Reconsidering the Rules for Space Security

Trends of Utilization

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Nancy Gallagher and John David Steinbruner
Reconsidering the Rules of Space

The constructive purposes of primary interest—Earth observation, communication relay, and navigation—were initially developed in the context of super-power competition. Much of the extensive investment necessary to undertake space activities was originally provided by the superpowers’ defense budgets.1 The highest-priority U.S. satellites were for reconnaissance, and even the scientific space programs were initially more about prestige than research, intended to demonstrate the superiority of one system over the other. That initial investment, however, provided the basis for expanding both participants and purposes. By the end of 2007, around fifty countries, intergovernmental consortia, and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) have at least one satellite in space, mostly for reasons that have more to do with economic performance and Earth monitoring than with military applications.2 Satellite imagery and navigation services originally generated as by-products of military support have become integral to daily commercial activity, as have satellite-based communications services. Entrepreneurs exploring investment opportunities stimulate speculation that the primary sources of financing and the impetus for development could shift from government to private capital markets, as occurred in the computer industry some four decades ago. In principle, for example, a surge of demand for satellite broadband services or dramatic decreases in launch costs might generate the large capital flows and rapid product cycles characteristic of global markets.

Despite the apparent potential, however, these changing patterns of space utilization have not yet lived up to predictions made in the late 1990s that market forces would overwhelm military factors in shaping investment choices, technology development, and regulatory rules. Steep U.S. funding increases for military space acquisition undertaken since 2001 mean that the U.S. defense budget still provides the single largest source of investment in space, and that investment would have to be increased substantially more if the stated aspiration of military dominance were to be seriously pursued. The ever-increasing number of countries, companies, NGOs, and individuals who see space as playing a vital role in the realization of their hopes for a better future are, however, unlikely to be content to let the United States decide who should use space for what purpose.

If global market dynamics were to emerge, the context of policy would be substantially altered. Large-scale commercial investment almost certainly would depend on elaboration of the existing legal regime along lines that would be incompatible with a competition for military dominance. The natural hazards of space operations would alone require more advanced protective regulation, especially to control the accumulation of debris in the more important operating orbits, and the possibility of deliberate interference would have to be addressed as well. A sustained American effort to dominate space would create a potentially strong incentive for the strategically disadvantaged to use commercial assets as hostages to fend off intimidation and even to force accommodation. One can debate how likely that would be, but prudent investors predictably would require explicit legal reassurance.

In general, it is reasonable to prepare for a more extensive and more penetrating debate over space policy as a means of engaging the yet more fundamental issues of international security generally. What follows is an effort to encourage that preparation by reviewing the relevant history, by assessing the viability of the dominance concept, and by exploring constructive alternatives.


1. Since the establishment of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) in 1958, U.S. government spending on space activities per se has usually been roughly equally divided between NASA and DOD, with NASA somewhat higher during the campaign to put an astronaut on the moon, and DOD somewhat higher during the Reagan and George W. Bush administrations. These figures, however, do not include the large investment that DOD made during the 1950s and 1960s in ballistic missile technology that could be adapted for space launch or anti-satellite purposes. Historical budget data through fiscal year (FY) 2005 are in Appendix D-1A of the Aeronautics and Space Report of the President: Fiscal Year 2005 Activities, 101,

2. The precise number depends on the counting rules used. The Union of Concerned Scientists' satellite database is available online at space_weapons/satellite_database.html.