Reconsidering the Rules for Space Security


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Nancy Gallagher and John David Steinbruner
Reconsidering the Rules of Space

A logical first step in the process of examination is to consider the ultimate feasibility of the concept of military space dominance. If the original judgment about space operations is wrong and decisive dominance is possible, then significant questions of equity assuredly will be posed. If space cannot be physically controlled as originally assumed, then the vision is ultimately doomed to fail, and comparably significant questions arise about the consequences of pursuing that vision. The contending perspectives have conflicting assessments of feasibility that are not likely to be resolved until the fundamental issues are themselves resolved. And because the leading edge of technical accomplishment is obscured by security classification, even the most detached public assessment is subject to some uncertainty. The question of feasibility, however, is largely a matter of relative cost—in particular the price of acquiring the capability to control access to space as compared to the price of denying that capability. Likewise evident is that the proponents of dominance should in principle be asked to carry the burden of proof—that is, to demonstrate that dominance could be acquired at tolerable cost. The natural and apparently compelling presumption is otherwise.

That presumption can reasonably be reversed, however, if the capability in question is not supreme mastery of space but rather a superior ability to use space for forceful intrusion on Earth. Exercising absolute space dominance would depend on the ability to prevent the successful insertion into Earth orbit of any unauthorized object or the unauthorized use of any space asset while assuring orbital access and subsequent operation for those that are authorized. Categorical control of that sort has not been possible up to this point and, as realized from the outset of the space age, is inherently unlikely for technical reasons. Support for highly intrusive military missions is already well advanced, however, with apparently substantial scope for improvement in the ability to identify specific targets and to attack them as they are observed.

No current or imminent capability to attack targets from space exists, and, as also originally realized, such capability remains unlikely for technical reasons. Nonetheless, observation, communications, and navigation services from space are integral to the emerging ability to conduct precise, finely timed intrusive missions, and a substantially enhanced capacity to undertake such missions is a likely result of pursuing the SPACECOM vision even if absolute dominance cannot be achieved. To the extent that intrusive capability is developed and displayed, dominance will predictably be contested.