The State of Space: Strategic Reconnaissance to Tactical Warfighting to Possible Weaponization

Michael E. O’Hanlon

The way in which the United States uses space for national strategic purposes is in far more flux than casual observers may realize. Nearly 25 years after Ronald Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative was undertaken, and more than $100 billion later in money spent on missile defenses, the United States still does not base any weapons in space or deploy any weapons designed explicitly to counter satellites. This fact is misleading, however. Over that quarter century, the United States has moved from using space primarily for strategic reconnaissance, weather forecasting, and low-data-rate communications to tactical warfighting. While the former missions have clearly had military importance as well, they did not include “kinetic” operations of putting steel on targets. Today, space greatly facilitates the latter types of warfighting operations in real time. That is, it does so for the United States, but not yet for other countries.

We are at an unusually good moment for America. Of course, it conducts more types of military operations from outside the atmosphere than ever before. But it also monopolizes more than ever before. Russia has lost much of its capacity; China has ambitions yet has not reached great power status in this way to date; private firms provide a great deal of imagery and communications via satellite but do not own or operate the types of real-time networks needed to turn their space assets into real warfighting machines. Only the United States does these things. And with each successive wartime experience-Desert Storm, the Balkans, Afghanistan, Operation Iraqi Freedom-it does them much better than the time before. Practice makes perfect. And improving computers and communications systems make for great increases in speed and data throughput rates. Limits on the effectiveness of missile defense systems to date are not particularly worrisome since land-based systems do exist with some level of capability.

This moment of American predominance in space is highly desirable. Yet it cannot, and will not, last. As such, U.S. policymakers need to contemplate next steps. Logically speaking, they could include tools ranging from arms control to unilateral restraints, on one side of things, to space-based missile defenses and anti-satellite systems on the other extreme. They almost certainly should include prudent military measures to enhance the survivability, redundancy, and replaceability of existing space assets as well.

Two overall general guidelines should, in my view, guide future U.S. policy on space. They are not contradictory, yet they are in some tension with each other. First, given the advantageous position of the United States at present, policies that would tend to hasten military competition in space and specifically the weaponization of space should generally be avoided. But second, there is no inherent reason to enact a permanent ban on 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. Moreover, 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. These realities call for a balanced, patient, hedging strategy-often the least appealing type of approach politically and rhetorically, yet precisely what America’s strategic position counsels.

Given the purview of today’s hearing, my testimony has two main focal points: to review the state of play in space, primarily from a strategic and military perspective, and to explore what types of basic measures can improve the survivability of America’s space assets-leaving a fuller discussion of the issue of weaponization for a different day.