Testimony

Preserving U.S. Dominance While Slowing the Weaponization of Space

Michael E. O’Hanlon

It is an honor to appear before the committee today to discuss the important topic of U.S. military space policy.

My main argument, based principally on my book published last year by Brookings, is that the weaponization of space should be delayed indefinitely by the United States. The United States should not embark on dedicated programs to develop antisatellite weapons, should not move quickly to place ballistic missile defenses in space, and should not develop space-to-Earth attack weapons.

My argument is not a philosophical recommendation for permanently banning greater military uses of the heavens. Space is heavily militarized, even if not weaponized, already. It is not clear what political or military principle should provide permanent sanctuary to satellites that are actively used to find, track, and thus help destroy targets on the battlefield. Such assets do not deserve special protection, given the nature of their functions. Technology trends will make it increasingly hard to prohibit space weapons even if we wanted to. The verification challenges would be formidable, if not insurmountable. In addition, there is a real possibility that, at some future point, the United States may have powerful reasons to develop antisatellite weapons itself.

Yet timing matters greatly in world politics, and partial restraint can be very important even when categorical bans or formal prohibitions are not appropriate. The United States enjoys a remarkably favorable military position in space today, without suffering much political and strategic fallout for making major use of the heavens for military purposes, and it should wish to preserve that situation as long as possible. To the extent the situation changes in coming years, moreover, the most important response for the United States is to work harder to preserve its own communications, navigation, and intelligence capabilities rather than to threaten the fledgling capabilities of potential adversaries. Moreover, most strategic and technological trends are gradual, not imminent, and thus do not require precipitous response. In particular, the image of a looming “space Pearl Harbor” created by the 2001 Rumsfeld commission is in my judgment still an overstatement of the nature of current and near-term dangers to American interests.