Saving space from ‘Star Wars’-style misperceptions
Dogfights in orbit. Spacecraft blasting at each other with lasers. Targets that erupt into fireballs and vanish.
The world still doesn’t know what a conflict in space might look like, because the norms and capabilities of such an event are still largely unwritten. But to many, the idea of a war in space conjures imagery from Star Wars, which George Lucas famously modeled after World War II air combat. One thing is certain: If policymakers imagine space to be the same kind of warfighting domain as its terrestrial counterparts, the sustainability of space as a commons is at risk. In a world where space wars imitate Star Wars, orbital debris poses an existential threat to the future of space development. Now is the time for the United States to seriously consider arms control measures for anti-satellite weapons that generate orbital debris.
The Pentagon recently released a new Defense Space Strategy, which prioritizes the development of a “comprehensive military advantage in space.” It plans to accomplish this, among other things, by: “develop[ing] and document[ing] doctrinal foundations of military spacepower.” On one hand, it is refreshing to see a high-level document explicitly acknowledge the infancy of U.S. space doctrine. There’s a great deal of opportunity to challenge existing norms and innovate upon longstanding assumptions, and many of the arguments for and against the development of military space capabilities rehash the not-so-distant debates over airpower. But with this opportunity comes danger.
The Trump administration’s primary justification for a Space Force was that space is now a warfighting domain, and that a separate entity was required to meet the unique challenges posed by this environment. To be clear, there are many practical benefits to a separate service, perhaps most importantly the professionalization and elevation of a dedicated space cadre with unique warfighting skills. But the entire branding and existence of a Space Force reinforces the idea that wars will be fought in space.
Space provides unique and irreplaceable benefits to humanity. The “ultimate high ground” offers vantage points from which to collect and distribute information about the happenings on Earth, and to do so with global coverage at incredible speed. The military value of space is unquestioned: With access to space, nations can communicate securely, spy on their adversaries, and enable navigation and timing services.
Space, however, is not suited for every type of mission. It is wildly impractical to develop weapon systems that attack targets on Earth from space. Traditional terrestrial forces can attack terrestrial targets far more effectively and cheaply. As a result, most if not all military space assets can be characterized as components of an information dominance infrastructure as opposed to force-projection platforms (the exception being satellites that attack other satellites).
So now that the United States is officially constructing doctrines and capabilities from a fresh canvas, it serves as a timely opportunity to argue why debris-generating anti-satellite weapons are so ill-advised. These systems, known as kinetic weapons because they shoot targets at high velocities, will have long-lasting consequences for our way of life. To illustrate what’s at stake, let’s discuss the nature of the risk and how the United States may achieve space dominance without undermining its role as a responsible steward for space development.
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