Hidden deep inside the new national security strategy are a few paragraphs outlining the Trump administration’s aims in space. While the president’s announcement of a new push to put Americans back on the moon and eventually Mars was met with some fanfare, the strategy content on space has faced far less scrutiny.
There isn’t anything particularly objectionable to the three action items listed: putting Vice President Mike Pence in charge of the National Space Council, making it easier for commercial companies to operate in space and working with our allies to explore the solar system.
What is much less clear is how any of these will promote space security. Even worse, the stated intent of maintaining “freedom of action” in space is usually read in defense circles as code for developing weapons in space.
Ideas behind weaponizing space crop up almost annually. These ideas are misguided at best and critically detrimental to our security at worst. Crucially, the new National Security Strategy misses the opportunity to solidify the norms of cooperation in space.
Modern American life would be impossible without a wide range of space technologies. Space-based satellites connect Americans by phone to friends and relatives in distant countries, help predict dangerous weather patterns and provide television coverage of newsworthy events. Global positioning satellites guide American automobiles through city streets and provide critical navigation to civilian airliners, cargo ships and oil tankers.
The American military and Intelligence Community are reliant on space-based assets, too.
But if U.S. space capabilities give it such a major advantage over the rest of the world, why would other nations agree to sign a treaty that would serve to secure our advantage long into the future? The answer is that other space-faring nations want to safeguard their own space assets as well. Indeed, this is the same logic that kept space weapons free during the Cold War.
Despite intensive research into anti-satellite weapons, Soviet and American policymakers decided independently that space weapons would jeopardize intelligence gathering capabilities and other space assets.
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In some ways the United States was lucky. Because the United States had very few spies in the Soviet Union, we depended on our satellites to a much greater extent than the Soviets. Paradoxically, it was the decision of Soviet President Yuri Andropov to seek unilaterally a moratorium on anti-satellite weapon testing that ensured the United States would maintain its advantage in space.
It is not mere conjecture that other nations want to keep space weapons-free today. At the United Nations in 2002, the Russians and the Chinese proposed a ban on space weapons. The United States at the time rejected the offer.
Russia and China still support a ban on space weapons, as they put forward proposals to do so at the United Nations in both 2008 and 2014, but their willingness to cooperate may not last forever.
The fact is that any nation capable of routinely launching satellites could develop an ability to attack satellites, too. North Korea’s most recent missile launches give it such an ability.
The net result would be that none of the actors could protect their own satellites, but all of the actors could attack one another’s satellites.
Keeping outer space free of weapons is in the supreme interest of the United States.
The Trump administration tends to see international treaties and organizations as fetters with which the rest of the world seeks to constrain the United States from pursuing its interests. In the case of space weapons, a treaty would actually ensure our freedom of maneuver and make America stronger.