Director Alfonso Cuarón’s latest film, Gravity is a sci-fi thriller about a lone astronaut fighting to live where “life is impossible.” Following a Russian missile strike against an aging spy satellite that shreds the American space shuttle and its crew, protagonist and mission scientist Sandra Bullock struggles to evade a predictable but lethal field of orbiting debris. Cuarón’s story dramatizes a stark future – one in which nations vie to control the cosmos and in doing so make life on earth as we know it considerably harder. Gravity makes an implicit argument about the folly of space dominance: operating in space is hard enough so why make it harder by testing and using kinetic kill anti-satellite (ASAT) weapons?
The Gravity of the Situation
Freedom of action in space is essential not only to the American way of war but to the American way of life. Everything from theater missile defense to Facebook relies on satellites high above that beam signals back and forth to Earth. Despite the importance of these assets, at no time since it first placed satellites into orbit in 1958 has the United States enjoyed space dominance. The Soviets acquired ASAT capabilities early in the space race (albeit it by heavenly nuclear detonations) and even now, the U.S. is dependent on Russia to ferry astronauts to and from the International Space Station. As an interest “vital to U.S. national security,” it is important to determine under what conditions the United States can achieve – or to many, maintain – dominance in space. (For a hardnosed view of U.S. space policy, see the 2006 National Space Policy, which calls for the denial of space to adversaries.) American space policy, sometimes out of the limelight, is growing even more important. Other nations are growing their capabilities to access space including China, which is also intensifying its investment in anti-satellite weaponry. America’s strategic advantage is eroding.
Conditions for Space Dominance
Given this challenge from China and the proliferation of space programs around the world, is space dominance even a feasible goal? For the U.S. (or any state) to dominate space, one or a combination of three conditions must exist. The first condition requires the U.S. to develop offensive and defensive capabilities so insurmountable as to dissuade competitors from attempting to access space. Unfortunately, history has shown that dissuasion only works against states disinclined or incapable of competing in the first place. Great powers like the United States and China, which landed its first lunar rover on the surface of the moon last December, are inexorably drawn into competition with one another. Beijing’s plans to complete its own space station by 2020 demonstrate that it is not dissuaded by enormous American capability.
The second condition is a change in priorities by a competitor away from space. Economic turmoil and consequent social unrest could cause the Chinese Communist Party to turn inward, but there is no reason to believe that economic problems would result in a more restrained Chinese foreign policy. It is equally likely that a strife-ridden China would deflect popular enmity toward a neighbor, pursuing a more aggressive foreign policy to boost support for ruling elites’ priorities.
The third condition is an American willingness to deny competitors access to space by attacking targets on the ground including anti-satellite weapons, satellites and their delivery vehicles, and launch pads. The U.S. has demonstrated a willingness to take preventive action against second-order adversaries like Iraq, but the uncertainty of preventive strikes against China would give American military planners pause. As former Secretary Robert Gates expressed in his memoir, war is “tragic, inefficient, and uncertain.” Moreover, it is highly questionable that the American people would support such a provocative and costly endeavor.
American Policy Options
Absent these conditions and given the immense importance of space access, what are American policymakers to do? The United States may choose from one of three policy options: it can do nothing and countenance the continued erosion of the American position; it can pursue space dominance despite its requirement of preventive war; or it can pursue a more modest goal of space superiority, remaining, as scholars Gene Milowicki and Joan Johnson-Freese write, “first among many.”
The Easy (and Costly) Option: Do Nothing
Were the U.S. to take no action at all, China would continue to access space and grow its capability, undermining American strategic advantage. Moreover, space situational awareness would remain limited leaving U.S. satellites extremely vulnerable. Without improving the resilience of its satellites or demonstrating the ability to hold adversary satellites at risk, the U.S. position would continue to diminish. This course is unacceptable because it leaves American satellites at risk without stabilizing the relative decline of the United States’ strategic advantage.
The Scary (and Costly) Option: Space Dominance
If denying adversaries access to space is truly essential to the American way of war and life, then Washington should pursue a strategy that establishes space dominance. By combining immense offensive capabilities with a willingness to strangle the baby in the crib, the United States can temporarily achieve dominance in space. This strategy would require offensive weapons in space to destroy deployed space-based assets as well as robust land-based anti-satellite weapons.
Such a course of action is counterproductive. If the United States were to engage in preventive action and initiate war over space, it would invite the very anti-satellite attacks the United States wishes to avoid. (Even more pernicious is the cheapness of ASAT missiles relative their very expensive targets.) To recover from such attacks, the United States would need to reinvigorate its satellite manufacturing infrastructure and space technology sector to ensure it can easily replace disabled or destroyed space assets, a costly venture.
A policy of space hegemony would also require some sort of action against friendly space-faring nations such as Japan and India as well as coalitions of states like the European Union. While Europe and Japan already closely cooperate with the United States in space, it is unlikely that these allies would willingly surrender their space programs or subordinate them to American control. Even if the United States chose to eschew preventive action, the presence of offensive weapons would create dangerous spirals of hostility fraught with inadvertent escalation. The pursuit of space dominance is thus far too costly and unsustainable, requiring perpetual wars for perpetual dominance.
The Way Forward: Space Superiority
Through a combination of deterrence and defense, a policy in pursuit of space superiority would allow other states to access space and use it for military purposes while preserving the sizable strategic advantage the United States currently enjoys. To strengthen deterrence, the United States must signal the capability to hold space infrastructure aloft and on the ground at risk by testing non-kinetic kill weapons and periodically dazzling (temporarily blinding) Chinese satellites. Additionally, as Chinese reliance on space assets increases, the U.S. will be able to hold more of China’s satellites at risk, thus strengthening deterrence.
In addition to developing the capability to hold space assets at risk, the United States must better defend its own satellites, making them more resilient and agile while diminishing the benefits of an attack. Better maneuverability would give satellites a fighting chance of survival, but adding the additional fuel necessary to execute defensive maneuvers quickly increases the weight of satellites and the cost of launching them. Forrest Morgan refers to this limitation as the “tyranny of orbital mechanics.” Until better propulsion and materials technology exists, improved maneuverability will remain a long-term goal. Other improvements, especially to civilian satellites, involve hardening against directed energy weapons and anti-jamming capabilities. Vulnerable commercial space assets provide 80 percent of the bandwidth required for military missions and unlike their military counterparts, civilian satellites have little in terms of hardening.
Moreover, the U.S. must disperse its capabilities across multiple satellites and platforms including those of friendly nations. A ready reserve of deployable satellites as well as high-altitude unmanned aerial vehicles would replace lost capability immediately following an attack as well as deter an attack in the future by lowering the expected gains of aggression. Furthermore, by using multinational satellites the U.S. can deter an adversary from attacking for fear of drawing other nations into a conflict unintentionally.
Finally, to further strengthen its ability to deter attacks and defend satellites, the United States should improve space situational awareness (SSA), which, according to Forrest Morgan, is the ability to track and understand what objects are in orbit and their capabilities. According to a Government Accountability Office report, situational awareness in space remains limited despite halting attempts at improvement. Enhanced space situational awareness would yield better management and operation of satellites as well as discernment of attacks from accidents. Similar to air traffic control, better SSA requires more land-based radar and optical telescopes, as well as space-based visible optical telescopes to track the 22,000 active and dead satellites, junk, and debris.
A Fault Not in Our Stars
Contrary to the opinion of many analysts, the United States has never enjoyed space dominance and the conditions for such dominance are unlikely to exist in the future. The ability to dissuade competitors from attempting to access space, the loss of interest in space coupled with a change in policy by competitors, and the willingness to take preventive action to deny competitors access are all necessary conditions for dominance in space. Rather than attempting to create those conditions, a strategy that would likely lead to escalation and spirals of hostility, the U.S. should pursue a more modest goal of space superiority, which combines elements of deterrence and defense. Such a policy provides the best chance of stabilizing the decline of American strategic advantage in space and preserves the American ways of life and war. Life in space is impossible; why make it harder?
Travis C. Stalcup is a CSIS Nuclear Scholars Initiative fellow and a defense policy analyst in Arlington, VA.