Reconsidering the Rules for Space Security

Political Dynamics

Back to table of contents
Nancy W. Gallagher and John David Steinbruner
Reconsidering the Rules of Space

Vision for 2020 went far beyond the prevailing political consensus. As the text acknowledged, “the notion of weapons in space is not consistent with U.S. national policy.”67 SPACECOM’s supporters in Congress complained that most of DOD still viewed space “as an information medium to support existing air, land, and sea forces, rather than the strategic high ground from which to project power.”68 The commercial sector remained focused on opportunity rather than conflict of any sort. Satellite communications firms in particular dismissed offers of military protection because they did not believe alleged threats were real, doubted that space weapons would make them safer, and thought that countries gaining space capabilities were more likely to become investment partners than attackers.69 Nonetheless, the SPACECOM vision was as much a political program as a strategic conception, with dedicated missionaries able to command and sustain more attention than military planning documents usually enjoy.

The Clinton administration did not attempt to resolve the conflict of purpose posed by the legacy of strategic restraint, the projections of commercialization, and the vision of U.S. military dominance. The unclassified version of its 1996 National Space Policy used ambiguous language to finesse contradictions among those who primarily wanted to develop military support services, those who wanted to promote commercialization, and those who wanted to pursue decisive space dominance. The policy did not set priorities among civilian, commercial, military, and intelligence uses of space; it directed DOD to “maintain the capability to execute the mission areas of space support, force enhancement, space control, and force application” but did not elaborate as to what capabilities these missions involved or how vigorously they should be pursued; it also paired military space control language retained from Reagan/Bush space policy directives with language reiterating the value of normative or legal restraint, but it did not specify the relative importance of rules and force for protecting U.S. space assets:

Consistent with treaty obligations, the United States will develop, operate and maintain space control capabilities to ensure freedom of action in space and, if directed, deny such freedom of action to adversaries. These capabilities may also be enhanced by diplomatic, legal or military measures to preclude an adversary’s hostile use of space systems and services.70

The most visible political struggle over space security during the 1990s involved missile defense, a central component of the SPACECOM vision, with the Republican-controlled Congress pressing for fast and full deployment and the White House favoring an incremental approach designed to preserve the ABM Treaty. In October 1997, the Clinton administration permitted the initial test of the ground-based Mid-infrared Advanced Chemical Laser against a dying Air Force satellite and justified the test as a defensive experiment to assess vulnerability. That same month, though, President Clinton used his line-item veto to thwart congressional efforts to fund space-based missile defense research (billed as asteroid defense), a military space plane, and an ASAT program that had been terminated in 1993.71 Congressional Republicans then mandated a commission chaired by Donald Rumsfeld to recommend steps to strengthen national security space policy. The commission report luridly warned of a “Pearl Harbor” in space—again evoking the surprise attack image Johnson had used some four decades earlier—and it vigorously endorsed changes to the National Space Policy in line with the SPACECOM vision. The report attempted to establish presumptions that would justify the pursuit of dominance—the inevitability of conflict in space and the imperative of securing decisive national advantage before any potential enemy could do so—and to impose the burden of proof on anyone who would question those presumptions.72

Skirmishes also occurred over satellite export control policy. In 1998, members of Congress who assessed trade with China in terms of strategic advantage used charges of Chinese nuclear espionage and access to sensitive information during investigations of satellite launch failure to return commercial communications satellites to the State Department’s munitions control list and to impose new restrictions on the transfer of missile-related technology.73 DOD intensified its satellite export monitoring program, and Congress imposed additional notification requirements. These moves added complexity, uncertainty, arbitrariness, and delay to the satellite export control process.74 They were depicted as essential to ensure that potential enemies did not learn anything that might improve their military satellites or ballistic missiles, but they had the practical effect of ending all U.S. commercial satellite activities with China and placing severe restrictions on Sea Launch, the ISS, and other U.S-Russian collaborations.75

The election of George W. Bush in 2000 brought staunch SPACECOM sup- porters into key policy positions. Rumsfeld became secretary of defense, and other participants in his space commission became top civilian appointees in the Pentagon. General Richard Myers, recently SPACECOM commander, was appointed chair of the JCS, thereby quieting, although not eliminating, resistance from those in the military who judged space weapon development to be a waste of money and a potential danger to space-based military support systems.76 The new appointees immediately proceeded to pursue the SPACECOM vision. Under their authority the United States withdrew from the ABM Treaty, ordered the deployment of a limited ground-based missile defense system, and expanded the development budget for a broad assortment of new military space capabilities.

The Bush administration took those actions in a manner that implicitly acknowledged that neither the technical capability nor the broad political consensus necessary to implement the vision had actually been achieved. The missile defense installations said to be deployed were exempted from development test requirements designed to demonstrate effectiveness, and informed assessments around the world generally doubt their actual capabilities. The administration did not issue its own space development plan for nearly six years. The National Space Policy finally released in October 2006 was framed by the adversarial outlook of the Rumsfeld Commission’s Report and the various SPACECOM planning documents, but it tried to project continuity by recycling vague language from the Clinton space policy document to describe the kinds of military space capabilities that the United States would develop.77 Because the Bush administration has generally been hostile to the Clinton legacy, the implication of the decision to use the Clinton National Space Policy for so long is that they are afraid to say clearly and authoritatively what pursuing the SPACECOM vision actually entails and how much of this project they have endorsed. The idea of space weapons is unpopular with the American public, and even the dedicated advocates are cautious about exposing their plans and programs to close scrutiny.78

The political ascendance of SPACECOM supporters has been coupled with a corresponding decline in the commercial space industry as an independent actor influencing U.S. space policy. Although the Bush presidential campaign pledged to make the U.S. export control process more rational and less restrictive, administration officials have zealously applied the tightened export restrictions and pursued costly legal actions against top U.S. satellite firms accused of violations. The commercial interests affected largely conceded the greater impediments imposed after discreet lobbying efforts to modify them proved ineffective. Industry executives have long been eager to avoid any allegation of pursuing profit to the detriment of national security, and that traditional deference was strengthened when assessments of commercial opportunity in space became more circumspect.

Partly as a result of the administration’s zeal and industry’s deference, the U.S. share of the commercial space market has substantially declined.79 A single satellite sale requires an average of nine separate licenses and four months of bureaucratic deliberation to secure necessary approval, and the outcome of any application is not assured even for transactions involving close allies.80 In response to chronic delays and uncertainties, traditional U.S. customers such as Arabsat, Telsat Canada, and Intelsat have begun to chose “ITAR-free” satellites from European suppliers—that is, ones that do not entangle them in U.S. export control regulation. U.S. firms have stopped bidding for contracts that might be problematic, such as a Korean satellite for military and civilian communications or any satellite for China. China has purchased six communications satellites from Europe and Israel and has begun selling an indigenous communications satellite to other developing countries.81 The U.S. share of global satellite manufacturing and launch revenues decreased from 60 percent in 1997 to 40 percent by 2006.82 The value of these contracts lost primarily due to ITAR regulations is estimated at between $2.5 and $6 billion dollars.83 Of the three leading firms in the U.S. space industry, Loral declared bankruptcy in 2003, and Boeing and Lockheed Martin decided to focus on U.S. government business rather than global commercial sales. An industrial base for eventual commercial expansion still exists in the United States and presumably would respond to unmistakably compelling opportunity, but its internal impulse has been sharply constrained, and its once dominant competitive advantage is being progressively diminished.

The public discussion accompanying these developments has been limited and has not as yet penetrated to the fundamental issues involved. The assertion of inevitable threat has been repeatedly proclaimed and occasionally reported along with what are said to be indicative incidents, but mitigating details have generally been omitted. One of the most persistent jamming problems was diplomatically resolved after it was determined that the Libyan jammers were trying to interfere with satellite phones used by smugglers and might not have understood that they were disrupting service to legitimate satellite phone users outside of Libya.84 References to Iraqi interference with U.S. satellite-based navigation systems during the 2003 invasion of Iraq rarely mentioned that Iraqi forces jammed U.S. military GPS receivers, not satellite signals, or that the jammers were destroyed without space weapons. Repeated assertions that a Chinese microsatellite is being developed for “parasitic” or “killer” purposes are based on a single independent and unsubstantiated source in China.85 China’s January 2007 test of a direct-ascent ASAT against an aging weather satellite is the most recent incident to be used as evidence that “the threat to our space security is real and growing.”86 This test showed the world that China now also has a capability that the United States demonstrated two decades ago, but the purpose of the Chinese program is no more clearly offensive or defensive than is the intent behind the more advanced U.S. ASAT development programs.87 The distinct possibility that pursuit of the SPACECOM vision would stimulate or exacerbate threats beyond those that would otherwise occur is rarely if ever acknowledged when inevitability is asserted.88

Similarly, facile analogies to more familiar environments are often used to increase comfort with the concept of space control. British control of the high seas is periodically cited to support the contention that the United States must rely on force rather than law to protect its freedom of access, but those who have advanced that argument have not been required to discuss either the differences between the space and ocean environments or the fact that ocean law has evolved since the mid-nineteenth century toward a progressively more codified and comprehensive legal regime.89 Similar appeals to “seize the high ground of space” ignore the technical fact that orbiting weapons would not offer significant and lasting advantages over less expensive and less vulnerable terrestrial alternatives for most military missions.90 While much of the current U.S. military advantage does come from using space-based information and communications assets more extensively than anyone else, that does not necessarily mean that a competition for military control of space is the most effective and efficient way to protect those assets and to minimize the chance of other states using similar capabilities for hos- tile purposes. In general in the American public discussion, tolerance for the expression of political attitude has not been accompanied by basic standards for substantive assessment.

After a half century of experience the original principle of strategic accommodation in space is in jeopardy. The legal instruments and operating rules that embody that principle have so far prevented any major dispute over space activity. But formal efforts to elaborate those rules have been blocked, primarily by an unresolved conflict between competing conceptions in the United States. As a result, the legacy regime remains incomplete and has been unable to adapt either to increasing commercial utilization or to the growing sophistication and consequence of military uses, especially by the United States. The consequences are not immediate, but they eventually could become serious. With intense advocates promoting a radical vision that will predictably be objectionable to most of the world, well-informed and broadly representative judgment must be brought to bear, and the full array of interests at stake must be examined with greater care than has yet occurred.


67. United States Space Command, Long Range Plan, 12.

68. National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2000, 106th Cong., 1st sess., 1999, S. Rep. 50, 346. See also Colin S. Gray and John B. Sheldon, "Space Power and the Revolution in Military Affairs," Aerospace Power Journal, Fall 1999, 23–38.

69. Pace, "Merchants and Guardians," 47–48.

70. White House, National Science and Technology Council, "Fact Sheet: National Space Policy," September 19, 1996, 5,

71. The funding was included in the FY1998 defense appropriations bill.

72. That this is an advocacy report, not a balanced assessment of the benefits, costs, and risks of different approaches to space security, is underscored by the commission's decision to compare the "opportunity costs of the status quo versus the advantages of making changes to better attain U.S. interests in space." Commission to Assess United States National Security Space Management and Organization (hereinafter referred to as the Rumsfeld Commission), Report of the Commission to Assess United States National Security Space Management and Organization, 2001, 6, report/2001/nssmo/index.html.

73. U.S. domestic politics, especially congressional efforts to impeach President Clinton, created an environment in which it was nearly impossible to reach agreement on a reasonable balance between trade benefits and security risks in the new export control rules. See Robert D. Lamb, "Satellites, Security, and Scandal: Understanding the Politics of Export Control," CISSM working paper, Center for International and Security Studies at Maryland, College Park, MD, January 2005, controls.pdf.

74. For a more detailed description of the export control process and its effects, see Joan Johnson-Freese, "Alice in Licenseland: U.S. Satellite Export Controls since 1990," Space Policy, August 2000, 195–204; and Joan Johnson-Freese, Space as a Strategic Asset (New York: Columbia University Press, 2007), 140–169.

75. Space cooperation with Russia has also been affected by the Iran Nonproliferation Act of 2000, which prevents U.S. payments to Russia in connection with the ISS unless the U.S. president determines that Russia is taking steps to prevent the proliferation of missile and other technology to Iran.

76. Although the loudest advocates for space weapons are in the Air Force Space Command, the rest of the Air Force leadership is generally not supportive. Dwayne Day summarized the reasons for their skepticism by noting that most space weapon proposals "do not abide by the laws of physics, few of them abide by the laws of bureaucratic and international affairs, and none of them abide by the laws of fiscal reality." Dwayne Day "General Power vs. Chicken Little," The Space Review, May 23, 2005, 5,

77. Although the document was signed by President Bush on August 31, 2006, the unclassified summary was not made public until 5 p.m. on October 6, 2006, the Friday before Columbus Day weekend. White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), "U.S. National Space Policy," August 31, 2006.

78. When asked various questions about competitive versus cooperative approaches to space security, overwhelming majorities of Americans consistently preferred strategic restraint. See Steven Kull, John Steinbruner, Nancy Gallagher, Clay Ramsay, and Evan Lewis, Americans and Russians on Space Weapons (College Park, MD: Program on International Policy Attitudes and Center for International and Security Studies at Maryland, 2007),

79. For a more general discussion of the effects that export control are having not only on the U.S. commercial space industry but also on space research at U.S. universities, the ISS, and the Moon/Mars initiative announced by President Bush in January 2004, see George Abbey and Neal Lane, U.S. Space Policy: Challenges and Opportunities (Cambridge, MA: American Academy of Arts and Sciences, 2005), spacePolicy.pdf.

80. James A. Lewis, Preserving America's Strength in Satellite Technology: A Report of the CSIS Satellite Commission (Washington, DC: Center for Strategic and International Studies, 2002),

81. Ryan Zelnio, "The Effects of Export Control on the Space Industry," The Space Review, January 16, 2006,

82. Futron Corporation, "State of the Satellite Industry" Report, June 2007, 15–16. The aver- age U.S. share of the global satellite communications market has dropped even more sharply from 83 percent to 50 percent since the export control changes.

83. The export control process has also imposed other costs on U.S. firms, including lost revenue in the satellite launch sector, $70,000 per day penalties for late satellite deliveries, and $46 million in fines for alleged export control violations. See Zelnio, "The Effects of Export Control on the Space Industry."

84. Peter de Selding, "Libya Pinpointed as Source of Months-Long Satellite Jamming in 2006," Space News, April 9, 2007,

85. Jeffrey Lewis, "Programs to Watch," Arms Control Today 34, no. 9 (November 2004): 12; and Jeffrey Lewis, "False Alarm on Foreign Capabilities," Arms Control Today 34, no. 9 (November 2004): 14–17.

86. The Chinese government has said little about the test other than that "the experiment was not directed at any country nor did it pose a threat to any country." SPACECOM supporters moved quickly to depict the test as a reason for the Bush administration to redouble efforts to achieve military space dominance, while proponents of cooperative security in space have used the test to underscore the need for new rules, especially about debris-generating ASATs. The best effort to date by Western analysts to understand why China con- ducted the test emphasizes technological and bureaucratic factors rather than a deliberate effort either to threaten U.S. satellites or to spur negotiations. See Gregory Kulacki and Jeffrey Lewis, "Understanding China's ASAT Test" (unpublished ms., 2007).

87. Another recent set of allegations about Chinese ASAT development had noteworthy parallels to claims about Russian lasers used in the late 1970s to increase support for U.S. ASAT work. During the final stages of congressional debate on the FY2007 defense authorization bill, which includes funding for U.S. military space programs, a Defense News article quoted several unnamed officials and experts who claimed that China had tested ground-based lasers against U.S. spy satellites. No substantiating evidence was offered, nor were enough details given to know whether any laser test that did occur was intended to "blind" electro-optical satellites or was for more benign purposes, such as satellite tracking. The article noted that White House officials who would be in a position to know the classified details decided not to include the strong form of these allegations in a recent DOD report on China's military capabilities, which contains only one sentence noting that China has a powerful laser that could be used to interfere with U.S. reconnaissance satellites. When questioned about the allegation, the director of the National Reconnaissance Office confirmed that at least one U.S. satellite had been illuminated but not damaged by a Chinese laser. The top U.S. military officer in charge of space also stated that the United States had no clear evidence that China had intentionally disrupted U.S. satellite capabilities. See Vago Muradian, "China Attempted to Blind U.S. Satellites with Lasers," Defense News, September 25, 2006; Warren Fester and Colin Clark, "NRO Confirms Chinese Laser Test Illuminated U.S. Spacecraft," Space News, October 2, 2006; and Elaine Grossman, "Top Commander:Chinese Interference with U.S. Satellites Uncertain," Inside the Pentagon, October 12, 2006.

88. For a fuller critique of the inevitability argument, see Karl P. Mueller, "Totem and Taboo: Depolarizing the Space Weapons Debate," in Space Weapons: Are They Needed? ed. John M. Logsdon and Gordon Adams (Washington, DC: George Washington University Space Policy Institute, 2003), 18–26.

89. The U.S. military strongly supports the Law of the Sea Convention because it sees worldwide acceptance of the treaty as a more efficient and reliable way to ensure freedom of navigation than bilateral agreements, customary law, or coercive power would be. See Nina Tannenwald, "Law versus Power on the High Frontier: The Case for a Rule-Based Regime for Outer Space," The Yale Journal of International Law 29, no. 2 (Summer 2004): 363–422.

90. Orbiting satellites provide a high vantage point from which one can see, communicate with, or attack a large swath of Earth, but unlike a hill or some other lofty terrain in con- tested territory, more than one country can use space for a high vantage point at the same time. A satellite gains no defensive advantage from being high: its visibility and predictable movement make it an easier target. Hurling weapons down from high altitudes also conveys no offensive advantage—instead of using gravity to lessen the energy costs of weapon delivery, a substantial amount of extra energy is needed to de-orbit a weapon and send it back to Earth. See David Wright, Laura Grego, and Lisbeth Gronlund, The Physics of Space Security (Cambridge, MA: The American Academy of Arts and Sciences, 2005), 11. On the relative merits of space-based weapons and other ways of performing the same military mission, see Bruce M. DeBlois, Richard L. Garwin, R. Scott Kemp, and Jeremy C. Marwell, "Space Weapons: Crossing the Rubicon," International Security 29, no. 2 (Fall 2004): 50–84; William L. Spacey II, "Assessing the Military Utility of Space-Based Weapons," Astropolitics 1, no. 3 (2003): 1–43, and Michael O'Hanlon, Neither Star Wars nor Sanctuary (Washington, DC: Brookings, 2004).