Reconsidering the Rules for Space Security

Overall Assessment

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Nancy Gallagher and John David Steinbruner
Reconsidering the Rules of Space

With cost, inherent difficulty and limited program progress all considered, it seems evident that the SPACECOM vision of dominance cannot meet the bur- den of proof to which it should be subjected. Likewise, the laws of orbital dynamics create complex tradeoffs among altitude, number of satellites, capability, weight, and cost that have not been realistically assessed either by the advocates of space dominance or those parts of the U.S. political system charged with analytical oversight and budgetary responsibility. Satellites designed to perform advanced missions are generally visible, fragile, and expensive, making them vulnerable to interference at a fraction of the cost and technical expertise needed to build, launch, and operate them. The traditional U.S. preference for some degree of mutual strategic restraint in space reflected the fact that offense is inherently easier than defense in space, so valuable, vulnerable satellites will benefit from organized protection against deliberate attack or inadvertent interference. But organized protection requires rules that are equitable and mutually beneficial, not a lopsided competition to use space for unilateral national advantage.

The current U.S. disinterest in equitable rules assumes that the United States will be able to outspend and out-innovate all potential rivals in space by such a large margin that the benefits of seeking full-spectrum space dominance will outweigh the added costs of using military means to protect U.S. and friendly space systems against asymmetrical attacks. No plausible multiple of current U.S. military space spending, however, is likely to produce 1) a space radar constellation that can track moving targets; 2) a revolutionary approach to space launch that can put satellites of many different sizes into space on short notice at a fraction of the current cost; 3) a constellation of space-based boost-phase missile defense interceptors; and 4) all the other capabilities needed for total space dominance. Nor is the expectation that commercial space will expand enough for the U.S. government to achieve SPACECOM’s ambitions without investing huge sums of its own money realistic so long as export controls stifle international trade and the military remains the U.S. space industry’s largest customer.

The more likely outcome of a sustained U.S. effort to dominate space for national military advantage is that incremental advances in U.S. capabilities will increase pressure on other countries to react by emulating, offsetting, or restraining the United States. So far, Russia and China have made the most visible moves related to these response options, simultaneously trying to improve their own space-based military support systems, to explore asymmetrical ways to neutralize advantages that the U.S. military gets or could gain from superior space capabilities, and to start PAROS negotiations. Each response strategy has serious costs and risks, and it is doubtful that either country has yet made a decisive choice. Foreign speculation about external reasons for the Chinese ASAT test place differing degrees of emphasis on alter- native response strategies by assuming that the objective is to deter U.S. attacks on Chinese satellites, to negate the U.S. information advantage in a regional conflict, or to underscore the risks that all space users will face if military activities continue to expand without additional rules.

The longer the United States rebuffs international pressure to restore strategic restraint, the further other countries are likely to go in their efforts to emulate or offset U.S. military space activities, making space a much more expensive and dangerous place to operate than it currently is. The United States could probably sustain its technological lead and budgetary advantage for decades, but the U.S. military space acquisition program appears to have passed the point of diminishing returns, whereas other countries could still make significant advances in their military space capabilities for some fraction of what the United States is spending. The number of satellites needing protection keeps increasing, but offensive and dual-use space technologies are advancing and spreading faster than purely defensive ones are. Thus, if U.S. space dominance is defined in relative rather than absolute terms and likely counterreactions are considered, even the less ambitious form of the SPACECOM vision appears increasingly unattractive.

Ineffectual pursuit of military space dominance carries high opportunity costs. At the most basic level, the U.S. attitude has hindered efforts to develop strong international rules to minimize space debris, manage space traffic, and allocate orbital slots in GEO.207 The U.S. attitude has been a major obstacle to the most efficient and equitable approach to space-based navigation services—a single system operated as a global public utility with decision- making control shared among international partners. The U.S. position currently also precludes any realistic strategy for truly transformational uses of space. A system of remote sensing satellites that could provide comprehensive, detailed, and continuous coverage of the Earth could be immensely valuable for information-based strategies to address emerging global security problems, including the possibility of catastrophic climate disruption. Owens and Nye observed a decade ago that the uncontested acquisition of this type of capability required a strategic purpose with widespread legitimacy.208 Given a better understanding that the number and cost of the necessary satellites are beyond the reach of even the richest individual country and that the global commercial space industry will not spontaneously produce this type of capability any time soon, the only way to achieve a qualitative change in space-based information will be through close and committed cooperation with other space-faring countries.209

In short, the prospects for establishing decisive U.S. military control of space are too poor for that to be a reliable basis for security, and the provocation emanated to the rest of the world is too serious for unrestrained exploration to be indefinitely tolerable. Unrealistic zealotry on this topic promises to induce threats to U.S. space assets that otherwise would not exist. The ability of the U.S. government and indeed of the entire political system to impose appropriate analytic discipline is an unavoidable test of competence not yet passed. A minimum criterion for meeting that test is to subject the vision of dominance to active competition from an alternative conception based on the legacy of strategic restraint and equitable legal rules appropriate to a global security environment in which a wide range of states and nonstate actors have both the capability and the strong determination to use space for a continually expanding array of purposes. is primarily a “conceptual and organizational framework” to encourage and coordinate the exchange of data from existing and future national remote sensing assets. The implementation plan includes no commitments for new satellites, no implementation body with any legal authority, and no mandatory financial contributions. The plan is available at


207. In June 2007, COPUOS approved debris mitigation guidelines, including a recommendation to avoid "the intentional destruction of any on-orbit spacecraft and launch vehicle orbital stage or other activities that generate long-lived debris." These guidelines are useful, but nonbinding. They are available at "U.N. Space Debris Mitigation Guidelines," For those interested in voluntary space coordination to minimize inadvertent risks, the next objective is to avoid collisions between space objects by improving space situational awareness, developing common rules of the road, and devising procedures to avert or handle dangerous incidents.

208. Nye and Owens, "America's Information Edge."

209. A modest step in this direction was taken with the February 2005 agreement on a ten-year implementation plan for the Global Earth Observation System of Systems (GEOSS). The plan includes a vision of comprehensive and sustained Earth observations in order to help alleviate suffering and enhance well-being but includes no discussion of security applications except in the context of disaster management and sustainable agriculture. GEOSS