing USSPACECOM Vision for 2020 (1998), ch. 1, 1,

65. See David E. Lupton, On Space Warfare (Maxwell Air Force Base, AL: Air University Press, 1988); and the updated version in Hays, "United States Military Space," 6–8.

66. When Vision for 2020 was written, the Air Force, Army, and Navy each had their own space commands, all separate from U.S. Space Command. In 2002, U.S. Space Command merged with U.S. Strategic Command under the STRATCOM name, and the Navy Space Command merged with the Naval Networks Operation Command. The Air Force Space Command is now the organizational entity within the military that has the lead on many acquisition and operational programs related to the SPACECOM vision, but some of the most vocal proponents are at military schools or think tanks.