American Control of Outer Space
in the
Third Millennium

John Pike
November 1998

Space operations are emerging as the one of the distinctive attributes of the sole remaining superpower. While a few other countries conduct military, civil or commercial space programs of some significance, no country can meaningfully contest American dominance of any of these sectors, and surely no other country could rival American dominance of the full spectrum of space operations.

This full-spectrum dominance is both the hallmark and the instrumentality of American superpower. The United States currently conducts space launches at an average rate of roughly one each week, as many as the rest of humanity combined. And space activities are central to a diverse range of American global management strategies, ranging from the expansion of international telecommunications to non-proliferation policy and regional peacemaking operations.

The Russian space program is but a pale shadow of that of the Soviet Union, with annual flight rates having declined from 125 a each year in the late 1980s to no more than roughly two dozen annual launches recently. Modest success in the international commercial launch services market cannot compensate for the virtual collapse of scientific missions, and the visible weakness of the Russian piloted spaceflight effort is mirrored in substantial though less widely appreciated retrenchment in national security programs. And while Europe, Japan, India, and China have achieved varying degrees of success in commercial and scientific space activities, their piloted spaceflight and national security space activities are dwarfed by those of even Russia, and are entirely incomparable to those of the United States. Israel, Brazil and a few other countries remain barely on the threshold of space.

While the national security arena - intelligence and military space operations - is surely the clearest domain of American preponderance, before turning in this direction it is instructive to contemplate the other domains of space activity, as they both illuminate the context for national security operations and sources of American power, and illustrate the comprehensive scope of American dominance of outer space at the threshold of the new millennium.

The commercial space sector is both the largest and most dynamic of the three segments of American space activities. The civil space program - largely that of NASA - is currently funded at some $14 billion annually, a figure which has declined by a few billion dollars with the end of the Cold War. The precise size of the national security sector is more difficult to calculate, due to both problems of definition and security classification. By any accounting national security space activities are surely less than $20 billion annually, some estimates would place the figure at less than the budget of NASA, and by all accounts these figures represent a substantial decrement from the Cold War peak of the mid-1980s.

The bounds of the scope of the commercial space sector are even less precise, but by almost any definition this sector is at least as large as either of the others, and by some estimates significantly larger than both combined. Having sustained average annual growth rates of roughly 10% for the past two decades, the miracle of compound interest has inexorably propelled commercial space activities to the forefront of the American space agenda.

The distinguishing attribute of superpower is dominant, if not hegemonic, presence in all major domains of activity, and commercial space operations are surely central to American superpower.

American cultural forms and institutions have achieved hegemonic presence throughout the world, sustained by the pervasive presence of "English" as the de facto world language. Though supplemented by other transmission media, global satellite communications are the carrier of the American way of life to the most distant corners of the globe. American media conglomerates, American telecommunications companies and American communications satellite manufacturers are both the instruments and the beneficiaries of the inexorable enlargement of the networked information society.

Illustrating the synergy of full-spectrum superpower, American dominance of the commercial satellite communications market is in no small measure a consequence of the scope of American civil and national security space operations. Despite post-Cold War downturns, these two sectors combined generate an annual cash-flow that rivals the entire military budgets of all but a handful of countries. This in turn creates an enormous captive domestic market for American space hardware companies, providing [at least potentially] unbeatable economies of scale when confronting international competitors. The persistent failure of Japan to repeat the successes in the automotive and electronics sectors has been largely due to the minuscule captive domestic market for spacecraft and launchers, a fate which Europe has only barely escaped.

In contrast, when Hughes offered the new HS-601 communications satellite, it could start its production line with an order for ten of the spacecraft for the Navy's UFO program [not the flying saucer, but the UHF Follow-On]. Similarly, the Boeing and LockMart space launch programs have already benefitted from a billion dollar Air Force investment in the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle Program, and will derive future comfort from several dozen civil and military launches each year. Contrary to conventional wisdom, expendable launch vehicles are plagued by the high-fixed cost / low-variable cost structure that has been the bane of the Space Shuttle program - and that has been the secret of the success of such winner-take-all high technology companies as Intel and Microsoft. Amortizing development and startup costs over US government purchases, American space companies are uniquely privileged in the international marketplace.

One hand washes the other. American commercial space dominance in turn provides a variety of unique opportunities in the national security arena. As the Navstar Global Positioning System has become the de facto international standard for precision navigation services, the United States has been in a position to shape the worldwide availability of such services, in the absence of competing systems. The Russian Glonass system remains perpetually incomplete, and other countries appear to have abandoned thoughts of building their own navigation satellite constellations.

American policy appears set upon replicating the Navstar model in the [slowly] emerging arena of "high" resolution commercial imagery satellite systems. More properly termed "medium resolution," these new space systems will offer near-realtime imagery with approximately one meter resolution, roughly ten times superior to that of prior low-resolution remote sensing systems such as SPOT and LANDSAT, though roughly ten times inferior to the best classified American intelligence satellite systems. As with any power tool, these long-awaited commercial spy satellites promise both opportunity and danger, in direct proportion to the power of the tool. The opportunity lies in the prospect that any financially solvent purchaser can acquire imagery of [almost] any spot on Earth for the marginal cost of the image, rather than having to pay the full cost of the satellite system as the price of getting the first image, a barrier to entry that has kept the spy-satellite club more exclusive than the nuclear weapons club. The danger, obviously, is that the commercial availability of this imagery could place this powerful military planning tool in the "wrong" hands, however that may be defined. American policy is predicated on the notion that, just as Intel and Microsoft dominate their respective information economy market segments, American commercial imagery companies will effectively preempt the emergence of competitors from other countries. This would enable the United States to define the terms under which this imagery is kept from the "wrong" hands, be those hands Iraqi at all times, or the news media in times of US military operations.

Similar cross-sectoral synergies should be evident in the civil space arena, which is largely dominated by NASA's Space Shuttle and International Space Station activities.

During the Cold War the United States and the Soviet Union found the space race to be a cost effective and relatively safe companion to the arms race in the contest for international prestige. The two contending social systems each took concrete and manifest steps to bolster their claims to the Mandate of Heaven. From the first flight of Yuri Gagarin to the recovery from the Challenger accident, piloted spaceflight remained essentially a political rather than scientific enterprise, with both Washington and Moscow keenly appreciative of the extent to which a reputation for power could complement or even supplant the rather more expensive and hazardous substance of power.

With the end of the Cold War, the intimate intercourse between cosmonauts and astronauts reversed valence, with cooperation replacing competition with only slightly more incongruence than the new yet pre-existing alliance of Oceania with Eurasia in Orwell's "1984." Moving beyond the uncertainty of the Bush interlude, Clinton and Yeltsin quickly appreciated that cooperation in piloted spaceflight was the most visible means at hand to assert the reality of the end of the Cold War, and to substantiate the proposition that America and Russia were partners not adversaries.

From the Russian perspective, the partnership in space was a means of visibly asserting that a diminished geopolitical reach had not entirely reduced the standing of Moscow in the global pecking order. And from the American perspective, the space partnership was instrumental in obtaining initial Russian adherence to the Missile Technology Control Regime, and more generally to efforts to keep Russian rocket scientists in Russia and out of less savory corners of the globe. This counterpart to Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction efforts focused on strategic weapons programs has been generally - though far from completely - effective in stanching the anticipated hemorrhage of rocket technology and expertise from the former Soviet Union.

Again reflecting the synergy of full-spectrum superpower, this containment process was further aided by commercial alliances between American and Russian space enterprises, largely though not exclusively in the field of launch vehicles. American launch companies gained access to relatively inexpensive launch vehicles, courtesy persistent purchasing power disparities between the rouble and the dollar, as well as the use of new rocket engines developed at the expense of the former Evil Empire. And American communications satellite companies benefitted from the introduction of additional competition in the international launch services marketplace, which shifted revenue opportunities from launchers [such as the European Ariane] to the [American] spacecraft manufacturers.

The practical successes of this largely unheralded counter-proliferation initiative have not been complemented by rhetorical celebration or analytical exegesis. The multifold national security benefits have remained a tacit rather than explicit rationale for the space partnership between America and Russia. NASA has remained since the early years of its formation singularly bereft of an institutional capacity for articulating the policy rationales for its programs. And NASA is singularly disinclined to assert rationales that extend beyond self-evident scientific or commercial goals into the foreign policy and national security arena, however central these larger rationales may be to sustaining its efforts.

The effective abolition of the National Space Council by the incoming Clinton Administration deprived the United States of a central integrative institution for the tripartite American space program, and no other entity has assumed the burden of claiming credit for these diverse successes. The Office of Science and Technology Policy, which in theory was the legal successor to the National Space Council, did emit a new National Space Policy on the eve of the 1996 election. But this document was largely an incremental extension of previous National Space Policy directives, consisting of little more than the aggregation of the institutional interests of the commercial, civil and national security sectors -- as is the nature of such high-level policy documents.

The post-Cold War space policy innovations of the Clinton Administration should not be underestimated. The civil space program nimbly jumped from competing with the Soviet Union to cooperating with Russia. The development of the commercial space sector has been encouraged, and the convergence of national security programs with civil and commercial activities represents a decisive departure from prior practice. The well-known fact of the existence of space based intelligence systems has been officially acknowledged, and at least some progress has been made toward the elimination of excessive classification of associated programs and institutions.

Creative development of commercial and civil space programs in the service of American national security interests has not been matched by equally creative guidance to the explicitly national security programs of the military space community. The institutional deficiencies in policy formulation at the White House and NASA extend to the military space community, which struggled to find appropriate institutional expression during the Cold War, and has yet to find appropriate post-Cold War arrangements.

Indeed, the pace of technological and programmatic innovation in the military space arena has increasingly out-paced doctrinal and institutional development. Largely unappreciated outside the confines of the military space community, the United States is on the verge of a broadly based transformation of military space assets that will provide significant enhancements to existing capabilities.

+ The handful of Defense Support Program early warning satellites that provided missile launch detection and warning during the Cold War, and during the Gulf War, are soon to be replaced by the Space Based Infrared System [SBIRS], which will consist of an armada of vastly more capable spacecraft in a variety of orbits around the earth.

+ The Global Broadcast Service will supplement existing military communications satellites, providing unprecedented wideband connectivity for the dissemination of imagery intelligence and other information products to previously under-served users.

+ The Discoverer-II component of the National Reconnaissance Office's Future Imagery Architecture will replace the existing pair of imaging radar satellites with a swarm of some two dozen radar-equipped spacecraft that will provide all-weather round-the-clock world-wide imagery intelligence support to combatant military forces.

These and other upgrades will further expand upon current programs that already represent major improvements relative those fielded during the Cold War. The handful of imagery intelligence satellites in current operation is capable of generating thousands of images each day, compared to the hundreds of images provided by the pair of imagery intelligence satellites that were typically operational during the Cold War. And the military space user community has expanded multifold, with capabilities previously restricted to theater command posts now available to individual pilots and troops in the field.

Modern precision warfare is largely an artifact of the system of systems represented by the combined utilization of intelligence collection, communications, navigation, and other military space systems. Many other countries deploy tanks, ships, and aircraft that are not individually inferior to those deployed by the United States, though surely in less abundance. But no other country has the unique ability of the United States to tie all these individual platforms together, using military space systems, into a single integrated precision warfare system. While some have questioned the advent of a Revolution in Military Affairs, and many have contested its precise nature, few would doubt that American military space systems provide a broad range of military capabilities that are unmatched by any other country.

A further extension of these capabilities is envisioned through the development and deployment of a variety of "Space Control" systems, capable of damaging or destroying adversary spacecraft:

+ For some years now the Army has quietly worked on perfecting the anti-satellite [ASAT] capabilities of the Mid-Infrared Advanced Chemical Laser [MIRACL] deployed a the High Energy Laser System Test Facility [HELSTF] in White Sands, New Mexico. In the fall of 1997 this two-megawatt laser was tested against a target in space, with uncertain results, and subsequently tracking tests have continued to perfect the ability of this system to track, and destroy, adversary spacecraft.

+ The Army has also continued work, with Congressional support prevailing over the Clinton Administration's opposition, on a Kinetic Energy ASAT that would consist of a ground launched rocket booster that would propel a hit-to-kill kinetic energy kill vehicle capable of destroying adversary spacecraft in low earth orbit. A few dozen such interceptors may become operational within the next few years.

+ It is also believed that the Air Force has an unacknowledged capability to inflict lethal damage on adversary spacecraft using a high-power microwave weapon, possibly located at Kirtland Air Force Base in New Mexico.

Within a few years, there is the prospect of additional ASAT capabilities entering the American arsenal:

+ National Missile Defense ground based interceptors, which may become operational around the year 2005, would have an ASAT capability.

+ The Air Force YAL-1 Airborne Laser, which would appear to have an ASAT potential comparable to that of the MIRACL laser, is also slated for operational deployment after 2005.

+ The Air Force Space Based Chemical Laser, with an initial launch planned soon after 2005, would seem an ideal candidate for ASAT applications, since explicit anti-missile applications appear constrained by current interpretations of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty.

Technical challenges at the device level should not be underestimated, as demonstrated by the dismal performance of missile defense systems over the past decade, ranging from Patriot to THAAD.. But just as these failures have not dampened the political enthusiasm for missile defense, questions of effectiveness have been largely absent from discussions of the ASAT armamentarium.

It is far easier to describe these systems, or explain their genesis, than to explicate scenarios in which they would materially contribute to advancing American national security interests, however defined. In no small measure the drift towards ASAT abundance is simply an expression of the technological and programmatic inertia of systems initiated to counter the Evil Empire. Reflecting the relative ease with which satellites can be destroyed, none of these programs is so large as to induce high-level political sticker shock, but none is so small as to be devoid of a coterie of nurturing political patrons tending to their care and feeding.

The antiseptic Revolution in Military Affairs notwithstanding, the profession of arms remains the old art of killing people and breaking their things. Military institutions, and their paths of professional advancement, give pride of place to those versed in the way of combat. The deployment of ASAT systems would at last give the military space community a direct combat role in addition to the extremely valuable but distinctly subordinate combat support role they have traditionally performed. It is no accident that top military command is the province of combat veterans, rather than the console-jockeys who "drive" communications satellites, or that the United States Space Command is invariably commanded by a former fighter pilot with no prior exposure to the arcana of military space operations.

Doctrinal imperatives provide additional sanction to the primal desire for pride of place. In its successful attempt at the dawn of the space age to retain control of military space systems, the Air Force asserted the doctrinal construct of "Aerospace Power." According to Aerospace Power Doctrine, air and space are a single indivisible medium for military operations, and space operations represent a direct and logical extension of air operations. This doctrinal construct served to keep most [but not all] space assets out of the hands of the other [ground, sea and shore] military services. It also served to keep space in the Air Force, which had so recently used Airpower Doctrine to legitimate its separation from the Army.

The years have not been kind to Aerospace Power Doctrine, which has failed to generate much in the way of useful guidance or direction to military space operations. The most useful military spacecraft have performed intelligence, communications, or other support functions which occupy a distinctly subordinate place in the doctrinal universe. And those military capabilities which were so prominent in the evolution of Airpower Doctrine, such as strategic bombardment, air superiority, or close air support, have yet to find physical expression in space systems.

Indeed, over time, it has become increasingly apparent that the fundamental premise of Aerospace Power Doctrine, the unity of the air and space environment, is physically flawed. The operational conditions and possibilities of air and space are radically different, and this difference finds concrete expression in the physical configuration of air and space vehicles. Indeed, the most successful space vehicles, ranging from the spherical Sputnik to the ungainly module that took Neil and Buzz to Tranquility Base, have been utterly unlike aircraft. And those space vehicles that have appeared most like aircraft, such as the Space Shuttle, have been among the most disappointing.

But hope spring eternal, and the doctrinal imperatives of Aerospace Power mandate that space forces acquire combat capabilities to match those of the Air Force, such as those embodied in anti-satellite weapons.

In recent years the debate over the Revolution in Military Affairs has given prominence to the widely abused construct of Information Warfare, which has been taken to encompass a diversity of activities, some of greater actual importance than others. Properly understood as the art of sustaining information superiority over an adversary through dominant battlespace awareness, Information Warfare closely approximates many of the distinguishing features of the contemporary American military advantage relative to others. This dominant battlespace awareness is largely a product of military space systems and closely kindred capabilities. Consequently, Information Warfare provides a rather more useful doctrinal point of departure for conceptualizing military space operations than the tenets of Air Power. Recognition of this fact, however, would also provide an equally useful point of departure of the military space role from the Air Force into a new separate Space Force.

Freed from the sterile doctrinal imperatives of Air Power, such a Space Force would readily recognize the profound dis-utility of robust ASAT capabilities in sustaining American preeminence in military space operations. Proponents of American ASAT programs have had some difficulty pointing to just precisely which satellites they would wish to attack. The canonical "rogue state" threats - the Irans and Iraqs of the world - currently lack space capabilities and are unlike to develop worthwhile targets for many years to come. Even Communist China, which has recently enjoyed something of a renaissance on the threat board, has declined to deploy military space systems in any appreciable quantity. And Russia is too recently departed from the enemies list to return as the baseline planning threat.

These challenges would not confront an ASAT proponent in Iraq, or China. The sole remaining superpower presents an extremely target-rich environment of expensive and relatively fragile spacecraft upon which it has become entirely dependent for the conduct of the full spectrum of military operations. Rather than seeking to match American military space systems and provide targets for American ASAT weapons, it is far more likely that these and other countries would seek asymmetric responses in the form of their own ASAT capabilities. Thus it is not surprising that prior to the Gulf War Iraq was studying ASAT weapons, and that China has recently been reported be engaged in similar inquiries.

There is, however, little prospect for the emergence of a separate Space Force, coequal with the other military services. Even the modest proposal of creating distinct budget and institutional arrangements for the military service's space activities, along the lines of those that have worked so well for special operations forces, has fallen into obscurity. Consequently, the various institutional and doctrinal imperatives that are propelling American ASAT capabilities seem likely to remain unabated for the ponderable future.

The prospect for negotiated arms control restrictions on anti-satellite weapons would seem equally remote. The central Cold War arms control project of negotiated mutual restraint between the United States and Soviet Union has faltered with the end of the Cold War, and the collapse of the Soviet superpower. Even during the Cold War, when both parties had both ASAT capabilities and vulnerable satellite systems, only modest progress was made towards negotiated limitations on ASAT weapons. Currently, the profound disparity between the sole remaining superpower and the rest of the world increasingly defines a rather different arms control agenda. This new agenda is not unlike that defined by Thucydides in the Melian Dialog, in which "the strong to what they can, and the weak do what they must."