America’s ability to wield power effectively in the global commons is a cornerstone of U.S. foreign policy and a key source of American influence, but today’s world is witnessing a dramatic expansion of those commons—into outer space. America’s response to this broadening terrain will carry tremendous weight for the stability of the international system. Satellites allow U.S. forces to communicate, navigate, gather intelligence, and use precision-guided weapons and space-enabled communication has become engrained in the operations of every branch of the military. If those satellites were jammed electronically or destroyed outright by a hostile power, the United States would be militarily crippled. It is perhaps impossible to overstate how vital these areas are to questions of U.S. strategy. But space is not just a place for war or exploration; it is also a place for profit. Private industry makes many billions of dollars each year from communications satellites and commercial rocket launches-most notably for the U.S. Air Force. This relationship between the private sector and the Pentagon goes back decades, and has played a critical role in the development of space, not to mention many of the technologies we now take for granted, like jet planes or the Internet. The modern world-the world of satellite television and radio, electronic financial trading, GPS, and smart bombs-would not be possible without the symbiosis between commercial and military interests in space: And this is only the beginning.
The confluence of two key factors-expanded commercial activity in space, and the U.S.’s drive to balance the clout of new regional powers-are making Earth’s orbit an arena for unprecedented global opportunities and challenges. Human exploration and exploitation of space began in the context of the Cold War rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union. From the start, military interests have been a precursor to commercial development. Earth is now swarmed by constellations of commercial satellites. The global economy, whose function is now dependent on those satellites, would shut down without reliable access to space.
From a practical standpoint, the most fundamental challenges in space are cost and security. The cost of launching cargo to low Earth orbit (where the International Space Station orbits) aboard the Space Shuttle is more than $10,000 per kilogram, while commercial rockets in the United States and Europe are somewhat cheaper, but still prohibitively expensive for most large-scale commercial projects in space. Rockets elsewhere in the world are generally even cheaper, but often have higher rates of failure. The bottom line is that plans for larger, more capable scientific probes, private research stations, and orbital infrastructure that would make satellite repairs less expensive have not left the drawing board-the costs are simply too high, and the rate of failure unacceptable to potential investors. Aside from the satellite companies, space is the domain of government programs, whether military or scientific in nature, and the launch industry is dominated by a Boeing and Lockheed Martin joint venture called the United Launch Alliance.
In the United States today, this structure amounts to a government sponsored monopoly with zero incentive to innovate or cut costs. The established market leaders are more than content to adhere to their current business model, elected officials enjoy the benefits of aerospace jobs in their districts, and the defense budget’s nearly unassailable position gives the Pentagon little reason to demand cost-cutting on the part of their contractors.
Last year, President Obama proposed a solution to this problem, sounding the call to fund the commercial development of low-cost rockets and to hand the government’s orbital transportation needs over to the free market. Not surprisingly, this move was widely criticized by lawmakers, despite a number of promising developments in the aerospace industry. Chief among these is the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. Designed by Elon Musk, co-founder of PayPal and Tesla Motors, and the supposed inspiration for Robert Downey Jr.’s portrayal of Tony Stark in the Iron Man films, the Falcon 9 is intended to offer access to space at costs nearly 80% lower than the rockets of the United Launch Alliance.
The Falcon 9 successfully flew its first test flight in June 2010 and is now under contract to deliver cargo to the International Space Station. President Obama’s plans for space, which were scaled down considerably by Congress, would have been a boon for startup companies like SpaceX and might have forced Boeing and Lockheed Martin to begin cutting costs. SpaceX will still receive some substantial funding, and the company is developing larger rockets and a capsule capable of carrying astronauts to orbit.
Entrepreneurs like Musk tend to argue that pairing reliable, reusable rockets with more streamlined corporate structures will be enough to reduce the cost of doing business in orbit. However, these moves alone are insufficient. The only way for launch prices to come down and stay down is to drastically increase the number of rocket launches, and there is still only one customer in the world that appears to have the money and the motivation to make that happen.
Calls to further commercialize space coincide with the reality that the launch industry owes its existence to the military’s activities in space. The first astronauts, a handful of fighter pilots, went to space atop converted Atlas ballistic missiles originally designed to carry nuclear warheads. The latest in the Atlas family, the Atlas V, is Lockheed Martin’s contribution to the United Launch Alliance, carryies military and intelligence satellites to orbit. U.S. military interests have long been the chief driver of both space commercialism and U.S. space policy in general. As senator, John F. Kennedy opposed the space program, but as president, John F. Kennedy needed a way to demonstrate military superiority over the Soviet Union. So, at Lyndon Johnson‘s urging, he endorsed the Apollo program, whose fulfillment implied that America could defeat the Russian military in space. The resulting expansion of American space capabilities also laid the groundwork for the commercialization of space in the years to come. But by no means did outer space power politics fizzle out with the Cold War. In fact, this great game is set to become even more complicated in the coming years.
Important aspects of the current geopolitical equation in space include the ballistic missile capabilities of rogue nations like Iran and North Korea, the clout of rising powers like China and India, and the position of Russia, aging but still the world’s second greatest space power. Few countries have indigenous rocket programs, but several dozen nations operate satellites, although most have no more than a handful. The U.S. and Russia each have upward of a thousand, clearly defining the current balance of power. Space is integral to the way the global economy works and to the way humanity fights its wars. This is crucial to understanding the American strategic calculus concerning other nations’ activities in space. So much investment and military interest is tied up in space that the United States has maintained a dominant posture in space for over a generation. This is unlikely to change anytime soon. Concerns over this militarization of space have been voiced since the first rockets were launched, but much-hyped attempts to limit space militarization have done little to curtail this activity, which the U.S. and other nations view chiefly through the prism of national interest.
The 1967 Outer Space Treaty, the basis for international military space law, showcases the ambivalence of governments on the question of keeping space free of conflict. To summarize, the treaty bans the stationing of weapons of mass destruction in space and forbids the use of the moon and other celestial bodies for military purposes-these are sensible restrictions. That said, the Outer Space Treaty can also be summarized another way: It only bans uses of space which are not useful and does not address those which are. For example, the use of conventional weapons in space is permitted, and efforts to put in place more restrictive regulations on military activities in space have gotten nowhere, for obvious reasons. Commercial and military satellites are indispensable assets for any nation that has them, especially the United States. Signing a ban on space weapons would mean trying to defend those satellites with both hands tied. Unfortunately, the seeds of space warfare were sown at the very beginning of the space age, and as the U.S. and other nations look to expand their space activities, the danger will have to be actively managed.
The advantages offered by space meant that its exploitation was inevitable; satellites are targets, and two nations- China and the United States- have demonstrated the ability to shoot them down within the last five years. Space is already fully militarized. Those calling for a new set of international treaties to ban space weapons or limit military activities in space are far too late, yet they cling to the dangerous delusion that this genie can be rebottled.
The current growth in American space capabilities is seen within the military as part of the natural evolution of American forces. The U.S. is attempting to cultivate an ability to strike with overwhelming force anywhere in the world on short notice while remaining impervious to the threat of counterattack. However, the traditional methods of power projection represented in part by aircraft carriers will diminish in usefulness as other nations, particularly China, develop capabilities that can threaten American naval and space power. Balancing against potential threats from new regional powers means genuine diplomatic engagement on one hand paired with continued military vigilance on the other, and that will inevitably include space. Three pillars-offensive missile capabilities, ballistic missile defense, and the use and defense of space itself- form the basis of military strategy in space. All three of these areas are seeing significant activity, and the potential exists for a transformation of America’s military posture in space, as well as the level of commercial activity in orbit.
For decades, American nucleartipped intercontinental ballistic missiles capable of striking anywhere in the world in a matter of hours have been maintained at a constant state of readiness. Today, however, their payloads are increasingly becoming strategically irrelevant. But the missiles’ technology is only becoming more important to the Pentagon’s vision of full-spectrum military dominance, which reaches across land, sea, air, and space. Under an initiative called Prompt Global Strike, the United States is planning to develop a fleet of hypersonic ballistic missiles carrying conventional explosives or even unmanned aerial drones that would permit precision strikes anywhere in the world much faster than the Air Force and Navy can currently accomplish-that is, several hours instead of several days. Developed to technological maturity, this program would enable a level of offensive capability totally unprecedented in the history of warfare. Even today’s smart bombs would appear outdated when compared to a worldwide prompt missile strike capability informed by superior space-based intelligence. This offensive capability is balanced by the continued push for ballistic missile defense. At the recent NATO summit in Portugal, the alliance confirmed plans to build a missile defense shield that would cover all of Europe and North America. Such a shield would bring the Reagan-era vision of strategic missile defense one step closer to reality after nearly three decades. The implications of this go beyond simply shooting down incoming missiles. Having spent more than $100 billion on missile defense and related projects since the 1980s, the United States holds an incredible advantage over every other nation in space weaponry.
The most controversial and important aspect of military activities in space is the ability to control space by ensuring access to and use of space, most notably through defending satellites, and denying other actors the ability to use space themselves. America’s head start in space weapons and its desire to extend its global reach through Prompt Global Strike imply that American space dominance will not only continue but improve over time, even extending to the use of weapons in space to attack targets in space or on the ground, rather than simply defense against missiles. As these capabilities continue to develop, the military’s demand for rocket launches will go up, reducing the cost of rockets considerably and fueling the growth of the commercial space sector. And as commercial assets in space grow and diversify, the military and commercial development of space will become even more intertwined because those investments, once made, have to be defended. This process will effectively snowball, with commercial and military development feeding off one another as they always have, in space and other sectors. This vision of the commercialization and militarization of space is decades away from full realization, but it is based on programs that have been underway for a long time and which are now entering a new stage in response to the new push for cheaper space access and American strategic needs.
While potential challengers to the United States’ position in space, especially Russia and China, have voiced displeasure over the level of control the U.S. exercises in space, American allies, particularly the Europeans and the Japanese, are wary of space threats ranging from the Iranian nuclear program to an increasingly assertive China. If and when the threats become more potent, the allies will demand protection, and they may be forced to develop more robust space capabilities of their own. Continued escalation and uncontrolled expansion in these areas is cause for concern because if not properly managed, the potential for conflict will rise. But thus far, national interest and moneymaking potential are driving the space buildup forward. Despite some misgivings, Obama has continued supporting missile defense, just as George W. Bush did. Likewise, he has supported Prompt Global Strike as a way to reduce America’s reliance on nuclear weapons while improving American offensive capacity. Whether he understands the full implications of these policies is unclear-he claims to oppose the weaponization of space: But actions, not intentions, matter in the grand scheme, and for now, the United States is pursuing the commercialization and militarization of space on the basis of urgent national interest.
American power can be used to transform space for the greater good, or it can be twisted to make this century more destructive and dangerous than the last. There is no substitute for sound leadership, and as America expands its economic and military presence in Earth orbit, failing to act with an even hand will likely lead to conflict. Private companies are making significant progress in decreasing the cost of accessing space, but corporations must not be permitted to dictate American space policy to pad their bottom lines. Likewise, the Pentagon sees the ability to temporarily deny the use of space as a non-negotiable military necessity, but beyond that, an attempt by the U.S. government to permanently exclude other nations would be an instance of arrogant imperial overreach: one of the best ways to kill a republic or start a war or both. The United States should work to assuage whatever suspicion exists among foreign nations concerning its space activities. Vigorous defense of national interests must be paired with genuine engagement. There exists a delicate distinction between leadership and hegemony, and it may be impossible to stay behind the line forever. But for over half a century, the United States has guaranteed the security of the world’s oceans, without which the present age of globalization would have been impossible. The tools for responsible U.S. leadership in space exist, but they will only be useful if the American people have the wisdom to avoid both militarism and misguided idealism. America finds itself at an incredible moment of opportunity, but whether our deepening involvement in space will create a world that is better or worse is an open question- one that will define our time.