The implied weaponization of space required to exert this kind of military space control was controversial less than 20 years ago.
Spacepower theorizing is still in its infancy. Two decades ago, talk of a spacepower theory seemed more hypothetical than real. Just as airpower theory emerged and developed in the early years of crewed aircraft, spacepower theory has emerged as the technological, geopolitical, and legal landscape around space has changed. Today, the United States Space Force defines national spacepower as “the totality of a nation’s ability to exploit the space domain in pursuit of prosperity and security” and military spacepower as “the ability to accomplish strategic and military objectives through the control and exploitation of the space domain.” The implied weaponization of space required to exert this kind of military space control was controversial less than 20 years ago. Now, the open discussion of warfighting in space remains controversial to some but U.S. officials increasingly deem it a necessary response to ongoing actions in space by potential adversaries. However, the degree of space control sought involves important considerations of cost and strategic stability that spacepower theory has not yet clearly resolved.
Two main approaches to space control seem to be emerging. A conservative approach acknowledges space as a distinct physical domain, but mostly treats it conceptually as an extension of the air domain. It envisions spacepower primarily out to geosynchronous (GEO) orbit where it supports the other domains. A bolder approach projects spacepower out to the moon and theoretically beyond, and it envisions decisive strategic advantage for whomever can dominate space. Two recent papers highlight these divergent approaches and lay out options for the United States as it develops spacepower capabilities. Given the United States’ larger dependence on space systems relative to many of its potential adversaries, its recent increased attention to space systems and operations is warranted, and the United States would be well-served to remain postured to pursue either of these approaches. Nonetheless, spacepower theory is still underdeveloped. Much like the early days of airpower and nuclear theorizing, the most cost-efficient investments in space control capability and the best mechanisms for stabilizing deterrence and controlling escalation in space remain unclear. Consequently, a hybrid approach that is both escalation-sensitive yet still forward-thinking seems the most prudent at this time from both a fiscal and escalation management point of view.
Spacepower theory provides enduring conceptual frameworks to guide decision-making that are rooted in the fundamental relationships between pursuing political ends on Earth and the unique aspects of operating in space. Theory can guide strategic decisions about where to place priorities, what capabilities to develop, what risks need to be managed, and how to organize. It should also help national security practitioners decide what military control of space should mean. Yet, developing spacepower theory has been challenging for a variety of reasons but especially because it, unlike the other domains, has largely been an uncontested environment until recently. Thus, it is natural to look to longer-standing theories from other domains for inspiration.
John Sheldon and Colin Gray caution against becoming overly reliant on analogical thinking between domains, but they acknowledge that such cross-domain analogies provide “a rational means for the comprehension and planning of novel strategic environments.” Seapower might be the most common analogy applied to spacepower, with theorists variously drawing upon Alfred Thayer Mahan, Julian Corbett, and precedents of international law. Given that space, like international waters, is a commons through which much economic gain can be achieved (or denied) through civil, commercial and military use, the analogy to seapower has merit. Similarly, airpower’s experience in exploiting the vertical dimension and overflight affords other useful analogies. Indeed, current Space Force doctrine draws upon analogies from both the sea and air domains. Its emphasis on “preserving freedom of action” and controlling space lines of communication (LOCs) and Key Orbital Trajectories (KOTs) aligns with seapower theory expressed by Mahan and especially Corbett. Similarly, its terminology describing relative degrees of control – space parity, space superiority, and space supremacy – are directly analogous to the concepts Air Force Doctrine uses for the air domain.
Two recent articles on spacepower draw upon seapower analogies to illuminate their thinking and offer two distinct approaches to spacepower that likely involve different levels of control of space. Some categorize these approaches using another naval analogy: brown- versus blue-water navies. The conservative approach espoused by Bleddyn E. Bowen in 2019 advocates for something like a “brown-water navy” in space that operates close to earth, like a brown-water navy operates close to shore. Bowen builds upon the work of John Klein to illustrate how the concepts of sea control and sea denial explored by Mahan and Corbett should be united under the “fundamental concept” of “command of space.” Using this analogy, space control would ensure the safe and effective use of one’s own space assets (at least at certain times and places) while space denial would prevent others from using their space assets at certain times and places.
Underpinning Bowen’s argument are modest claims and caveats about the command of space and the importance of the terrestrial infrastructure that supports it, which he expresses in his four “fundamental truths.” Control and denial will likely only be achieved in certain locations and orbits for limited timespans. With this limited capacity for space control and denial in mind, he argues that commanding space “is not inherently decisive” but rather depends on the context. Thus, activity and investment in spacepower should “support…the primary theater of a conflict and infrastructure on Earth.” For example, “[p]lacing weapons in outer space…may be a waste of resources for the United States if the enemy can adapt to a loss of space infrastructure, target space-based weapons and valuable unarmed satellites with ground-based weapons systems or retaliate with escalatory measures such as nuclear weapons.” Finally, he notes that decisions of when and how to battle in space must keep in mind “the inherently undetermined decisiveness of commanding” space on influencing the more important outcomes on the ground.
The bolder approach to spacepower pushes for something like a “blue-water navy” that operates all the way out to the orbit and surface of the moon (cislunar) and eventually beyond.
This conservative version is reasonable and pragmatic, but its bolder critics see it is too limiting and worry that more visionary adversaries might achieve an insurmountable advantage through more aggressive exploitation of space. The bolder approach to spacepower pushes for something like a “blue-water navy” that operates all the way out to the orbit and surface of the moon (cislunar) and eventually beyond. In an article in the new Space Force Journal, Brent Ziarnick argues that the purpose of spacepower strategy is to “maximize a state’s flow and stock of national power” via a “space virtuous cycle” akin to the maritime virtuous cycle of the Mahanian age in which military seapower enabled and protected maritime trade, which in turn helped fund military seapower. Ziarnick usefully reminds us to think of space in a grand strategic context that accounts for its long-term economic and technological benefits, not just through the lens of military strategy. Ziarnick and others who hold this blue-water vision of space understandably seem impatient with conservative approaches like Bowen’s that emphasize support to terrestrial warfighters. More controversially, Ziarnick suggests the United States should seek space “supremacy” rather than just the space “superiority” called for in the 2020 Defense Space Strategy. These doctrinal terms articulate different degrees of space control and, thus, advocating for either space superiority or space supremacy can have important ramifications for the pace and severity of the space security dilemma.
The bold approach is commendable for expanding our theorizing on space and spurring action. It echoes arguments regarding the benefits of thinking about the air domain as something capable of doing more than just supporting the Army in the land domain. Although some bold space power theorizing may sometimes suffer the same exaggerated claims of benefit and consequence of controlling space as interwar theorists envisioned for command of the air, the new U.S. space doctrine mostly seems to have learned from the evolution of airpower to produce a measured approach to spacepower. U.S. space doctrine does not promise to win wars like early airpower theorists did. Rather it does something like the inverse, much like current airpower doctrine. It argues that the absence of adequate spacepower in the information age “could prove catastrophically decisive in war.”
Despite the overall reasonableness of U.S. space doctrine, the bold arguments for space supremacy or even American control of low earth orbit (LEO) space are the source of understandable debate. Such views are undoubtedly bold, but some critics also characterize them as reckless, neo-imperial, or dangerous. At a minimum, the level of control or dominance that the United States seeks in space and how it goes about seeking it have sufficiently important ramifications on cost, terrestrial competition, the space security dilemma, deterrence stability, and crisis escalation to deserve more careful examination and wider acknowledgement before the United States commits more deeply to a bolder trajectory.
Commendably, one of the four “lines of effort” in the new U.S. Defense Space Strategy seeks to work closely with the Department of State to “enhance domain stability and reduce the potential for miscalculations.” Although the international conventions, norms, and trust-building implicit in this effort will not always be easy or always effective, they are important components of deterrence stability. Yet the strategy’s caveat that such efforts must be done “without adversely affecting space capability development, production, and fielding activities” fails to acknowledge a lesson from the Cold War that certain capabilities can have such a significant effect on deterrence stability that the choice to develop and field them should not be evaluated in isolation from their potentially destabilizing effects.
Thus, as we think about the evolution of spacepower theory, we might do well to think about the extension of airpower thinking into the early years of the nuclear age. Although theorizing about the strategic utility of nuclear weapons was a natural extension of theorizing about strategic bombardment with conventional bombs, it was also a perilous one that exacerbated a flaw in early airpower theory. When the new technologies of the airplane and nuclear weapons appeared, they each were viewed as potentially so decisive in winning a war that one could not risk letting the enemy use them first. Thus, the United States initially pursued nuclear strategies that were inherently unstable because they favored preemptive nuclear attack. Indeed, for a time, some senior Air Force officers even advocated for preventive attacks, perhaps because they could not accept the paradox of mutual vulnerability required for stable nuclear deterrence. Consequently, U.S. leaders in the 1950s risked escalation to nuclear exchanges in which the damage inflicted could have been immensely disproportional to the political aims of the instigating crisis. It took theorists outside the military like Thomas Schelling and Bernard Brodie to help U.S. leaders better understand nuclear strategy and how to stabilize nuclear deterrence.
Today, the United States faces a tension between the perceived risks of two distinct vectors of thinking about spacepower. Although the stakes are lower than nuclear theorists of the 1950s and 1960s faced, spacepower theorists should look for flaws in their seapower and airpower analogies that might be exacerbated in the space domain. The implications of the conservative and bold approaches need ongoing rigorous examination lest we are led to advocate for a spacepower analogy of preventative nuclear war because we could not see a better alternative.
Both intellectual approaches are needed at this early stage of spacepower theorizing to produce a stronger synthesis that will prepare us for the inevitable competition and possible conflict in space. Yet what we seek to control in space and how we seek it matters. Pursuit of the conservative or the bold versions of spacepower have the potential to shape fundamentally the character of competition on earth and in space, with potentially highly consequential outcomes if we get the theorizing too wrong in any direction. As Lt General (ret) Deptula has suggested, the advent of the Space Force risks driving space organization, technology, and investment to outpace the development of its guiding spacepower theory.
If George Clemenceau was correct to state that war is too serious to be left to the military, then perhaps spacepower is too important to leave to just the Guardians. We need theorists from other domains and from outside the military to help us evaluate the prudent path ahead. In the meantime, a hybrid approach to spacepower that adopts Bowen’s more conservative military posture affords plenty of opportunity for the United States to fill gaps in its space control capabilities, reduces the risk of unhelpful spending and potentially destabilizing approaches to space control, while still allowing the United States to make Ziarnick’s grand strategic investments in the economic exploitation of space that could benefit more assertive military developments both technologically and fiscally if and when spacepower theory more unambiguously supports it.
Leon Perkowski is a Colonel in the U.S. Air Force, an Assistant Professor in the Department of National Security and Strategy, and the Director of the Eisenhower Series College Program at the U.S. Army War College. He holds an MS in Environmental Pollution Control from Pennsylvania State University and a Ph.D. in the History of US Foreign Relations from Kent State University.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the U.S. Army War College, the U.S. Army, the U.S. Air Force or the Department of Defense.
Photo Description: An airman is sworn into the Space Force by his commanding officer during a ceremony at Patrick Air Force Base on Sep 2, 2020
Photo Credit: Courtesy 45th Space Wing