A new white paper by the Atlantic Council offers proposals to revise the current U.S. national security space policy. Here, the authors defend their “proactive approach” against a former Pentagon analyst arguing the proposal is similar to the current policy, and has the same flaws.

Though it took several years for the United States to realize that guns alone could not defeat an ideology in Iraq and Afghanistan, it did eventually reach that conclusion. Sadly, no such conclusion seems to have yet been reached regarding the inability to defeat technology with technology alone in the space domain. Hence, in our June 2016 paper for the Atlantic Council, we deliberately addressed our recommendations for a new National Security Space Strategy toward a proactive and balanced approach, realizing it would be rejected — and potentially ridiculed as passive and appeasing — by those tied to reactive, technology-oriented and my-way-or-the-highway answers to U.S. security needs. Unfortunately as well, the technology-heavy, military approach to space security that is intended to come across as showing strength instead comes across to our allies and adversaries alike as chest-thumping, particularly when the money to back it up is not forthcoming.  Instead, we opted to promote leadership.

Our approach is new in that it is proactive rather than reactive. For the past 20-plus years, U.S. space security strategies have been largely determined consequent to external events: the 1998 North Korean Taepodong launch over Japan that accelerated and expanded missile defense; the 2007 Chinese anti-satellite (ASAT) test that bolstered offensive counterspace activity; and most recently the 2013 Chinese launch that nearly reached the U.S.-declared “sanctuary” of geosynchronous orbit where many “exquisite” satellites reside. That 2013 event prompted the Strategic Space Posture Review which subsequently boomeranged U.S. space strategy back-to-the-future of 2007 and the technology-oriented, we’re-ready-to-fight approach, from the strategic restraint approach that had prevailed earlier in the Obama administration.

But the United States is still, by all metrics, the unquestioned leader in space. Therefore it ought to act like a leader and assess and state what its goals are in space, and what is required for space to remain an asset for the benefit of all humankind. We expect that those goals will draw continuity from the past: stability, sustainability, access to and use of space. It therefore becomes imperative that the means employed to achieve those goals be aligned, which will undoubtedly require putting national goals over organizational goals in some instances, to the angst of those organizations.

Theresa Hitchens

Theresa Hitchens

Another new aspect of our strategy is the requirement to include the articulation of U.S. “bright lines” of actions unacceptable by other countries and what the consequences of crossing those bright lines might entail, and let others react. Further, this assessment to determine goals, set strategy and articulate goals ought to include all the relevant space players — NASA, NOAA, the FAA, the commercial sector — not just those from the military and intelligence communities, for two reasons. First, players in the expanded group have a vested interest in maintaining stability in the space domain, and second, those in the security communities inherently have a vested interest in certain outcomes, specifically, those that boost their budgets and authority.

Without bright lines the United States is left with a do-as-we-say-not-as-we-do external posture, one that has never worked well in any area. Space technology is largely dual-use and a key enabler of both globalization and military modernization. It is unrealistic to expect other countries to forgo the advantages that have been afforded to the United States in the civil and military spheres. So a part of our recommended strategy that will undoubtedly be difficult for the military and intelligence communities to accept is the requirement to make these difficult decisions regarding what — realistically — are our bright lines.

Also new is the expectation — and a requirement for effectiveness — that the United States would put its money where its mouth (strategy) is by funding the diplomatic efforts we support in our strategy in ways commensurate with its prioritization. Diplomacy in the past has been the stepchild to technology development in terms of both allocated manpower and resources. Given that diplomacy takes time, requires a realist approach in dealing with countries as they are rather than as we would like them to be, and has been underfunded, it is remarkable that any steps forward have been taken at all. But they have.

Joan Johnson-Freese

Joan Johnson-Freese

China has been more in line with U.S. views at recent United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space meetings toward determining consensus guidelines for long-term sustainability of the space environment than has Russia. The more China uses space assets the less interest it will have in endangering them. The U.S. needs to use that lever more, and the “dominance” and “control” levers less. That is the kind of diplomacy that needs to come to the forefront, with the required manpower and funding that is necessary to lead.

Our strategy draws from the past in the call for “balance.” Study after study has recommended the need for a multi-layered, balanced approach to deterrence, and stated that a one-dimensional, military-technology strategy will not work and will likely be counterproductive.  Yet too often that one-dimensional approach has been the default position when strategy is set reactively.

Technology and strong defense remain key aspects of our strategy, with particular emphasis in balancing deterrence by denial with deterrence by punishment, the latter of which is being increasingly funded and promoted as the U.S. go-to approach. We advocate hedging in technology development, as an insurance policy against things going bad and as a leadership component, but with an eye toward not spinning up a space arms race. Also part of not spinning up an arms race is curbing bombastic rhetoric that serves no purpose.

A “new” approach is not necessarily, or even wisely, predicated upon the inclusion of some new, or more likely recycled, technology concept. If a program has been canceled once, that ought to be enough. New can also mean a new way of doing things, a new outlook or even accepting a new reality — like the world being multipolar (so says the National Intelligence Council’s Global Trends 2030 report), that there is a new cast of internal and external space players, and that space is not within U.S. “control.” In fact, in an era of economic austerity, prudence and reality requires an increasingly careful scrutiny of how and where money is spent. In terms of technology, beyond hedging we advocate a focus on Space Situational Awareness (SSA) and deterrence by denial (to balance deterrence by punishment) programs that have had across the board, consistent support.

In 2010, CENTCOM commander Adm. Fox Fallon made a comment in response to the regular D.C. trash talk about war with Iran, a comment that led to his career’s early demise. “This constant drumbeat of conflict … is not helpful and not useful. I expect that there will be no war, and that is what we ought to be working for. We ought to try to do our utmost to create different conditions.” So we are saying in our Atlantic Council paper regarding war in space, and in doing so reject the hackneyed, often self-serving approaches too-often sought by Beltway consumers. The U.S. ought to be doing its utmost to create different conditions, and we dare to suggest how to do so.

Theresa Hitchens is a senior research scholar at the Center for International & Security Studies at Maryland and former director of the United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research in Geneva.


Joan Johnson-Freese is a professor of National Security Affairs at the Naval War College. The views expressed are the author’s alone.